22 November 2007

Bye bye Japanese

I had my last Japanese class yesterday, or rather, my last day, since there was no class, only a test. It was fairly easy. I was left with the impression that an exam you can pass without studying is not such a good thing in the long run. But there won't be a long run for me, since I'm leaving Japanese school.

Though there's a last class on Friday, I won't be there. I was invited to a theater performance where a friend of mine participates and I wouldn't miss it. When I started Japanese, and up until last year, skipping class for something other than illness would've been unthinkable for me, but I grew a bit tired of it this year, and I also freed myself of the sense of obligation to attend.

As I said to my sensei, I began studying Japanese not because I wanted to go to Japan (to visit or work), not because I loved the culture, but simply because I liked the language, and I promised myself I'd leave as soon as it became work rather than fun.

Well, that finally happened, and here I am at the end of the road, at least for now.

I still feel a bit as if I was an ungrateful person. The Japanese Association has been like a second home for me since 2004. I met several of my best friends there or in connection to people there. I started a brand-new part of my life there. Literally and figuratively, I learned anew how to read and write. I was involved with the community whenever I could. But I was dodging hints of being "a part of the community" all this last year, probably because deep inside I didn't feel in the right place already.

Leaving means I won't see some people (not friends, but nice people, neighbours in a way) that I've seen and talked to every week for years. It also means throwing away a full year of study (since it takes three years to prepare for the next international proficiency test, and if I decide to try in the future I'll have to start over), and it probably means I'll be forgetting a lot, quickly, as soon as I stop practising the language on a regular basis.

A great part of the reason why I don't wish to study Japanese anymore is the schedule and the whole orientation of the subject towards the supreme goal of the JLPT. These tests (numbered from the 4th to 1st level, the 1st being the last and hardest) have certain requirements regarding the number of words and kanji combinations you must be acquainted with. Yonkyuu (4th level) should be a piece of cake for anyone who has bothered to follow classes. Sankyuu (3rd level) needs more dedication, but nothing out of the ordinary; I had two regular Japanese classes a week (3 hours total) plus supplemental weekly classes (1½ hours), practising with old exams, during the second term.

Nikyuu (the 2nd level JLPT) is a lot harder, and in my opinion it should not be undertaken by anyone who doesn't intend to devote a lot of their free time to it. At the 3-hours/week rhythm I was doing, nikyuu requires three years of study, and although you learn many useful expressions, a great part of its requirements consists of memorizing a long list of complicated specialized terms and hyperformal words borrowed from Chinese, and an equally long list of kanji combinations, codifying those specialized words and others you'll never use in actual conversation (such as "[hormone] secretion"). A classmate of mine who's been having his own doubts summarized it well: at this point we're not being taught the Japanese language — we're just being trained to pass the nikyuu.

I understand that a certified Japanese school must do this. You can't have students learning words incrementally in a natural way, in conversation and reading, because it'd take ages. If you want to learn Japanese your own way, you need to get a group of Japanese speakers (native or not) and chat and share notes informally. You won't learn the kanji you need to read a newspaper or a book, and you won't be able to write nice compositions and speeches using the florid, homonym-crowded, unnecessary Chinese-imported jargon that Japanese seem to love.

Thanks to one year of training for nikyuu instead of learning usable Japanese, I can say and read in kanji form the terms "blood pressure", "ticket-checking gate" (as in the metro/underground) and "global warming", but I still don't know the words for "tile", "tray" or "coat hanger".

I'm not through with languages, though. I think next year I'll be taking up something else — something easy, like Arabic or Russian. Heh heh.


  1. You know?, I get the same feeling about Aikido, something that I've been practicing the last 14 months.
    It's a little saddening, because I really feel grateful with my sensei and my fellows. We are a reduced group of people, oscillating beetwen 4 and 7 on the classes, and the Argentinian Aikido Organization always tries to keep close their integrants, making them participate in a lot of activities and offering help where is needed.
    Although this all is somethign I really appreciate, I've been questioning my reason to start practicing and the ones because I'm still doing it, and through all this realized that I do not enjoy anymore, nor feel the same consideration for it as a year and a half ago.
    I will soon, without any doubt, grow in apathy with respect to the classes, and I hope that my decision doesn't affect to much my sensei.

    My best wishes for your new direction.

    Juan Manuel.-

  2. Well there's also Finnish or Hungarian if you really want a challenge!

    I know that Japanese kids also have to do a lot of rote learning when studying Japanese in school.

    My wife studied Japanese for 3 years, just long enough to realize how much time and effort it takes to make any headway into attaining basic proficiency. But even with that knowledge she said it was very helpful when she started traveling to Japan.

    Pablo - how does your experience of studying Japanese compare to when you were studying English? Did you recognize when you were a teenager how useful English could be, or was that mainly a desire of your parents?

    You mentioned previously you had private English lessons, but did you feel at that time it was just like an extension of school, and not something you might have willingly participated in had you the choice?


  3. Juan Manuel - I think when you start an activity that is practised by only a few people, and which to most outsiders is unknown or just plain weird, the group tends to become a community like that, and it feels wrong to leave it - as if you'd been using them for your own interest. That's why I wanted to let my sensei know I was OK with her and the rest of the community and at the same time avoid telling her I was bored and tired of the study method they imposed on me.

    John - My studying English started as an imposition from my mother, who wanted, I guess, for me to take all the opportunities. I soon learned to appreciate it, though. I didn't feel it was like school, though it wasn't really fun (not like Japanese was). At the time English was just a nice addition to your CV at most (while now it's essential for many qualified jobs).


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