He was pointing his finger towards his nose: “I Japanese, English no good”.
I had no idea how to buy a train ticket and the huge boards/signs on the wall of the train station full of Japanese characters and numbers didn’t really help.
“Hello…hello? Eego wo hanishimasu ka? (Do you speak English?)” I am standing in a phone booth in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It’s December 1996 and we are in desperate need to find a hotel in our next destination: Nagasaki. I’m throwing in another set of coins; another 200 Yen needed to bridge the communication gap.
The Japanese lady on the other end of the line had the courtesy not to hang up the phone. She was hesitating, recognizing a foreigner with bad Japanese language skills. I became a bit desperate: Come on, why doesn’t anybody in this country speak English?
Luckily I practiced on a few essentials: “Sumimasen. Watasi was, Oranda-jin desu. Ima wa, Hiroshima desu. Kyoo wa, anata hoteru ni, roomu arimasu ka?”
She understood. I apologized first (it’s always good to just apologize in Japan. It’s a kind of courtesy for disturbing people or just for speaking very bad Japanese for that matter). Explaining to her that I came from Holland and were looking for an available hotel room, the ice called language barrier was slowly melting.
“Hi, arimasu yo! (yes we have!)”. She startled rambling about prices, breakfast and things to do in Nagasaki. I listened, understood some of it but most of all I was just happy that we had a place to sleep! My first year of Japanese studies started to pay off!
Pointing a finger to me
He was pointing his finger towards me: “You speak like a woman”.
Men and women use different pronunciation in Japan, were the ‘language of women’ is more soft, like singing. I studied Japanese at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. My Japanese teacher was a woman and he could hear that in my way of speaking. How funny is that!
Hotels and train tickets are just your standard examples of how speaking a foreign language can make life easier. Language also opens doors where it allows you to understand a culture.
For example, the Japanese language reflects social hierarchy (you speak differently to people you should respect like elderly, parents or even your boss) and has various levels of politeness (you offend people when you don’t use the correct level). It’s indeed complex, which is a clear sign that living (or traveling) in Japan requires sensitivity. That is what language can teach you.
Someday we will travel to Japan again. I still have my study books, stored in a carton box in the attic. When it happens I am sure to dust them off and start studying again. Of course you can survive in Japan with only English, but speaking Japanese will improve your travel experience for sure (not to mention your success in the karaoke bar!) Nihongo wa, sugoi desu!
This post is part of the ‘Inspire Language Learning Blogger Competition’ run by Kaplan International Colleges. Check the great infographic below to find out why also you should start learning foreign languages now!