Thursday, November 5, 2020

Can I Learn Japanese As An ALT?

Tokyo is a foreigner-friendly city - but that doesn't mean that everything is in English
Tokyo is a foreigner-friendly city -
but that doesn't mean everything is in English
You might already know that the December iteration of this year's Japanese Language Proficiency Test (aka the JLPT) was cancelled. It would have been an ideal year for me to test, to be honest, since until a short while ago when I started working on my writing full-time, I had a lot of time on my hands. I did a couple of months of Japanese lessons over Zoom, went full-tilt into watching Kansai-based J-dramas to help get my dialect back after 4 years of speaking 東京方言 at work, broke out all my materials last seen at the time of passing N3 in 2015. 

There was a time when I really thought I would come back from Japan completely fluent in Japanese. That would have been nice!

It does actually work for some people, especially those out in the sticks. Or if you're naturally gifted with languages! At one point I thought I was, because I'm very good at imitating correct pronunciation, and I even started my BA with a linguistics minor. Big surprise when I discovered my language talent was only for pronunciation and I am more than useless when it comes to grammar.

There's an inaccurate belief that if you move to another country to live, you will magically pick up the language via exposure, and it's a great way to become fluent. Well, unfortunately for me, there is no magic osmosis method of learning Japanese. That isn't to say that I don't think immersion is the best way - it absolutely is. I very frequently tell potential exchange students how useful a method immersion is to learn. However, the city JET experience (and, as you well know, ESID!) frequently does not lend itself well to this. There's too much opportunity to just stay in your native language, especially now when we have Google Translate at our fingertips. Every day, I went to work; in my classroom, we used English 98% of the time. Spoke English in the English Department, spoke English after school at English Club, went home to read books in English to combat homesickness, and either hung out with my English-speaking JET neighbour or chatted in English online with my friends back home. 

It was not quite what I envisioned when I moved to Japan.

It goes without saying that I did try. I socialized with my Japanese friends, took aikido classes in Japanese, went out with my co-workers, sang karaoke, attended conversation classes or struggled through translations in my spare time. I like Japanese. I wanted to learn it - I wouldn't have even been there if not for starting my linguistics minor with that first Japanese class. What I actually needed was study, and lots of dedication, and that was tough. I did all my own lesson plans and we did not use Japanese in the classroom

Hit those books!

It shouldn't have been such a big a shock to me, but I was incredibly disappointed when I got home from Japan and immediately failed N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I knew I hadn't worked hard enough. Not enough study, not enough reading, not enough repetition, and most importantly, I had assumed that I would just pick things up. I certainly did - but I didn't have enough grammatical foundation and reading skills to build on. 

I had the interest and drive, and I had 2.5 years of university classes under my belt before I arrived. If I'd received a placement in, say, Shikoku rather than Osaka (not that I would ever have given up my precious placement!), I would probably have achieved my goals with fewer distractions. Most JETs request urban placements, and Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are right at the top. If you receive such an assignment, however, and you do want to become fluent, you need to have an incredible drive to learn in a limited amount of time. The former ALTs I know who are N1 or N2 fluent started out as country JETs, went to Japan on a student exchange program, or stayed on in Japan after finishing their placement - or all three!

So can you learn Japanese while teaching English in Japan as an ALT? The short answer is yes; you're in a prime position to pick up at least N5 level just by existing there for a year. If you want to become fluent, however, you need to work for it, as with anything - remember that it won't just come to you!