Your Brain is a Leaky Sponge


Once again, I managed to completely abandon this blog for a seemingly endless period of time. I have some time on my hands now so I thought I’d write a little bit for old time’s sake (and for the learning pleasure of anyone who cares about what I have to say).

I spent the last year or so living with my girlfriend and we speak Japanese at least half of the time. We watch Japanese TV exclusively (we don’t actually have cable; we just use the internet for Japanese variety shows and dramas). We only listen to Japanese music. We eat a ton of Japanese food. For all intents and purposes, we live a Japanese life (we even have those little Japanese slippers from Mujirushi at the door to our apartment).

I feel guilty saying this, but my Japanese study fell to the back burner during all this… OK fine, I just stopped doing it all together. Lack of motivation? Maybe. I lost steam after passing N2. I know I used to talk a lot about studying like a champion and never losing steam and that having motivation was half the battle and you know what…. I was right about all that. There is no great learning experience quite like being on both ends of your own lesson.

I gave myself permission to slack because I have Japanese flying at me from so many directions that I assumed the fluency would just naturally seep in without rigorous study. I was also right about that. Fluency DOES seep in. Literacy, on the other hand, leaks out.

My girlfriend considers me to be basically fluent in Japanese. But in the past year I lost something important: the ability to read a lot of the more complex kanji. When you don’t look at those kanji every day and feed them, bath them, and nurture them like cute fuzzy little gerbils, they will die…. And then you have to go back to the pet store for new gerbils, and those gerbils are just as expensive as the originals and they take just as much time and energy to raise.

So, in retrospect, I can speak Japanese really well now (if I can take a moment to be a little self-appreciative) and I no longer have to struggle or even concentrate to understand naturally spoken Japanese, but I can’t really read a novel any more. I can read manga (that’s basically just colloquial Japanese written in speech bubbles anyway) and I can read anything that might pop up at the bottom of the screen on a variety show. I know just the right Japanese to live and have fun in a world where reading at a high level is not necessary (don’t get too carried away by my self-depreciation here… it’s not like I CAN’T read…)

To sum it all up, fluency can come to you naturally and comfortably and it will hang around for a while as long as you stay immersed. Literacy on the other hand leaks out of your brain like soapy water out of a sponge that is sitting on the kitchen counter. You have to keep the sponge wet if you want to keep cleaning dishes with it.

Epilogue – I hope this post was as fun for you as some of my old ones. It’s been a while, so I’m rusty. Hopefully more to come!


かりゆし58 & My Progress Update

My Okinawan friend recently introduced me to a really amazing Okinawan band called Kariyushi 58, and I’ve been listening to their music non-stop for close to a month now. I don’t always have something well thought out or profound to say about Japanese (to be perfectly honest, I’ve been distracted this week so I haven’t studied as much as I planned) so today I’m just going to post a few YouTube Videos of the songs I’ve been listening to, I hope you like them.

This last one is a live version, and I feel like it really gives you a good feel for their personality and spirit. These guys are really uplifting.



I finished the book “上級へのとびら” last week, and I moved on to the second book on my plan: “日本文化を読む”. So far, it’s pushing me harder than any text book I’ve used so far. The vocab is really intense, using mostly kanji I’ve never even seen before. I’m 2 chapters into the book and i’ve learned over 300 new words already! I just hope I can remember them all…










「パズルは普通に四角だから、北、南、東、西のことなどを集中しながら解決するんだけど、文はそんなに複雑じゃない。文はレシピのように、始めから終わりまで、予算された順番に沿って作る物だ。例えば、ラーメンを作ってるでしょう?ラーメンは、醤油を入れるけど、正しい時に入れなきゃならないでしょう?味噌汁を作った後とか、水を沸いた後とか、豚肉を焼く前とかね。文は同じだ。例えば『I like to eat ramen』という文が『I like to ramen eat』に変わると、意味は一気になくなるよね。だから、『Eat』の順番は『To』を入れる後、『ラーメン』の前だ。醤油と同じように。理由は分からないけど、お前も醤油の順番は化学的に分からないだろう?ただ、これは順番だと分かってるね」話を続いた。色々な話題を含めた。




Personality Split

One of my friends told me over the weekend that my personality changes when I speak English and when I speak Japanese. She had never heard me speak English before and she is bilingual, so she’s probably a very good judge of personality in speech styles. We were speaking Japanese most of the evening, and I was speaking my normal “silly Japanese”, which is when I purposely fake a Yankee accent or Osaka-Ben. She told me it sounded “funny” when I did that, but I chose not to take that to heart. I like the way I speak Japanese, it reflects just how I feel when I’m speaking it: silly happy.

