Tag Archives: Japanese language

Turns out my greatest weakness in Japanese is listening . . . to my teachers

An ivory monkey covering its ears, 'hear no evil' style

Photo by Black Country Museums on Creative Commons (original)

In three weeks I will graduate from my Japanese language school. I don’t have any exams to take as such, but a bit before Christmas I did a ‘Stimulated Oral Proficiency Interview’ test thing. Basically it involved recording myself having a forty five minute conversation with a CD player. It was weird.

Anyway, I then submitted that for evaluation, and yesterday the results came back. It was mainly positive, but there were a few weaknesses that all of the teachers marking my recording highlighted. There are two main points that I especially need to work on:

  • Speaking politely
  • Speaking clearly

But as I have reflected on these two points I have become convinced that my main weakness in Japanese is not my inability to speak clearly, but my inability to listen humbly.

The thing I need to work on most in these final three weeks is listening to my teachers.

I know this because when I read the comments on my interview I was not in the slightest bit taken by surprise. I had heard all of those comments before. I just hadn’t taken them seriously enough.

“You need to open your mouth more!” was said to me pretty much every time I practised giving a speech. And I had nodded, and said, “Hai!” and then gone on and focussed on learning the next grammar point and vocab.

Amongst the many sayings of my dad was this,

“There’s a difference between hearing someone and listening to them.”

A distinction that, I’m sorry to say, I have been blurring somewhat. I had heard my teachers, but I have to confess that I hadn’t really listened to them all that well.

Why? Well I recently read somewhere that it’s a human tendency that the level of our ability in a given area directly correlates to our ability to self-assess our ability in that area. In other words, the more we suck at something, the less we realise how much we suck at it.

Or in other other words, it’s a problem of pride. That and folly, pride’s faithful sidekick.

‘The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice.’
(Proverbs 12:15)

That’s one of the key reasons why we need teachers. And it’s one of the reasons why we need to listen–not just hear–those teachers.

So now I am being drilled in how to enunciate in Japanese properly. (The geek part of me is loving learning about Japanese phonology.)

And I’m praying for a wise–that is, a listening–heart. If you pray, then you could add that of things to pray for me (and maybe for yourself too: just sayin’!)

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The hardest part of learning Japanese? Having Love.

My last post was about applying lessons from Rocky to language learning, and whilst there is much more the Italian Stallion has to teach about learning Japanese, today I want to share a language learning principle from the Bible that has been impressed on me these last few weeks.

It’s fair to say this is the most difficult aspect of learning Japanese (or any language), and it also happens to be the most important:

Having love

For folk like me, fighting away in the hope of becoming fluent in a foreign language (or at least close enough to blag it), there is a verse in the bible that hits like a brutal sucker punch to the gut,

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Or to paraphrase:

A Japanese gong, is still a gong.

A Japanese bell

Photo by Suguru Yamamoto on Creative Commons (original)

Which means that all of my endeavours to master Japanese –– all the hours I pour into memorising vocab, all the ink I spill practising kanji, all the Rocky movies I watch dubbed into Japanese (hey, it counts as study!) –– it will be totally useless if I don’t also work on having love.

Actually that’s not true. It won’t be useless. It’ll be really useful for doing stuff like offending people and screwing up friendships.

Because if I’m honest, I’m pretty much a master of using words to negative effect. Sarcastic snipes? Expert level. Jokes that get a cheap laugh at someone’s expense? Nailed it. Twisting words so that I don’t have to listen to a genuine grievance against me? Piece. Of. Cake.

And none of that is caused by a lack in my English abilities. It’s not like I mean to speak kind, affirming, encouraging words and get mixed up. No, I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. And often what I mean to say is mean.

And at those moments I am a nothing more than a resounding gong.

I can trick myself into thinking that the main thing hindering me from making a positive difference in Japan is my lack of language skills. When in fact the main hinderance is the same thing that hindered me back in the UK:

Not having love

The gong quote comes just before the famous ‘Love is…’ passage, where Paul explains what having love looks like. It makes for quite an unexpected set of criteria for assessing language ability.

Love is patient

Love is kind

Love does not envy

Love does not boast

Love is not proud

Love does not dishonour others

Love is not self-seeking

Love is not easily angered

Love keeps not record of wrongs

Love does not delight in evil

Love rejoices with the truth

Love always protects

Love always trusts

Love always hopes

Love always perseveres

Now listening to a recording of myself speaking Japanese, and having my teacher dissect all my faults was pretty painful. But reading through that list of the attributes of love, and reflecting on how I use my words . . .

Seems like I need another training montage!

And like Rocky I also need a good team to encourage me in my training (seriously, you could write a book on lessons in Japanese learning from the Rocky films). And not just me, but anyone who is trying to master a foreign language. Especially if we’re doing it in order to tell people about the love of God.

So if you’re studying Japanese, etc then don’t forget this key principle. And if you’re encouraging folk in their studies make sure you remind us of the foundational lesson we need to be mastered by.

Don’t be a gong: have love.