Speaking Japanese in… Hong Kong?

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of communication in Hong Kong is most likely the British legacy of the English Language. I will certainly admit the English ability in Hong Kong was a major plus and benefit for someone like me in Hong Kong. If I said I used more Japanese than English on one evening in Hong Kong, I am sure you would be surprised. I certainly was, too.  The ability to speak Japanese in Hong Kong is another experience about my time in Hong Kong I will not readily forget. 

This unlikely evening all started when my friend and I made our way from our hotel to the Victoria Peak Tram station located near Hong Kong Park on Hong Kong Island. We were there to take in the view from Victoria Peak. Once we passed through the turnstile, we saw the long line and were a little annoyed with how long the wait to ride the tram and get to the top of the peak would take. Image

Waiting to go to Victoria Peak. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

After waiting for about ten minutes, something very unique caught my ear. I heard a language that was certainly not English and most definitely not Cantonese coming. The two girls in line in front of us were either speaking Japanese or Korean, we thought, so I tuned in to find out what they were speaking. After a few seconds, we instantly recognized they were speaking Japanese and listened in to the discussion for a little bit. These girls had come from a place between Osaka and Tokyo and happened to be in Hong Kong just for the weekend to do some shopping and sightseeing. After a little bit of deliberation, I decided that I would just go up to them and ask the following question: すみません。日本人ですか。(Excuse me. Are you Japanese?)

We certainly knew they were Japanese, but I always like to ask Japanese people I see abroad in their mother tongue. The reactions I get, as a taller white male with light hair and light eyes are always fascinating. They just turned around and looked at us with a look of befuddlement. I am sure they were thinking whether or not we actually knew Japanese or just were joking around with them. After a brief discussion about Japan and our travels to Hong Kong, we boarded the tram together and went to the top of Victoria Peak as a group of four. 

One of the nice things about traveling alone or with one or two friends is that you always meet interesting people whenever you travel. Whether it is at Acadia National Park, a roadside diner in Vermont, a rest stop in New Hampshire, at the Subway in Quebec City, or on the hard benches at an airport, I have met some fascinating people on my travels. The exception here is this was the first time I ever met some fellow travelers who did not speak any English. This was certainly a different dynamic, but one certainly worth exploring. 

After about five minutes of chatting, I realized I was having no problems and there was almost no language barrier. I was so grateful that I studied at Middlebury the previous summer and continued to study Japanese each night in my free time because those opportunities opened up so many doors for new friends, acquaintances, and conversations. Our new friends helped us take photos and provided some nice company for the evening atop the tower at Victoria Peak. 

One of the bonuses that goes with studying language is that you never know when you will have to use your other language. This time it happened to be in Hong Kong, of all places. I was grateful to have made some new friends for the evening as well getting in some solid Japanese conversation. From travel to college majors to interests and thoughts on the scenery at Victoria Peak, we were able to discuss things in Japanese with no difficulty. Certainly a moment I will never forget. 

There’s just one catch to this whole story: they bid farewell in English at the end of the night. 

All I can say is that if you are studying a foreign language right now, do not give up and keep pushing yourself. I push myself each night in anticipation of the next unexpected moment when I can use my Japanese ability. The moment is often magical and unforgettable. I went to Hong Kong and ended up speaking Japanese for a whole evening. I never would have conjured up this situation in my wildest dreams, let alone three years ago when I did not speak a word of the language. 

Had I never taken Japanese studies seriously, I know I would not have had the chance to engage in a conversation like this outside of English. Keep studying. The end result will be worth all of your effort!

Have you ever had an experience like this? 

 

 

The Itch to Learn Another Language

The one thing I feared most about traveling to Korea this weekend has begun to manifest itself in my thoughts this evening: I think I want to learn some Korean. While, on the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing, or even a worrisome point, it is very dangerous for me given all of the hard work I have put towards learning Japanese over the past two years. 

When I first came to Japan and started learning it two years ago, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to formal language study. I studied Spanish in high school, was good at it, but dif not find it challenging enough so I ceased studying it when I was in college. On study abroad, we were required to take a language class so I took Japanese with the intention of only studying it for one semester and calling it a day at my university because I had met the language requirement. Two years, a summer language school, and a return trip to Japan later, I think there is no doubt that I fell in love with studying Japanese and the nuances that accompany learning a new language so radical and different than Western languages, let alone English. The instant feeling of helplessness and being lost I experienced in Japan back in January, 2011, re-emerged as I stepped onto the bus which would take us from the plane to the airport in Busan, South Korea. 

