Hi, everyone. I’m Chris Bubb, a 2010 graduate of the College and former W&M Japanese student. Recently, I was excited to have passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test top level N1 exam. Below I share some of my experiences with the Japanese language at W&M and post-graduation, as well as suggestions for improving your Japanese ability.
Japanese Study at W&M
When it came time to choose a foreign language to take at the College, Japanese caught my eye as something that had become available for me to formally study for the first time, as it wasn’t offered at my high school. Being part of one of the first real generations of “gamers,” I knew of the existence of Japan from a very young age. I had even gone so far as to independently study kana while dabbling in a bit of Japanese grammar when I was in middle and high school. I enrolled in Japanese 101 at W&M, and in summer of 2009, spent a few weeks studying at a university in Osaka, Japan. This trip was a huge influence on my Japanese language study, and allowed me to make quite a few friends (from Japan and elsewhere) whom I stay in close contact with to this day. And I think that’s really a huge part in developing proficiency in Japanese, or any language for that matter: using it to communicate with other people. I know it may sound obvious, but actually physically communicating is really something that I cannot stress enough.
Working in Japan
In August of 2010, I moved to Japan to teach English. This was quite possibly the most exciting experience of my life. This is where foreign language goes from being a worksheet that you need to finish for class tomorrow to being the only way you’re going to get paid. The “moment of truth” came when I made my first trip to the post office in the tiny, one-road town that I lived in when I first moved here. The need to communicate to simply survive in this new setting was enough motivation to try to develop fluency in Japanese while living here. Not to mention that an overwhelming percentage of the population of Japan speaks Japanese exclusively, so getting along with coworkers and those outside of work requires a certain level of Japanese proficiency as well. You would not believe how much friendlier people are when they discover that you can communicate in their language. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling for everyone involved, and something I hope everyone gets a chance to experience.
Improving Your Japanese
As a student at W&M, I was able to create a solid foundation for my Japanese ability, and as an English instructor living and working in Japan, I was able to put it into practice daily with my friends and coworkers and develop that ability further. What I suggest that you do is use Japanese like your life depends on it. Find someone with whom you feel comfortable speaking Japanese and speak with them all the time, every day if you can. Take risks and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The mistakes you make in your classes and conversations will correct themselves in time. The important thing is that you were able to use Japanese to communicate with another individual. This is where your proficiency will ultimately come from. Unfortunately, there is no “eureka!” moment, no moment of epiphany, so you may not notice a change in your own ability right away, but keep at it. Use what you learned in class over and over and over. Unlike scientists and mathematicians, linguists don’t have the luxury of going to their notes in the middle of a conversation. That’s why you need to use your Japanese at every opportunity.
In my case, when I would speak Japanese, I had to first think in English, translate it to Japanese, and then physically say the Japanese words. This takes quite a while, especially in the middle of a conversation. But what if you were to skip that second step? This is huge. I can’t say when it happened, but there was a day when I woke up and realized that I needed to begin thinking in Japanese if I was going to get any better at speaking it. Now, I know I said there was no “eureka!” moment, but this isn’t something that I was able to do overnight. This is something that you yourself must actively do every single day. And this may sound crazy, but one of the best ways to get yourself to think in Japanese is to communicate with yourself in Japanese.
Try phrases like: 「えーっと、日本語の宿題は何だったっけ？」(Uh, what was the Japanese homework again?) or
「はぁ、疲れたぁ、ちょっとだけ昼寝しようかなぁ」(Whew, I’m exhausted, I should take a little nap).
This will make speaking with others in Japanese more natural because, for you, Japanese never stops! You can also do this a bit more proactively. Just find a clip from a Japanese TV show or song that you enjoy (they’re all over the internet), listen for a phrase that you know and just say it over and over aloud to yourself. Write it down to remember it if you have to. It doesn’t even have to be overly difficult; I personally watched a ton of children’s television programs when I first moved to Japan simply because I knew I could understand them. I ended up repeating things so often that I would be teased by the Japanese-speakers whom I was with. But that’s okay! Your room for growth in Japanese all depends on how much work you are willing to put into it both in and outside of the classroom. That doesn’t mean, however, that the “work” you put in can’t be enjoyable. For as embarrassing as speaking to yourself or even talking with your classmates in Japanese may seem, I can guarantee that any amount of experience you get communicating in the language will benefit your Japanese ability in the long run. Your professors are giving you all the tools you need; it’s your turn to use those tools and build on your Japanese language skills. You’re all capable of doing great things with Japanese!
Chris Bubb (W&M 2010)