Friday, August 9, 2013

Learning Japanese: Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

Image via "Learning Japanese the Exciting Way". 

Susan Berhane, a senior at Old Dominion University studying international relations, marketing and Japanese, and a summer intern for Japan Society’s Communications Department, reports from her first Japanese language class outside academia

When I was asked to observe a Japan Society language class, I was beyond thrilled. I had known about the Society’s Language Center for some time, but because I live out of state it was impossible to attend. Fortunately through Japan Society’s YouTube page, I was able to take part in the unique language learning the Society offers through the online full lessons series and the less formal Waku Waku series.

My thrill dipped into terror however when I discovered my level of Japanese comprehension would be assessed before being placed in a class to observe.

Although I have been studying Japanese for three to four years now, my fear of speaking to adults in Japanese has not subsided. The idea that I would need to speak formal, polite language terrified me. For one thing, keigo--the use of honorific language when speaking Japanese--had not been taught to me. Also, no matter how much I know the vocabulary, grammar and tone to use, the minute I speak in front of a fluent adult, I freeze up. What if I forget a certain term? What if I use casual short form instead of the proper long form? These questions always persisted even though I was at a higher intermediate level.

The minute the evaluation began, my fears disappeared. I was immediately put at ease by Kamimura-sensei, the interim director of the Language Center. Her presence was the opposite of intimidating. She was easy to talk to and made me feel as if we had known each other for some time. She, accompanied with a Language Center instructor, asked me various questions about my Japanese course work and before I knew it I was placed in a class to observe: Level 7!

The day came for class. The classroom was small yet each individual student had a good amount of space. The tables were arranged in a large square, with the front open to the dry-erase board. As I took my seat I saw maybe 13 students of all different ethnicities and ages. I sat beside a young woman who was from Eastern Europe who looked to be no more than 25. She asked me if I was new and we immediately began a nice conversation in Japanese.

I was surprised to learn that she was learning Japanese in hopes to bring her family to Japan from their home country. Apparently her time spent in Japan was impacting enough to inspire total relocation.

There were so many interesting and varied reasons other students were taking classes at Japan Society. One student enjoyed reading Japanese literature and wanted to be able to read in the original Japanese. Another student wanted to watch anime and read manga without subtitles or translations. One even told me they were treated so kindly by a Japanese person that it made them want to be able to show their gratitude in Japanese. After they had learned to do that, they developed a fondness of the language and decided to continue learning.

The age range of the students in class went from 17 to mid 60s. The younger students all had some sort of interest in Japanese general culture and pop culture. The middle aged students were there for work or to further their careers. The older students said they were studying Japanese simply for the sake of learning.

The lesson of the day introduced Japanese honorifics, which is polite Japanese language especially used in business-level Japanese. This was my first real lesson on the subject, and I was slightly overwhelmed, but as the lesson progressed I was able to catch on easily. The instructor’s constant referral back to previous lessons helped connect things, and the pace gave enough time for total comprehension before moving on.

Partner work was vital in helping me understand what I was being taught. After each point the sensei would allow students to practice with each other. This way we were able to develop a rhythm and some form of familiarity with the topic. Afterwards, we would practice out loud, which helped us build confidence in our speaking, and also allowed the students to help each other. It was a very encouraging environment in which teachers and students helped build the confidence level of the class as a whole.

I think another part of what makes this program work so effectively is the nature of the teachers. The instructors at Japan Society are some of the best teachers I have come across while learning Japanese. They are extremely kind with a very nurturing and positive attitude. They allowed students to make mistakes, and then took great care to help them understand the mistake.

My sensei related to the students on many different levels. She taught with references to Japanese popular culture, connected the language with practical situations where it would be of use, and always smiled. Sensei was able to take a difficult subject and make you feel as if you could definitely learn it. “Patience and practice everyone” were her words that gave students constant strength and reassurance.

Though only a class of 13, my sensei was accompanied by an assistant sensei throughout the class. They were a good team, building off of each other and dividing their attention evenly between the students.

A great thing about having two teachers in the class is the ability to hear the current material being used between native speakers. The students were able to get a sense of the tone and speed a native speaker uses, thus giving them better immediate aural comprehension. It was refreshing to receive grammar, vocabulary and listening lessons at once.

Before I knew it class was coming to an end. Two hours had flown by in what felt like 45 minutes. All the students were actively engaged, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, and we left feeling a sense of accomplishment from learning something new.

When I went back and looked at my notes and paper work, we had covered a substantial amount of work. With this being my first class on keigo, the material, although difficult, didn’t seem impossible for me anymore.

As students were leaving, many spoke to both sensei not just about class but about their personal lives, exhibiting a certain familiarity and friendliness. Even though class had ended, the sensei listened attentively to each student on their struggles that week from previous lessons, or their accomplishment at their job. Words of encouragement flowed between student and teacher and any doubts or troubles disappeared. Everyone said their goodbyes and made vows to come back next week with the material learned and ready start anew. I was amazed at how confident everyone had become (including me!) after just one class.

This experience made me yearn to take more classes. I wondered if perhaps with the teaching and encouragement here, my fear of speaking to adults in Japanese would disappear altogether. The opportunity presented itself when sensei and I spoke soon after, and I was able to communicate with an ease I had never experienced before, and even use some things I had learned in class.


--Susan Berhane