It seems obvious that going to Japan inevitably helped my Japanese language skills, but getting to the point of being comfortable enough to actually practice can be a lot more difficult than you’d think. For me, going to a different country to learn a new language seemed daunting, but it was definitely rewarding. So how exactly did it help?
Hiragana, katakana, and kanji, oh my!
Admittedly, writing and reading in Japanese are not necessarily my strong points. With there being three different writing systems, all of which you will find yourself using throughout the day, it can be a bit tricky to keep up with. Going to Japan meant being exposed to the language everywhere, and that everything was written in one of the Japanese writing systems. This sounds like it would be a stressful change and it was, but it also forced me to expand my vocabulary and increase my reading speed, all of which I would not have necessarily forced myself to do had I not been in Japan. Plus, it’s kind of essential if you want to order food or coffee off of a menu!
Making it natural
Conversing with someone who is a native speaker of language you are learning or even being around and overhearing other’s passing conversations helps you learn what sounds natural in the language. Sure, what you’re trying to say might sound like it makes sense in English-logic, but in Japanese there are different nuances and it might not sound natural at all. Learning a foreign language in the native country is really nice because you begin to pick up on how people actually speak. There’s a total difference between textbook/in-class Japanese and the Japanese that people use out in the real world, which I’m sure goes for many other languages out there. Also it’s just really fun to pick up the slang you won’t learn in the classroom.
Here in Lexington it can be a little difficult to get speaking practice outside of classes, but luckily there is a conversation table that does meet once a week on campus. Unfortunately, if you tend to have scheduling conflicts and are unable to make it to those meetings, finding outside conversation practice can be tricky. Being in Japan offered me endless exposure and opportunities to practice my language skills without going out of my way. So for those of you (like me) who tend to avoid practicing because it might make you uncomfortable, going to a different country kind of forces you out of your comfort zone and forces you to practice. While it may sound daunting, this is really, really good and gets you to constantly use and become more comfortable with your speaking.
For many of you out there learning a new language or trying to brush up on your skills while abroad know (or at least can imagine) how hard the initial jump is. It took me so long to get comfortable with the idea that someone might hear my speaking and know how bad it was with me being none the wiser, but honestly you just have to go for it. Your time abroad is limited, so make the best use of it and start right off the bat. I promise, they are used to having international students living in the area and will work with you, especially if you give a solid effort. It’s really hard to get started, so here’s some of my tips on how to take the plunge:
- Join a club at your university; you’ll be making friends while conversationally practicing!
- See if your university offers a language partner program
- If you’ve got a roommate, see if you can alternate what language you speak day by day
- Ease in to it and build up from there: if you’re super uncomfortable, start off small and work on the general basics such as” hello,” “thank you,” and “please” when you’re out and about, and move up to simple sentences, and then more complex ones. It may take a while to build up depending on how comfortable you are, but the most important thing to take out of this is to not give up trying. Even a little bit of progress is better than none!
Jillian is a senior at the University of Kentucky majoring in International Studies, focusing on the culture and arts of Asia. In the fall of 2015 she studied abroad at Akita International University in Akita, Japan.