When I spoke English however, she said that my personality seemed to completely change. She said I had a “sekinin-kan” or “a sense of responsibility”. Well, I always have a sense of responsibility, that’s just the kind of person I am. Is it possible that the way I speak Japanese, while serving the purpose raising the spirits of those around me and allowing me to have the most fun possible, might also make me look… irresponsible? Do I sound like a delinquent when I speak Japanese? Do I sound stupid? Do I care?

There’s a pretty obvious reason for this split. When you speak a foreign language naturally, you are forging a speech style. I am not a native Japanese speaker. Japanese isn’t my base language. My real self is still “in English”, and it probably always will be. So when I’m speaking English, that’s the real me. That’s the “my focus isn’t on language but content” me. When I’m speaking Japanese, I have to concentrate on my language, almost more so than on content. I have to actively pursue natural sounding Japanese. I choose my incorrect conjugations, contractions and slurs very carefully to sound like a real Japanese person. No one really speaks like the text books teach. The real stuff is learned on the street, but unless you grew up there that stuff won’t come naturally to you. You have to make it a part of your speech, and that takes concentration.

I actually sat down one day and thought “what is the best way for me to talk in Japanese to try to express my personality appropriately?” I consider myself to be a little bit wild, a little bit strong headed, and a little bit reckless. I do what I want, I follow my dreams, and I don’t take no for an answer. I don’t like to be controlled and I face challenge with a grin. What’s the best speech style for a person like that? Yankee-Talk, right?

Well, now I’m not so sure. Now that a real Japanese person has told me that my personality seems different in English, I’m realizing that from a pure language standpoint, maybe this speech-style doesn’t work for me. I don’t mess up English usually. I don’t say things like “ain’t” or “got nothin’”, and I don’t talk like a gangsta. Yet I don’t feel like the gentle calm soul that correct careful Japanese portrays.

A real “Badass” is tough on the inside, not just on the outside. A real badass wouldn’t be thinking about “how do I talk to sound badass”. He talks how he talks, and if anyone has a problem with it they can get lost. Well, I have to think about how to talk, so maybe I should just speak Japanese like I speak English: correctly and with a “sekinin-kan”.

Posting Schedule

Happy Friday!

I hope you’ve all been enjoying my blog recently. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it. It’s been a real growth experience for me to put a lot of energy into examining my own study habits, strategies and life style here on this blog, and I hope it’s been equally useful and informative for you guys. If I can help one person get better at Japanese, then I’m happy with my work.

The last couple months of intense blogging on my part are all thanks to a nice long winter break, but now 2nd Semester is starting and I’ll be a lot busier with schoolwork, my Japanese tutoring Job, and my full time job. I’ve never had a real plan for when and how I post, I just sort of put stuff up whenever I want, but I think it’s about time I make a schedule so you’ll all know when to expect new material. I’ll be working my hardest to post regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week from now on. I might occasionally write a bonus post on a weekend, but I’m not making any promises about that.

Please continue to enjoy my blog! Good luck studying!

Don’t Forget Where You Come From

It’s easy to lose yourself in the quest for complete language immersion. I’ve said recently, more often than just once or twice, that I almost exclusively listen to Japanese music, watch Japanese TV, and read Japanese Magazines, books and Manga. Is this good for my Japanese? Of course, it’s made me nearly fluent without ever actually going to Japan for a substantial amount of time. But is this good for my identity as an American? I’m beginning to think that it’s not.

I live in Chicago. My family is Caucasian. I don’t live in a heavily Japanese neighborhood. Almost all of my friends are Japanese and somehow I’ve managed to spend more than 50% of each day living in a virtual Japan. I now identify more with Japanese people than I do with Americans.