There I sat on the bus in Korea, speaking Japanese with some new friends I made on the plane, staring at a sign with no idea how to read it. I even had less of an idea of what the sign meant aside from having what appeared to be a singing group pictured on it. From that moment on, I tried to absorb as much of the Korean I saw on the train as quickly as possible. The same goes for common words or phrases I heard inside of stores or in the open air markets which are sprinkled all throughout Busan and Seoul. What is this Hangul? How is it read? What does the ad mean? – Those were very common questions I asked my Korean friends. 

It was so frustrating for me to be silent when ordering something at the convenience store, but it was even more frustrating to not have the ability to read a sign. That is what frustrated me the most. 

And so the desire to learn a third language begun. 

Following lunch with my friend, I said a few words in Korean and even read some Romanized names on the train as we headed back to Seoul Station. She said my pronunciation was very good, which encouraged me to study some more Korean hen I returned to Japan. 

 

This poses two obvious problems for me.

Firstly, where will I get the time to dedicate myself towards another language, especially when I have devoted so much time and energy to Japanese. 

Secondly, I am very afraid that if I start learning another language, I will lose much of my Japanese ability and Japanese skills that I have developed over the last two years in very intensive studies. 

Many of My Korean and Japanese friends say that the grammar is similar between the two languages. They also say that some vocabulary is shared, too. I just worry about forcing out the Japanese I have learned in lieu of a rudimentary level of Korean studies. 

Have you studied a third language? If so,  how was your experience? 

 

The Glory of Kansaiben (関西弁)

Hello, everyone! I hope all is well with you, wherever you are and wherever you may be reading this! So far, my life in Japan has been marvelous in Kobe, even though it has had its ups and downs during my first five weeks abroad.

This weekend is NFL kickoff weekend, so I know I will be starving for some football action that will almost certainly not be on television in Japan. My favorite time of year in the United States is October; when the leaves begin to change colors and fall, when the nights are cool and crisp, and when the aroma of the fall season comes to you with every passing second. I love autumn. Unfortunately, it is still around 85 degrees on almost a daily basis in Kansai.

Today, I want to talk about something that has captivated me: Kansaiben, or 関西弁, in Japanese. For those of you who have never been to Japan or those of you who have never studied the Japanese language, Japanese has many different dialects and regional variations in the language, its structure, and some vocabulary. In Kansai (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto area), some people use the Kansai dialect, which has some very fun components when comparing it to Tokyo Japanese (which is what I studied in school, bot in Tokyo and Philadelphia).

Kansai people are much more direct and often louder than those people I met in Tokyo, and their dialect certainly represents that. Different phrases for “how are you,” different ways of conjugating some verbs, and different inflection and volume levels in every day conversation and in my office really make learning this dialect so interesting. As a foreigner, it has many, many benefits.

Last week, one of my coworkers gave me a book (in Japanese) with useful Kansai dialect phrases and sayings, and my boss has started to teach me a phrase or two each day before I head home for the evening. Subsequently, I use Kansaiben as much as possible when I interact with Japanese anywhere in Kobe. From the bar to the market, to the coffee-shop and the street corner, these conversations have been priceless for me.

Japanese people who would not reguarly speak with me for a litany of reasons are more than surprised when I respond to their inquiry about whether I can speak Japanese in their dialect. I have made many new friends and contacts by taking some extra time to study the Kansai dialect.

If anyone is living in Kansai or going to visit, I recommend you take a few hours and learn some of the commonly used Kansai phrases and words. It will pay dividends!

The Kansai dialect is just another interesting component of Japanese language study that I never would have though I could have done just two years ago when I virtually knew no Japanese.

The concept of dialects is so foreign to me as an English speaker in the United States, so I have taken great joy in the Kansai Japanese dialect.

Until next time!

A Night in Osaka

Last night a group of us from Kobe went to Osaka to do some shopping and eat some dinner. While we all assumed this evening would be inconspicuous and average, it turned into something much more meaningful for me by the end of the night.

Following a short ride on the JR Rapid Express train from Kobe to Osaka, we exited the station and headed into Osaka to take in some sights and sounds and after a while we found ourselves at a dining establishment near the train station. We were the only foreigners there in a sea of Japanese and others who were interested in speaking with us even though none of them could speak English very well.

