Ok, here’s a question for all you 20-somethings: how many of you can still remember the foreign language you studied at school?
I was very much a ‘languages’ kid. Numbers made my head hurt, I wasn’t musical, I couldn’t paint to save myself and some form of curse meant that I was unable to run more than 500 metres before falling flat on my face, so I had no choice but to become the quiet girl who always got good grades in English and modern language classes instead. At one point, in fact, my high school schedule consisted almost entirely of language-based education; I chose to study French and Spanish at the same time, and remember spending many an afternoon staring at my essays and translation homework with a deepening sense of despair.
Truthfully, I enjoyed learning foreign languages. It all felt a bit like cracking code; the grammar of romantic languages came easily to me, and I could quickly identify the meaning of new vocabulary by connecting it with similar words in English (although there were always a few ‘false-friends’ that caught me out, such as the Spanish ’embarazada’, which apparently did not mean ’embarrassed’). I took great pride in being one of only four students in my year studying two foreign languages at once, and seized any opportunity I could to use my newly acquired skills.
Moving on to university, however, I soon lost my interest in languages. I briefly enrolled in a semester of Portuguese only to discover that the class left me feeling rather uninspired (not a reflection of the language itself, but instead the rather strict way in which my professor taught it), and when the course came to an end I lacked any motivation to continue my studies. A combination of difficult classes and poor mental health left me struggling to find the energy to show up for even mandatory classes, and after a busy day of studying not a single part of me felt the desire to sit and learn the vocabulary or grammar of a language that had no connection to my university credits or eventual graduation. I slowly reached the stage where I could still read and understand texts in French and Spanish, but I couldn’t speak it at all; years of hard work and dedicated study were going to waste, and I hadn’t the time to reclaim them.
Then, something changed. As a reward to myself for earning a decently impressive degree and surviving four years of gruelling education, I decided to enrol on a month-long cultural exchange program that would take me to Japan. Having gone through a short period of anime-obsession in my early teens, Japan had always been a country I longed to visit, and travelling to the complete opposite side of the world seemed like a good way to clear my head and prepare for my new and uncertain life as a recently-graduated 20 year old with no set goals. Spending several weeks somewhere in rural Japan with a host family who communicated with me largely via Google Translate, I soon found myself completely immersed in local life and truly enjoying even the most mundane of activities as I struggled to pick up any useful Japanese phrases that came my way.
I had rediscovered a passion for language. With every new word or phrase, my ability to communicate with the strangers around me grew. Excited high schoolers, grandmothers, and everyone in between devoted their time and energy to introducing me to their world through a mix of rusty English skills and rapid hand gestures, and I enjoyed attempting to share my own culture and experiences in return with the very few Japanese words I could remember. The desire to learn more of the language became stronger with every “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand…” that I was forced to utter, and I longed to be able to communicate freely and easily with the people around me, even if just to thank them for their kindness.
Once more I remembered the sparkle in my high school French teacher’s eyes as she told me that learning a language was like unlocking the door to another world. With every new word and phrase, my horizons would expand just a little bit. Sitting in my host sister’s bedroom armed with a bilingual dictionary and a notepad to help illustrate my thoughts and ideas, I truly understood what my teacher had meant.
I made that first, important journey to Japan in the summer of 2017. It is now the summer of 2020, and I am writing this article as I relax in the apartment in Tokyo that I share with my Japanese boyfriend. After around a year of working in a largely Japanese-speaking environment, I have just been offered a new, exciting job working with bilingual clients and I excitedly message my friends (not just Japanese but also fellow immigrants from around the world) in Japanese to discuss how we’ll celebrate my most recent success when COVID-19 comes to an end and life can resume once more.
Had I not made the decision to seriously study Japanese in 2018, I would no doubt still be living in my home country. I would perhaps be working the same minimum-wage job that I was in before moving to Japan, and visiting the same few shops and locations that I had visited regularly since childhood. At first, I had worried that I was too ‘old’ to learn a new language (don’t they always say languages are easiest to learn as children?), yet now I am so confident in my ability to study and acquire new skills that I even take online classes in other languages during my spare time. My life is a testament to the amazing experiences that studying a foreign language can bring, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I made the decision to enrol in that Japanese exchange program. I truly believe that it changed my life.