I see people talking loudly on the train and I look at them out of the corner of my eye thinking “jeez they’re loud. They have no sense of social proximity.” I have found that I now have trouble establishing and maintaining strong eye contact when I’m speaking to someone; I have to break away and look at something else for a moment.  I am now overly sensitive to word choice over content.

This is just a small list of Japanese habits and thought patterns that I’ve inherited recently that don’t work particularly well in American society. Of course there are some benefits as well, as any culture has aspects that one would do well to learn from.

For instance, I am now much more polite. I can tell what someone’s thinking without them speaking, simply by reading their gestures, tone of voice and posture. I know what someone really wants to say from hearing them “non-answer.” I have a stronger work ethic and a deeper sense of hierarchical respect than I used to.

Now, all of these things I’m complaining about, anyone can look at and say “that’s not a big deal, get over it.” But here’s where the problem lies.

Let’s pretend I meet an American girl, and she says “do you like this singer?” and I say “I’ve never heard him before, who is he?” She says “OMG, he’s at the top of the charts right now! How could you NOT know him?” and since I am now more Japanese than American, I think “you don’t mean the Oricon Charts do you? Unless it’s Oricon I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What’s your favorite TV show?”

“I don’t watch American TV”

“Who’s your favorite actor?”

“Kimura Takuya”

“Who the heck is that?”

I don’t relate to my own people easily any more. These are superficial examples, I’m aware of that. But every new relationship starts on the superficial level and then moves deeper.

“Why do you love Japan so much?”

“there are so many reasons, it would take a week to explain.”

“ok, what’s not good enough about America?”

“I don’t remember any more.”

People like me are no longer full on American, and we’re not Japanese. We fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s really not a place in the middle to be. It’s like deciding that your best place in life is the hallway between the waiting room and the examination room at the doctor’s office. You can’t stay there forever, either go home or get a checkup.

There’s nothing wrong with loving another culture and the people who live it. There is something wrong with forcing your way into that culture when you can’t stay there forever.

We need to learn how to love Japan as real Americans (if America is where you’re from), not as a proxy-Japanese.

Are You Japanese?

It was my friend FK’s birthday yesterday and one of his friends (who I’ve met once) invited me to a surprise party for him at a Chinese restaurant. She told us all to be there by 7 PM because she would be arriving with FK at around 7:30. I arrived a few minutes early, and since I didn’t want to be the first person to arrive in a group of people who I mostly didn’t know, I sat in my car and stared at the clock. When 5 minutes passed, I decided to finally enter the restaurant, only to find that there was only one other person there: KR, a guy I’ve met a few times. We filled out a birthday card while we waited for the hostess to seat us at our table for 14, and naturally I forgot how to write the kanji for “birthday.” Where’s my electric dictionary when I need it?

Our huge round table was in a special room towards the back of the restaurant, and in this room were two more empty, huge round tables. We sat down and one by one people began to trickle in. It seemed to me that KR also didn’t know most of these people yet, so I got the pleasure of experiencing the “nice to meet you” moment alongside him. Have you ever had that moment in Japanese? Here’s how it goes. (Please keep in mind that this is not word for word how it went, but a rough translation from Japanese into English)

ME: Um, KR-san, is this your first time meeting this guy too?

KR: Yeah, I’ve never met him before.

Both of us half stand up, hunched over like we have stomach aches.

KR: Ah, Ni…Nice to meet you. I’m KR.

Stranger: Nice to meet you, I’m XX.

Ok, here’s what I’m inevitably thinking at this point. Very soon it’ll be my turn to introduce myself and exchange pleasantries. There are two ways this can go: one way I look like a jerk, and one way I probably don’t (although who really knows?). If this new Japanese guy, XX, introduces himself to me before I introduce myself to him, he’ll definitely speak English to me. That’s obvious, I mean, I’m white and since he has never met me before, he has absolutely no reason to think I speak Japanese. If he introduces himself to me in English, but I respond in Japanese, I look like a grade-A jerk. He’ll think his English wasn’t good enough for me to bother listening to or responding to, and he’ll think that I have decided my Japanese is better than his English. I’ll look selfish and rude. After that attempt by him to speak English with me, if I start speaking Japanese later, it’ll only seem strange and forced – like I am struggling to practice Japanese and not like I just naturally speak it and belong to the group that I am here with.

