What’s a second language worth? — Part 2

Japanese class in university wasn’t my first exposure to the language. I spent my preteen and teen years playing every Pokemon game I could lay my hands on. I watched any anime that was shown on a certain cartoon channel between the hours of 4 and 7; Dragon Ball Z, Rurouni Kenshin, Ronin Warriors, Inuyasha… the list is endless.

I also got my hands on songs. They were in Japanese, but some kind souls in the universe had written them out using the English alphabet. Thus, even though I could have been singing “I’m a stupid foreigner” in Japanese for all I knew, I learned the songs in their original languages. Because I could.

So going into the class I at least had that.

My first teacher was T-Sensei, a lady who reminded me very much of a slightly younger version of my grandmother. She had shoulder-length straight hair, a small belly, and a sense of humor about languages I think you need in order to go about learning them.

For those of you unaware, Japanese has three “alphabets” you need to learn in order to be even vaguely literate in the language- hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The first two “alphabets” are sets of 47 characters that are often used for things like particles or words borrowed from foreign languages. This is important because it ties into T-Sensei’s sense of humor.

We’re sitting in class after having learned all of the katakana, and T-Sensei is teaching us some words mostly by writing the English version on the board, then asking us to attempt to write them down ourselves. One such word was イギリス、 or Igirisu. (That means the UK, by the way.) Of course, none of us knew this at the time, so we were attempting things like writing out “England” or “The UK” as phonetically as possible. T-Sensei walked along and peered at our ideas, chuckling on occasion. Finally, she came to a classmate’s desk and peered at it for a long moment, then giggled.

“That’s wrong,” she said, sounding delighted. “It’s very cute, but it’s wrong.”

None of us begrudged her amusement, because she was just as willing to share her own weaknesses in languages with us. She liked to tell us of the pronunciation mistakes she often made, such as having trouble saying bug or bag distinctly, or walk and work…. and the confusion that ensued when she tried to correct herself.

So passed four semesters of language study; by the end of those two years I was able to read the first two alphabets passably, and we were starting to dip our toes into the murky waters of kanji. Summer was approaching, and I was wondering where to go next because something strange was happening.

Language was something to be endured when I was in public school (more on that later), with no foreseeable rewards. Spanish had taught me the days of the week, something I would never need while living in the States. German had taught me how to ask where the bathroom was- again, not very useful while at home, and therefore in my mind not particularly useful. Yet there I was listening to those songs I once memorized as a teenager. Sitting at my computer desk, eyes scanning the songs’ lyrics, I started to realize I was beginning to get the gist of what had once been goobledygook to me.

Could I understand the entire song? Of course not. Could I get the hidden meanings, the cultural references? Not on your life. But could I pick out a word here and there nearly every sentence, and start to get an idea of what was being said?


It reminded me of being a pre-K kidlet struggling through a small book for my own bedtime because my parents had told me I should be able to read it on my own by then. It had been hard; the letters on the page had felt like impossible puzzles to work out, but I had managed it.

“Cool,” I said to the song lyrics, and that was about when I received an email from my university about study abroad.

More on that later.

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