My Experience Learning Japanese 1/3

I started learning Japanese when I was in my second year of university. My interest developed from a younger age, but I was never fully aware of this interest until 2003. Some examples of my Japanese interests were:

  • Japanese video games, e.g., Megaman, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Legend of the Dragoon, and Onimusha
  • chosen to represent and learn about Japan for a several month long world issues debate in high school; this UN simulation was an awesome project (thanks Mr. LeBlanc)
  • interest in martial arts; member of university Karate Club for 3 years

The Awakening

I’m not sure if I developed or just became aware of this interest, but it happened in my second year of university (2002) thanks to living with international housemates (two Chinese, one Chinese-Canadian, one Syrian, and one Taiwanese). One day, one of my Chinese housemates said, “Wow, you really like Japan.” Not really knowing how to respond because I never thought about it, I replied, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

After that conversation I decided to start learning more about Japan. I bought an audiocourse consisting of a textbook, several CDs and a JPN & ENG dictionary. I started reading various books about Japan at the university library and I enrolled into the only Japanese course my university offered: Japanese Religions.

Even though I took interest into Japan, I wasn’t learning the language. The DIY Japanese package I bought, I never used. It was the lamest language resource ever. I occasionally looked up words in the dictionary but I had no idea how to pronounce them.

First Contact

At my karate club, I was occasionally partnered with another student about my age. In addition to martial arts we shared a common interest in video games. One day when exchanging video games and talking about the look of feudal Japan from the cutscenes of Onimusha, he said, “If you’re interested in learning Japanese, I have a friend who volunteers as a Japanese teacher. She does it as a part of her university course.” I agreed.

I started meeting this woman in downtown Halifax’s Park Lane Mall food court a few times per month. She talked to me about Japan, showed me Japanese things, e.g., comic books and origami. She also encouraged me to learn kana. I had little trouble pronunciation thanks to all the sound effects and impersonations I did as a grade schooler. She was quite surprised I could mimic her so well. But after six months my language skills progressed very little because I was more interested in learning about Japan than the language at that point.

She eventually returned to Japan but introduced me to her friend who worked in Halifax as Japanese kitchen staff at a few restaurants. This woman, like the other, was in her early thirties, and I was a 19 year old boy with a skateboard and working at McDonald’s… This woman befriended me, but also taught me about how to cook. She was quite surprised I ate cereal, oatmeal and fruit for almost every meal… (At the time it seemed like a time/cost effective solution to cooking.) The friendship became rooted in cultural, linguistic and culinary exchange. We met weekly.

Japanese at SMU

Since my university didn’t offer Japanese, I decided to enroll part time at a nearby school offering Japanese and have those credits transferred back to my university. It took a lot of paperwork and patience for the application process, but I successfully registered for Introductory Japanese (full year) and Introduction to Japanese Culture (fall) and Contemporary Japan (winter) at SMU while majoring in Sociology at DAL.

The Russian

I was excited for my first day of class, but upon entering, I was surprised to see over half of the class was Chinese. (At the time I wasn’t aware that they already knew how to read and write over 95% of the script used in Japanese.) At the front stood a sharply dressed man in a suit (it looked custom made). The class soon discovered he was stern and intolerant of half assed effort to the point of patronizing the linguistic loafers. When some realized it wasn’t going to be an anime watching class, many dropped out, and those who remained were all interested in learning. If you were attentive and did your work, he went out of his way to help and was always enthusiastic.

Minimal Progress

In first year Japanese I learned how to read and write kana and about 100 kanji. I could do simple greetings and understand simple, textbook sentences. And even though I mastered our course’s Japanese for Busy People textbook, I could not converse well in Japanese.

Download & Watch

From the end of that course (spring 2004) to the beginning of second year Japanese (fall 2004), I made great progress. It seemed that every Japanese person I met in Halifax introduced me to another two of their Japanese friends. I networked without much intention and made a lot of Japanese friends in a short amount of time. Also, while studying, I began watching a lot of Japanese TV shows and movies, e.g., Orange Days, GTO, The Ring and Juon, thanks to a high speed Internet connection and recommendations from Japanese friends I made. My ears were constantly being exercised.

A Lady Friend

I eventually met a girl that interested me beyond a platonic relationship. We started dating in spring and got along well. She often spoke to me in Japanese and taught me a lot about about Japan. When my apartment’s lease terminated in early summer, I decided to move back to New Brunswick and spend time with my family until the next school term, while she would resume life in Halifax. We occasionally talked on the phone and kept in touch via email, but about one month before the fall term began, she asked me if I would like to stay with her so we could be together again. I was pleased with the temporary offer and gladly accepted.

We lived together in a beautiful downtown Halifax waterfront apartment. She was subletting this place from a fellow Japanese-Canadian occupational therapist at DAL. This woman, however, was rarely there at the same time I was, because she was often away for research or visiting in Japan. This woman had a great scheme of subletting her place to Japanese students and tourists. Because of this, that summer I became housemate to a handful of fresh off the boat Japanese. The majority were sightseeing in Canada for a few weeks at most, therefore, some spoke very little English. Many of the conversations were translated via my girlfriend or the researcher (when she was there). It was great experience because I got to meet a lot of interesting new people and practice Japanese. More importantly, I could take the role as an observer, while occasionally participating, in a natural Japanese environment.

La Vida Loca

Hear Japanese. Time with girlfriend (occasionally communicate in Japanese. Register for university courses. Look for apartment. Hear Japanese. Look for work. Skateboard. Basketball. Hear Japanese.

Yes, this several week experience was great for my Japanese. But eventually it became time for me, as well as my girlfriend, to move out. She was going to the U.S. for two weeks to volunteer at the famous Patch Adams center in Virginia, and I had to prep for university and find a sublet for the 2004-5 school year.


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