When’s the best time to start Japanese lessons? Now!

Trends & Culture - February 10th, 1989

by Jonathan Broom

Most foreigners here are aware of the eagerness of many Japanese to master, and use, the English language—indeed, many (myself included) have benefited financially from their enthusiasm. This must be the only country in the world where a native English-speaker can make money for being… well, a native English-speaker.

But is the same true of To­kyo’s foreign community? How many of us have really made much effort to learn Japa­nese, instead subscribing to the “We’ll-pick-it-up-as-we-go-along” theory? Let’s face it: In an international city like Tokyo, do we really need to learn the language?

The answer, unequivocally, has to be a resounding YES. For a start, it makes sound financial sense. It stands to reason that, for those of us trying to do business in To­kyo, there’s a straight choice: speak Japanese or employ a Japanese speaker (and a meas­ure of trust). Surely those busi­ness meetings would be a lot more straightforward if one did not have to rely on a third party to interpret. Not to mention basic politeness, so im­portant to the Japanese.

And what of the famed Japa­nese culture? How many of us really feel that we are mak­ing the most of our stay—long or short — in this fascinating country? Last September, some friends of mine spent a bum-numbing three hours at a Noh play: they laughed about it afterwards — a good ex­perience, glad they’d been, all part of life’s rich tapestry, etc. The universal consensus was that it was boring. On what grounds? The Japanese in the audience were rapt throughout, and applauded enthusiastically at the finish. So was it the play that was dull, or my fri­ends’ lack of understanding?

Then there’s that bit about representing one’s country. I’m sure everyone has a gripe or two about Japan, but it is worth remembering at all times that as foreigners we are here as guests of the Japanese govern­ment and people. The Far Hast Network daily exhorts its listeners to the “good ambas­sadors” for the United States: FEN, exists primarily for the benefit of U.S. service person­nel stationed in Japan—how­ever, some members of the (foreign) public would do well to take note. A crack at learn­ing the language would be a good start.

And, in truth, relying on FEN’s risible “Phrase of the Day” by the earnest — very earnest — young gentleman so carefully enunciating each tor­tured phrase is definitely not the answer to the language problem.

So, how does one approach the problem of learning Japa­nese? The thing is that, as languages go, it’s a tough one, at least for those whose native tongue is of European origin. An English-speaker studying a European language quickly realizes that there are many common reference points —many words are the same, or are of similar derivation, and most Western European lang­uages use the Roman alphabet. Japanese is not so helpful. What, therefore, to do? Learn hiragana? Katakana? Kanji! Try to ignore the lettering — just concentrate on the speak­ing?

A first step might be to define what you want from a Japanese school: what level of Japanese are you at now, what level do you want to attain, within what period of time, and how much time you are prepared to commit, on a week­ly basis, to the study of Japa­nese. Then comes the ques­tion of cost — how much arc you prepared to allocate to Japanese study, over your given period? Finally, the proximity of the school to your home or office might be important.

Then comes the tricky part. There are literally thousands of Japanese schools in Tokyo; on one level, of course, this is good for the consumer, how­ever, there is such a thing as an “embarrasse de richesse.” Also, quantity does not neces­sarily mean quality. Some Japanese schools have a less than enviable reputation.

The answer most probably, then, is to employ the same methods you’d use when shop­ping for an item which possibly could be of less use in the long run. Shop around. Enquire among your Japanese-speaking gaijin friends as to where they acquired their lingual expertise. Take the time to call various language schools, make a visit, talk with the administrators and, perhaps, one or two of the instructors.

Take advantage of the fre­quently offered “free trial les­sons” used as an inducement by many schools to provide them with a chance to show their wares. One thing not to do is postpone this important move any longer than you al­ready have. In fact, I’m taking my own advice and increasing my own language lesson sched­ule immediately. Well, as soon as I can get around to it, at any rate. Good luck!