“Words are all we have,” said novelist Samuel Beckett. How else do you craft your identity if not through signature turns of phrases, conversations with friends and lovers, letters, to-do lists, poems, tweets, emails… Perhaps I am unusually verbal, but I have often felt that, if I lost the ability to use words, little of my identity would be left.
Until recently, I considered myself linguistically ‘monogamish’. Sure, I would see other languages occasionally but I’ve always believed English was ‘the one.’ But, as with love, language can surprise you.
It may seem a bizarrely masochistic move for the chronically verbose, but one of my motivations in moving to Japan was to see if I had an identity outside of words. It was a sort of an experiment: what happens when someone who defines their personality through language is put in a space where they can’t express themselves? I’ve been living in Japan long enough for my tests to show some interesting results. Language acquisition is about becoming — not being — so here are three things I learned from my struggles with Japanese.
1. You can learn a lot from sitting in silence
I talk a lot, some might say too much. One thing living in Japan taught me was, quite simply, how to shut up. When your linguistic competence is questionable, you are forced to let others take the lead. It’s been a remarkable lesson that sometimes, conversations can function quite well even when I don’t dominate them.
Maybe my primary school teachers were right after all: you can learn quite a lot from sitting in silence. Sometimes it’s good to watch life from the edge of the group and, if you tend to be at the center of things, it can be liberating to give others the reigns of the conversation.
I don’t think I had any understanding of the struggles my non-British friends back home faced until now.
It was a revelation that you can build friendships on doing things together, without hours of chatter being necessary. In my case, for my first two years in Japan, music was a safe space. It was wonderful to play music with Japanese people and create meaningful friendships without having to talk very much. It’s been touching and strangely reassuring to discover that people can and will still accept me, even when I’m anything but eloquent in Japanese.
My inability to communicate verbally made me focus on other non-verbal skills, which as a result made me gain more confidence in things I do that don’t involve talking.
2. A hard dose of empathy
Silence can be liberating but sometimes feelings of alienation can creep up on you. Some days I think I am missing out on depth of interaction due to lack of language skills and that can feel incredibly lonely. And the tiredness! Everything is twice as difficult in Japanese. After perfectly chilled social events I feel like I have to lie down for an hour.
This hasn’t exactly been pleasant but it’s taught me something vitally important — empathy for non-native speakers of my own language. I don’t think I had any understanding of the struggles my non-British friends back home faced until now.
Unfortunately, native English speakers can tend towards a spoilt, entitled attitude in which we expect people to learn our language to perfection. Especially in recent years with dangerous anti-immigration rhetoric being thrown around in many English speaking countries, the experience of living abroad and struggling with the language is a hard dose of empathy that many of us should try swallowing.
3. You can express yourself in new ways
Learning a second language certainly brings struggles but also rewards, with increased opportunity for self-expression at the top of the list. There are so many things about Japanese that are just gorgeous and fun. Those cute expressive onomatopoeia, detailed and poetic seasonal salutations and the opportunity to express a different nuance by mixing up your alphabets. Every language has words which just express certain concepts so darn well and it’s great to be able to mix those up to better convey meaning. It’s fun having the opportunity to converse in this way with people who know both English and Japanese — even if my boyfriend and I do speak in a ‘pretentious pidgin’ as one friend back home said.
It’s been touching and strangely reassuring to discover that people can and will still accept me, even when I’m anything but eloquent in Japanese.
For example, although the gendered language aspect of Japanese can be restrictive, it’s also a great opportunity to play with your identity. I enjoy using masculine speech on stage with my band and feminine speech the next day going for coffee with my Japanese girlfriends. There’s a kind of freedom when it’s not your native language and the expectations of you, as a non-native speaker, are lower – I’ve surprised myself in that I sometimes prefer speaking in public in Japanese, for this reason.
The jury is still out on whether identity is something you are or something you do. As language colors both our inner and outer worlds, it probably applies to both categories. I can never get back the monolingual girl who came off the plane almost three years ago. But learning a second language has offered me so many opportunities to learn about the world, express myself, and, perhaps most of all, have fun.
Words may be all we have, but we have a lot to play with.
If you still wish to become fluent in Japanese, however, check out Savvy Tokyo’s sister website GaijinPot‘s Study Placement Program. GaijinPot Study’s student coordinators are available to help you choose the right school, get your student visa and start living in Japan. Applications from abroad and within Japan are accepted for schools across Japan for a short or long-term study. Find more information here.
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