I rather unusually spent some time browsing around about-Japanese websites recently, and found some interesting things.
One was that, looking at sites that recommend partial immersion (as we do), there is often quite a strong desire to reach fully-native levels of Japanese and lose all trace of accent.
One prominent blogger, speaking of older Japanese learners, said:
While [their] Japanese is “good”, their pronunciation still sounds very foreign, they make many mistakes, and they don’t yet have that natural flow. I believe that you, the next generation of Japanese speakers, will be different. You won’t be satisfied at average. You will join the ranks of the few and bask in the rewards.
It is a laudable aim, but it caused me to pause and think, what kind of Japanese do I actually want? Do I want to sound completely native? My English doesn’t sound completely native, and it is the only language I currently speak well. I don’t pass as native anywhere – in English-speaking countries, strangers always ask me what country I come from.
I have spent time on language exchanges, helping Japanese people with their English. Some of them also express a desire to sound completely native. I do not believe they will ever achieve that. They are too far from it and not immersed enough to learn the hundreds of thousands of tiny things that need to become second-nature before you sound native. Heck, I haven’t absorbed them myself (that “heck” was a conscious affectation. I don’t naturally use these native colloquialisms!).
Also – and I am going to get very controversial here in some folks’ eyes – do they really want to lose all the little cute Japanese mannerisms and ways of expressing things that give them such charm?
Now I know a lot of people do. I have seen an English-speaking blogger touch precisely this point (that Japanese people, even if they will correct you sometimes, won’t correct the things they find cute). Well, I can see how some people might not want to sound cute. Personally, I spend a lot of time trying to sound cute in English. Why would I want to throw away my natural cuteness in Japanese?
All this comes down, I guess, to the question of “what are your real aims in learning Japanese?” For some people they are very practical and quantifiable. For others they are less clear. One thing that I think can happen is that having started on a course of improving one’s Japanese (which of course is what you have to do for a long time before you get even remotely competent), that quest becomes endless. Like rich businessmen who have made enough money that there is really nothing they actually want that they can’t buy, but continuing to make more money has become an end in itself.
I am not criticizing this – either for businessmen or language learners. All ends are, in a sense, arbitrary. Wanting to make more money when you don’t need it is no more irrational than wanting to capture the opposing king in chess or wanting to hit a white ball into a hole (actually I can think of metaphysical symbolism in both those acts that is lacking in money-making, but even so…)
What do I want out of Japanese? I am still not sure. But I don’t think it necessarily entails speaking Japanese in such a way that people think I am a native if they have their eyes shut.* As much as anything, I want to enter a new soul-world, and one that to me feels closer to my real native one than the English soul-world does.
In many ways it is a kind of rebirth. Many of my activities have reverted to a more child-like level. If I can’t watch a show in Japanese, I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. I don’t do those things in English any more. In certain – quite large – areas of my life I now act as if Japanese was Language per se and there is no “other language” to fall back on.
I want to communicate in Japanese and experience a Japanese way of seeing. All this entails getting a lot better than I am. It does not necessarily entail native level. I am interested to see how Japanese changes my thinking and in some cases how it enables thinking that feels natural to me but is inexpressible in English.
Currently I watch anime for children and read children’s books. In a way the logical progression would be to graduate to adult ones, but frankly – while I certainly want to get to a more sophisticated level than I am at now – I am not interested in adult books and movies in English, so why would I be in Japanese?
I express quite sophisticated thoughts in English, I guess. Do I want to express those same thoughts in Japanese? I am not sure. Maybe they will be different in Japanese. I am interested to see where Japanese leads me. Maybe Japanese will want me to attain native levels in all areas. Maybe it won’t. In Japan I was content to let Mother Japan lead me. I am also content to let Mother Japanese lead me. I am determined to improve my Japanese. I am not particularly determined to lose all trace of accent or even necessarily to read newspapers (which I don’t in English). I might want to keep a level of simplicity in Japanese that I have lost in English.
But in the end it won’t be what I want of Japanese, but what Japanese wants of me, that determines things, I rather fancy.
* I think my regular readers know me better than this, but just in case there was any room for misunderstanding, I am absolutely not saying that it doesn’t matter how you pronounce Japanese. Talking Japanese with English vowels, timing and intonation is horrible. Of course one should be striving for correct pronunciation. What I am saying here is really only addressed to very high-level perfectionism – and not to criticize it, only to give my own – probably quite odd – thoughts.