My solution is to introduce myself to XX before he has a chance to introduce himself to me, and I do it in Japanese so there won’t be an uncomfortable “oh yeah by the way I speak Japanese” moment later on.

ME: Nice to meet you, I’m Elliott.

XX: EH! Ni-nice to meet you! I’m XX. Um… are you… Japanese?

Did he just ask me if I’m Japanese? Oh my… this is now officially an awesome day. He has no idea how happy he just made me. He didn’t just say “wow, your Japanse is good!” which is how Japanese people usually compliment a racially non-Japanese person who speaks Japanese. He actually thought I am Japanese. This was a first for me. I’m not going to lie, it felt really good. What am I learning this language for if I don’t want to sound like a real Japanese person, right? It just means I’m accomplishing my goals as planned.

ME: Nah, I’m American.

XX: Ah, yeah that makes sense, of course.

I don’t like to give more information than that unless asked. Usually I’ll be asked why I speak Japanese (since I didn’t grow up there), and then when I say that it’s simply because I study obsessively and have a lot of Japanese friends they will usually ask me why I’m interested in Japanese. There are a lot of answers to that question, but the big one that I like to give (that’s easiest to talk about and easiest for people to relate to) is that I did karate all through my childhood, and studying Japanese was the natural progression of things when I went to high school.

The rest of our party arrives, all Japanese, and half of them I have never met. I repeat the situation above with each of them (they don’t all think I’m Japanese, but I introduce myself just the same). By this point, the other two parties have arrived. They’re also Japanese. Is this a special room for Japanese customers? I am now the only American in a room of maybe 30 Japanese, all speaking Japanese. I have never felt more like I was in Japan than I did last night… and we were in a Chinese restaurant.

Now, usually my Japanese friends like to speak English with me at least some of the time. But when in a room full of Japanese people, I guess the mood just takes over and they forget about it. They were at home. The whole situation became somewhat of a “we’ll speak Japanese normally with each other. Elliott will sink or swim” scenario. Well, lucky for me, I live for sink or swim. This is what I’ve always wanted. How do I measure up in a room full of Japanese people who aren’t slowing down their language to my level? Do I understand? Can I participate?

If I had to grade myself on last night, I’d give myself an 90%. I had to adapt myself to the situation. I sat back and just listened for a while to get a feel for the flow of conversation. Eventually I began to interject into the conversation, and almost every time I opened my mouth, everyone stopped to listen to me. Actually, this was kind of intimidating. But I can’t blame them, they were curious and excited to hear me speak Japanese. They also probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t being interrupted or confused by peripheral conversation.

I messed up my grammar a couple times, I had to maneuver around a few vocabulary words that I didn’t remember, and I occasionally didn’t understand what people were talking about. That last problem could very easily be due to a lack of context, however, since some of these people already knew each other. I won’t take off too many points for that. I’d say that overall, I didn’t sink.

I was in the middle of saying something when a 10 year old Japanese girl needed to sneak behind me to get out to the bathroom. When she walked by me she said,

「すみません」 excuse me.

A little girl I don’t know said “excuse me” in Japanese. She thought I was Japanese too.

The waitress came by and asked me if I wanted more water.

“oh, yes please. Thank you. And can I please have another napkin?” I answered in English.

“Wow! Your English is good!” Said one of my Japanese friends (in Japanese).

Everyone stopped and looked at her. We all laughed.

For the first time all night, I didn’t know what to say.


If you’re in a situation where you’re a little bit intimidated by the amount and level of Japanese being spoken, just sit back and relax. Let it come to you. They will understand your efforts to learn and practice Japanese. If you mess something up, just keep going. They won’t stop you and say “Jeez, I can’t believe u screwed that up. You suck at Japanese.” They’ll keep listening politely, even if you aren’t making any sense. So talk, have fun, and jump in the deep end. You won’t drown.

One Final Note:

I am not making fun of any of the people I have described in this post. They are all my friends, and I talk about them with the utmost affection. Obviously, when I say that I think it’s cool that they ask me if I’m Japanese, I don’t mean that they are asking me if I’m racially Japanese. I mean that they’re asking if I grew up in Japan. I write about this topic from a place of humility, and realize that while I do consider myself to be an advanced language learner, I do not consider myself completely fluent.