Usually I am very shy or reserved when it comes to speaking Japanese-only with Japanese whom I do not know, but things were different last evening in Osaka. From the beginning of the night, I made a concerted effort to speak only in Japanese with the Japanese in an effort to both enhance my language ability and get to know some potential new friends. Following several interesting conversations and several hours, I had made new friends and walked out of the restaurant with a new sense of security and pride in my efforts to learn Japanese.

On the walk back to the station, I thought about how I had been to Osaka two years ago with a school trip but could not speak any Japanese at that time. While I had fun with my school friends on that trip, I realized that I had missed out on so many opportunities and friendships in Japan because I could not speak Japanese. That walk back to the station really made me know that the language study was worth it over the last two (really one and a half years).

Japan is such a different and interesting place now that I can speak the language and interact with the Japanese in their native tongue. The different sense of respect and understanding between myself and the Japanese is evident from the beginning when we speak Japanese.

I hope for many more of these types of conversations during this current stay in Japan.

Until next time!

What Learning Japanese has Meant to Me

A little more than two years ago, I went to Japan for the first time as a part of Temple University’s study abroad program at Temple University, Japan Campus. My decision to study abroad in Japan was rooted in reasons different than many other students: In the Spring 2010 semester, Temple Football and I parted ways and I did some serious soul searching.

Following a long talk with my most trusted advisors at Temple, the choice was clear: study at Temple Japan to learn about myself and the world. I had always had an interest in Japan and the United States’ relationship with the East Asian nation but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually go to Japan, especially as a college student. What seemed like a great opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons has become so much more as time has continued to pass.

I will never forget what it was like when I first arrived in Japan, with my vocabulary limited to: ありがとう (arigato- “thanks”), and さようなら (sayonara – goodbye). The whole experience was not terrifying, as it probably should have been. It was truly invigorating for me. I made some new friends, studied the language hard with a professor who really cared about all of her first-year students, and ended learning so much more than I ever though possible. Two months into my study abroad program in Tokyo, I had finally figured out how to go through Tokyo without getting lost and was even able to have very, very basic conversations with some of my friends in Japanese.

Things all changed on March 11, 2011, with the Great Earthquake. My experience in Japan came to a drastic end, as I was forced to return home to the United States. Little did I know it, but the kindness expressed by the Japanese on the night of the earthquake inspired me to continue to study their language and lit a spark within me to try to return the favors they had given me when I was such a novice in Japan for the first time. The scenes of that night have never left me- shopkeepers handing out onigiri on the night of the earthquake, and the policeman in Shibuya who knew three words of English who helped guide me home amid the chaos of March 11th.

Once I returned to Philadelphia, I joined the International Students Association to help foreign students at Temple learn about Philadelphia and the United States much like the Japanese had helped me during my time in Japan. It was rewarding to return the favors of the past, but I had no idea what would be on the horizon for me in a few short months.

Fast forward to today and so many things have changed. I went to Japanese language school last summer in what was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. I am now back in Japan as an English teacher, enjoying every tiny interaction that I have with the Japanese people and with my newfound friends in Japan.

When I returned to Tokyo at the end of July, familiar places seemed to be abound with new life that was absent just two years ago. Instead of memorizing what I needed to hear on the train to get off at the right stop, I was able to listen to others’ conversations and read advertisements. I could speak with my friends only using Japanese and I could even see how English translations differed from the original Japanese meanings of announcements and signs. It was almost like I was back in Japan for the first time.

I have such a deeper appreciation for Japan and the Japanese people since I have returned subsequent to my language school. Everything from chatting with people in the restaurants and bars, to reading the signs, to just saying hello to people on a daily basis helps me know the language study was what made this all possible. If I had returned to Japan without studying Japanese in the interim, I do not know if I would be enjoying it as much as I am at this point.

My first time in Japan, my Japanese friends made such a great effort to help me in any way possible in Japan and now I am back, two years later, to help the Japanese in any way I can, albeit in a different role.

Learning Japanese has done so much for me from a personal to a professional level. Meeting new people and interacting with people in their native tongue is an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

I am an advocate for English education in the United States, but I encourage everyone to study a second language if they have the opportunity. Devoting the time and energy to this study  will reap tremendous benefit and personal satisfaction in the future. After the long hours of study, the first time you have an interaction with someone else in a language other than English will be an unbelievably memorable experience.

I hope I can have this type of experience in Korean someday.

Have you had this type of experience in your language studies?