An Ocean of Language

Kevin atop Mt. Fuji Kevin Zhang

In a quiet Tokyo neighbourhood, a convenience store became my classroom.

It was my first week as a JET assistant language teacher (ALT), fresh off the plane from Vancouver. The bright store lights were a contrast to the rain outside, as I stood in line to purchase some late night snacks. I scanned the packaging, recognizing none of the Kanji characters on the labels. A woman, the store's attendant, rang me up. She began speaking to me in rapid Japanese. The words washed over me, a river of sound that I couldn't navigate. She repeated herself, and though I strained to understand, the line of customers behind me started to grow, their glances piercing my back.

Desperate, I asked her to repeat herself one more time. She patiently complied, her words clear and slow, but they still eluded my understanding.

Then, the woman's face lit up with an idea. She reached under the counter and pulled out a plastic bag. Holding it up, she repeated her question. “Fukuro goriyou ni narimasu ka?” Suddenly, it was clear. She was asking if I needed a plastic bag for my items.

A wave of relief washed over me. I nodded eagerly, managing to stammer out a "yes, please" in my rudimentary Japanese. Her face broke into a smile, the tension in the air dissipating.

About a week later, I was teaching a class, trying to explain a game to my students. I had meticulously prepared slides in English. But as I spoke, I saw only vacant stares and confusion.

I was speaking slowly. My co-teacher translated my words into Japanese. But the students couldn’t derive anything from what was coming out of my mouth.

I didn’t know it yet, but I had stumbled on a concept that would change my approach to language learning.

Comprehensible input

Learning a new language is like captaining a small boat on a violent sea. Imagine each sentence in the new language as a wave lapping against the hull of your ship. When you run into a word you don’t understand, it's as if a hole has been punched into your vessel, causing water to surge in.

Learning the unknown word is akin to plugging the holes—repairing the breaches with the wood of comprehension gained from context. Each new word you learn is another hole patched, another leak stopped.

I had stumbled on a concept that would change my approach to language learning.

If your boat is riddled with too many holes at once—too many unfamiliar words—the boat sinks.

In this scenario, the sentences become totally incomprehensible, as if they were gibberish yelled by the wind. The water flooding in drowns any and all meaning you're desperately trying to salvage.

But there is a silver lining: the more holes you plug, the more adept you become at repairing your ship. With every word learned from context, you're not just keeping your boat afloat, but also improving your ability to weather future linguistic storms.

The ideal situation? Your boat is taking on water, but not sinking. You're wet from the effort, but you're moving forward. The more you learn, the steadier your ship, and the more prepared you are for the next wave. The rough sea becomes less daunting, more of an exciting challenge. And amidst the splashes and sprays, you're navigating an ocean of language with growing confidence.

Three principles I follow:

Later, I stumbled upon a TEDx Talk that went over how to learn a new language in six months.

The speaker introduced three principles that fundamentally changed my approach to language learning:

Relevance: Like a map guiding me through uncharted territory, I focused on the vocabulary relevant to my everyday life—the language that populated classrooms, convenience stores and public transit. This focus on the immediate environment served as the compass in my navigation of this linguistic labyrinth.

Getting a language parent: A supportive local, perhaps a friend or a coworker, to help decode the myriad nuances of Japanese. It's akin to how an infant learns their first words from a parent, intuitively, with no judgment, and through a deeply connected understanding. Just as a toddler learns by observing and imitating, I began to do the same, mirroring fluent speakers in their sound formations and facial expressions.

Association over translation: I abandoned the crutch of translating Japanese words into English. Instead, I directly associated these words with the images and experiences they represented. This created a direct link between the new language and my cognition, bypassing the usual intermediary of English.

Impact on work and life

As my Japanese prowess grew, so did my connection with my students and the community. I was no longer the foreigner who didn't understand; I was the foreigner who was trying to understand. This shift made a massive difference in my interactions.

One incident stands out. I was making my way home from work one day. An elderly man, walking towards me, suddenly lost his footing. His leg convulsed with a muscle cramp, and he fell. I rushed over. "Daijoubu desu ka?" I asked him. ("Are you okay?")

It took a few exchanges, but I quickly learned where he lived, not too far from our current location. I carefully hoisted him onto my back, supporting his weight as we made our way to his residence.

It was a simple, human moment—an unexpected encounter that bridged the gap between two cultures, mediated by shared language. My Japanese had been instrumental, a testament to the progress I was making.

In the classroom, being able to understand and speak even basic Japanese transformed my teaching approach. I could explain concepts better, understand my students' questions, and most importantly, I could connect with them on a deeper level. This not only made my classes more effective but also more enjoyable.

The takeaway

Imagine walking into a store in a foreign country, knowing exactly what you're buying. You share banter with the attendant, your laughter echoing around the room. You're no longer just a foreigner, but a part of the community. This is the power of language acquisition. It's more than just a journey of learning and growth. It's a passport to new communities, an invitation to shared experiences, and the key to unlocking a world previously out of reach.

Remember, every mistake is a stepping stone to mastery. Immerse yourself, learn from locals, make language a part of your everyday life. But above all, enjoy the journey. Language learning is not a destination, but a path of continuous discovery.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Kevin Zhang

Kevin Zhang is a researcher specializing in visual cognition and intelligent behaviour. Passionate about how visual storytelling can inspire conservation, he has travelled more than 60,000km around the world photographing the intersection of traditional livelihoods and wildlife. He is currently in Tokyo, broadening his cultural horizons as a 2023 JET Programme Participant.


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