Saturday, March 26, 2011

So Yeah.... Earthquakes...

It's been a rough few weeks in the land of the Rising Sun.  Living in an area of the country affected by, but not in ground zero of the massive quake two weeks ago, it's been understandably difficult to keep up my writing quota.  I'm putting my story on momentary hold as I work on a piece about the Quake.

So, because I haven't posted in a bit, and I might as well share, here is an essay that I wrote for a teacher's bulletin at work.

NOTE:  I was asked to write a three page essay...  about something...  in two hours.  Shoot me, shoot me, oh shoot me now.  If anyone cares, this was The Result.

Life through the Language Barrier

Language.  Whether it is English, Japanese, Spanish or Swahili, the languages that we can speak define the boundaries of the world that we can experience.  Language is the foundation of civilization, the way that humans share their thoughts, emotions and opinions.  Without language we would have no society, no politics, no education, and most importantly, no friends or loved ones. 
            Living in a country where your native language is spoken it’s easy to think that even if I couldn’t talk to the people around me, it would be fine.  We could gesture, we could smile, body language is universal.  In part, that is true, but we humans are thinkers.  Over time, the inability to share our thoughts becomes painful, becomes very lonely.  I think that this basic need for communication is an element of language that is more often forgotten when we try to learn a second language, weather we learn it in school or by ourselves.
            From the time that I was fourteen, it was always my dream to travel to Japan someday.  I was fascinated by the culture, the beautiful history, and yes, the language.  In university, I actually transferred schools just to be at a school that offered Japanese classes.  I immersed myself in Japan, listening to Japanese music, watching Japanese dramas, being treasurer and eventually president of the Japanese Culture Club at my school.  I studied hard, and I was always at the top of my Japanese classes.  I thought I was really good at Japanese.  I always wrote good essays, I always made top scores on tests.  There were many days when I would sit for hours in the cafe on campus, studying my Japanese textbooks.  I took every exercise in the book, and wrote out the answers over and over again, practicing.
            When I was accepted into the JET Programme, a program that places English speakers into Japanese high schools as teachers, I thought I was well prepared.  I expected to come to Japan and be able to communicate, I thought that I could be fluent in Japanese within the first year or two.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.
            When I first arrived in Japan I found that I couldn’t communicate at all.  Of course simple things like ordering at a restaurant or introducing myself were easy, but beyond that I suddenly realized that all the study I had done was barely enough to get by.
            When you can’t communicate, you realize how very alone you are.  I had thoughts and opinions that I wanted to express, and I couldn’t.  I wanted to share myself with the people around me, and  couldn’t.  Every time I tried, I didn’t have the words I needed.  I stumbled through the grammar, I used a dictionary, but still the things that I felt and the things that I wanted to say were trapped inside.  I felt like people gave up on me, without giving me a chance.
            Often, with a foreign language, it feels like all or nothing.  Either you can speak, or you can’t.  there isn’t anything in between.  Instead of trying to find words I know, or speaking more slowly, often when I don’t understand people just stop trying to speak to me.  And if they have trouble speaking with me, they will not try again.  It’s frustrating.  I want to speak.  I want to learn.  I want to communicate. 
            In teaching English, I try to remember all these things.  My students have studied grammar and writing, many of them can read quite well.  But they can’t communicate.  When they don’t understand what I’m saying, I try again.  I use easier words.  I try to explain the things they didn’t understand using things they can understand.  I don’t want them to give up the first time that they can’t communicate, I want them to keep trying until they can.  Someday, many of these students may be in a situation where not being able to communicate makes them feel frustrated and alone, like I did.  I only hope that they will find someone who is willing to keep trying to understand them. 
            Language is so much more than just reading and writing.  It’s the way that human beings connect with each other.  In a foreign country, no one really cares if you can read or write.  It helps, certainly.  It’s a skill that will make your life easier.  But it’s not going to help you live.  I can’t write an essay and give it to the woman who works at the store across the street from my apartment.  And she certainly isn’t going to give me a written answer that I can sit down and use my dictionary to translate.  I need to be able to speak to her, and understand what she says in return.  There isn’t any exam for real life.  No one scores your ability to say ‘good morning!’, or ‘please help me!’.  To be heard, you have to speak.
            Even now, three years after I first came to Japan, I am often frustrated by my Japanese.  It’s a slow process, and I still struggle every day to communicate.  It get easier, day by day, but more than anything else, I just want the people around me to feel like we can talk.  At the schools where I work, usually only the English teachers will speak to me.  It’s lonely, and I feel like I’m missing a large part of life. 
            If I can help my students learn to communicate without fear, despite their mistakes, I feel like I have done my job as an ALT.  Some of them want to go out into the world and work in foreign countries, or study abroad.  I don’t want them to be alone.  I want them to make friends, to enjoy the countries that they see, and to feel confident even if they aren’t fluent.  To me, I believe that that is the greatest purpose of language, no matter what language it is.  Bringing people and cultures together.


  1. Great post :) I'm glad you're back on track with posting again! I really enjoyed reading your essay because you described almost the exact same experience I had going from Japanese class at university to actually living in Tokyo for six months. Fortunately for me I had you and Scribe to fall back on during my stay. I can only imagine how much more lonely it was--and, I'm sure, sometimes still is--when you're out there by yourself.

    Even though you wrote this in only two hours, I think it came across really well. Working with a time limit can really force you to distill all those complex thoughts and emotions you want to convey into much more pure terms than you might normally use had you been given two days or two weeks. The important thing is, it feels organic and sincere.

    Keep on keeping on, girl ;)

  2. I agree with Raven. I think this is a very nicely distilled explanation of that loneliness that lack of communicative ability brings. The hardest part is not being able to describe how you feel...and then feeling like no-one gives you credit for feeling anything at all.

    " I wanted to share myself with the people around me, and couldn’t. Every time I tried, I didn’t have the words I needed. I stumbled through the grammar, I used a dictionary, but still the things that I felt and the things that I wanted to say were trapped inside. I felt like people gave up on me, without giving me a chance." <--This is exactly it.

    Keep it up. <3