I think I’m learning Japanese, I really think so.*
Just kidding. I thought I was learning Japanese, but this weekend provided me a harsh reality check.
It only took me eight months of living in Japan to crack open my Rosetta Stone. And it will probably take me double that time to actually comprehend anything I’m supposed to be learning. I’m not going to try and explain here Rosetta Stone’s method. Because I can’t. I have absolutely no clue what or how it it is trying to teach me. All I know is when I turn on my laptop, strange-sounding words emanate from my speakers, slides of very Anglo-looking people appear (this is the Japanese version, right? Oh, wait! They’re holding chopsticks! Yup, we’re good to go!), and I’m supposed to click or type or chant or something. It’s all very confusing.
Nevertheless, after completing several lessons (and repeating them) over the past couple months, I felt confident that I had learned something. I’ve known the basic phrases for a while: Hello (konnichiwa), goodbye (sayonara), thank you (arigato gozaimasu), excuse me (sumimasen), and I’m sorry (gomen nasai)**. I’ve gotten by with these phrases just fine, but I was ready to move on. As it turns out, my parents were visiting and we were spending a few days in Tokyo. My dad doesn’t believe in public transportation, so as we were hailing a cab I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to exercise my new language skills.
“Konnichiwa!” I exclaimed as I climbed into a cab. And then I froze. What do I say next? WHAT DO I SAY!? All of a sudden I realized that while knowing how to say things like, “The girl eats/is eating rice,” makes me sound really smart to anyone who knows less Japanese than I do, it holds zero practicality. Zero. What I really need to know how to say is, “We’d like to go to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, please.” Why doesn’t Rosetta Stone teach me that?
Humbled and ashamed, I fumbled through my guidebook and pointed to our destination on a map. As we were stopped at a light, the cab driver pointed out the window and said, “Tokyo Station.” I panicked. Did he intend for us to get out here and walk? Were we close to our stop?
“Um… Um…. Get out?” I asked, and motioned getting out of the cab. The driver looked at me confusedly. A light-bulb went off in my head. I knew the word for “walk”! So I said what I thought was “walk?” but turns out was probably not “walk”, because the driver looked even more confused. So I began pantomiming getting out of the cab and walking. And then the driver looked less confused and more concerned, like maybe I was having a seizure or maybe I was on drugs. So I decided to stop talking and stop pantomiming and sit in silence. Turns out the driver was just pointing out Tokyo Station for the hell of it. I cursed Rosetta Stone (in my head) for failing to teach me the proper word for “walk” or anything else remotely useful.***
Upon reflection of this most unfortunate cab ride, I remembered that it took me two years of study plus seven months of living in Italy to become proficient in Italian. And Italian is infinitely less perplexing than Japanese. Except, I suppose, for Japanese people. But really, “thank you” in Japanese is eight syllables. Eight! And I’m supposed to form full sentences? And that’s just speaking. Let’s not even talk about reading and writing. Sheesh.
Anyway. Maybe it’s not the end of the world if after a few computer-based lessons I’m not yet fluent in Japanese. I’m going to keep plugging away at this language-learning thing. And who knows? Maybe one day I will need to say, “The girl eats/is eating rice.” I can only hope.
*If you didn’t read the blog title and this first line to the tune of the song, “I think I’m turning Japanese,” shame on you. Begin again.
**Sumimasen and gomen nasai are particularly important; their extended meanings are, “Excuse me/I’m sorry, but I’m a dumb American and though I’m trying my darndest to assimilate to your culture I have no idea what I’m doing.” I find myself using those two phrases a lot.
***It is entirely possible that everything I think I’ve learned is wrong. As I mentioned, Rosetta Stone’s method doesn’t exactly explain what you’re learning. For example, I thought I was learning the plural when I was actually learning the negative. The only reason I found this out is because I asked for clarification from someone. Can you imagine if I had gone around Japan thinking I was talking about people or things in the plural but it was actually the negative? OMG how embarrassing!