What Kind of Japanese do you Want to Learn?

...but why would I want to stop sounding cute?
…but why would I want to stop sounding cute?

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.

6 thoughts on “What Kind of Japanese do you Want to Learn?

  1. You’d be surprised at how much your interests can adapt when you become involved in another culture. I was never an avid reader in high school or college for English literature (though I loved to write), but as soon as I was able to read novels in Japanese, it became my biggest hobby and I love it.

    As for me, I love the Japanese accent, so why wouldn’t I want to acquire it? Especially Tohoku’s accent. I hope my accent becomes native level one day. My husband’s English is native level, and his accent is native as well. When I met him, it wasn’t that way, and I remember how charmed I was by his cute accent, which I don’t even remember now! Ha. So I see your point. If only we could hear our own accents from the ears of native speakers and make the decision ourselves. I think actresses like Rola, despite growing up in Japan, keep their non-native accent (or perhaps she’s just doing ぶりっ子?) because they find it alluring–which it is. Her accent is so cute. The choice is yours!

    It’s totally fine to not aspire to a native level. It sounds like what you’re looking for is comprehension/conversation fluency, in which you can engage in the things in Japanese you do love and have conversations with people you meet who speak Japanese. I like how you’re keeping an open mind to where Japanese might lead you.

    1. Thank you so much for your input. Of course there is currently a lot I don’t “know” about Japanese (I put “know” in quotes since I am really talking about 雰囲気 rather than quantifiable knowledge). For example a friend tells me how much she loves the Kyoto accent. I can’t hear it, of course. Wondering what it would be like if I could hear it is like wondering what a color other than the ones present in the current world might be like.

      I certainly want to get to the (currently rather distant) stage where I can hear such things, and how that will affect me when I do get there is something I can’t know at all until I do. So really anything I say now is just “notes along the way” rather than any kind of final statement of anything. But I guess that is true of any stage of life.

      Since I am not likely to be living in Japan, I am rather guessing I wouldn’t be able to reach native level anyway. But who knows. I am not saying “I don’t want to reach native level because I can’t” I am really saying that right now it doesn’t seem to be on my even-long-term agenda. But then I didn’t choose Japanese, Japanese chose me and Japanese may indeed give me different orders later on!

      When I said I don’t think my Japanese language partners can reach native level, I wasn’t meaning that such a thing can’t be done – just that they were probably not going to achieve it at the rate they were going – and that what they were doing was in fact eminently worthwhile and also charming (and charming is important too).

      Your talk of accents also makes me think – people say “I want to speak Japanese (or English or whatever) without an accent”. But of course no one does that. Native speakers all have accents. I spoke a few words of my tiny Spanish to a Spanish person and she immediately told me I have a Mexican accent (I live in Mexico). I am sure I have a lot worse things than a Mexican accent (my Spanish makes my Japanese look good and even my English sounds non-native), but it is clear that if I ever did become fluent in Spanish (very unlikely – I am not in love with Spanish as I am with Japanese and I am a poor language learner) I would speak with at least something of a Mexican accent.

      I wonder – what-accented English does your husband speak? Do you speak with a Tohoku accent?

      Sorry to be inquisitive. I do find these things so exciting and fascinating!

      PS – I want to be able to hear Rola’s non-native accent! Things like that are so interesting! And if it is cute – well I just need to hear it!

      1. My husband speaks with a standard, North eastern American accent. He does have a few problems. If you know him well, you might notice he can’t pronounce the “y” in “year” and it sounds like “ear”. I think those kind of little nuances may take a lot of training (professional accent training) and/or looking into how the mouth actually works and really focusing on fixing those little mistakes in one’s accent. But other than that, his accent is really good and most people ask if he was born in America. If I could get to that level with my Japanese, I’d be really happy. Then I may take the extra step to focus in on the little nuances to perfect my accent. And he’s still working on his accent too.

        I try to through shadowing my sources! But my influences for Tohoku accent are mostly from television, which are mostly actresses who train to have that kind of accent, not native-born with that accent. I don’t live in Tohoku so there aren’t many sources to absorb the accent from. My mother-in-law and husband from Tohoku both don’t really have a Tohoku accent. His mother is originally from Akita.

        If you’re curious, here’s one of the variety show episodes she’s on: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1cvmlc_140221-%E7%AC%91%E7%A5%9E%E6%A7%98%E3%81%AF%E7%AA%81%E7%84%B6%E3%81%AB_lifestyle

        This is the most recent show I’ve seen with her in it.

  2. That really is so admirable. Little individual pronunciation problems are not terribly uncommon even in native speakers, I believe. I have heard, for example, more than one native English speaker who pronounces the word “specific” with a silent “s”. That should make it sound like “Pacific” since English neutralizes the unstressed vowel, but there is a minute hesitation where the “s” ought to be, so it sounds different from the ocean. The minute hesitation seems to indicate that the speaker knows the “s” is there and can’t quite pronounce it. But they don’t have trouble with “Pacific” I believe. Language is curious, isn’t it?

    I will take a look at the show though I won’t be able to hear the accent, I am afraid.

    Hearing really is my short suit – I have seen an American movie with Spanish subtitles and I am afraid I was glad of the subtitles to help me catch all the words even in English (and my Spanish is terrible). But – I shall ganbarify with Japanese!

    Whatever evetually happens about learning a native accent, I definitely mean to get to the point where I can hear different native accents.

  3. Whenever I learn a language my goal is to be able to speak, understand, and to be understood. I don’t really get to hung up on having a native like accent. In fact, I even think accents are a good thing as it shows that one is learning or has learned a foreign language.

    1. For people learning several languages that is probably especially true – it must be hard to develop a really native-like accent in more than a second language.

      For those who are having a “love affair” with Japanese (I would count myself – I sometimes date other languages but I am not very serious about them!) I think the idea of wanting to really enter Japanese – as more than merely a “second language” arises.

      It arises for me, and this piece was kind of thinking out my own attitudes – especially whether speaking natively was part of that “mergence” I definitely do want. Sorry if this is a bit vague and abstract!

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