On learning languages


This term, I signed up for a program at my university where you get paired up with a language partner. How it works is, you teach your partner a language, and they teach you a language — it’s that simple. Expected commitment level is 90 minutes (so around 4 anime episodes) a week to meet up and talk. As you probably could’ve guessed, I’m going to be learning Japanese (and teaching English).

I actually have some formal education in Japanese. I took Japanese during grade 10 and 11 for my high school language requirement. Like most — if not all — students in the class, I was initially drawn to Japanese by anime. That, and I thought that Japanese would be easier for me to learn than French or Spanish. The biggest advantage for me was — and it still is — the fact that I can actually pronounce Japanese syllables, unlike the syllables in the other two languages.

IIRC, Japanese 10 was mostly about learning how to read and write in hiraganaと katakana (the Japanese alphabet), and Japanese 11 was about learning basic vocabulary (ex. water, to walk, and warm) and using them to form basic sentences (ex. I was walking.). Five years later, I’ve still retained most of hiragana, some katakana, and many of the nouns but not the verbs.

When I got the email announcing my language partner, Shiori, I became filled with excitement. I couldn’t wait to use all the Japanese phrases I’ve picked up from watching anime. If you’re reading this and thinking oh no, don’t worry — I soon realized that people wouldn’t actually talk like they do in K-On! in real life. Or, to be more accurate, I probably shouldn’t talk with a sociolect of that of certain Japanese school girls. And although I don’t know very much about keigo (casual, polite, and honorific/humble speech forms in Japanese) yet, being Korean, I can at least begin to discern when and how it should be used.

Story time. I have a friend named Saba who loves watching Korean dramas. She said that K-dramas were very popular in Iran when she grew up there and so she has seen a lot (so I guess it’s like me with anime). Anyways, she often talks to me in Korean, and it’s actually very impressive how well she pronounces and forms her sentences, especially when considering that she has learned it all from watching K-dramas. Now, unfortunately for her (but funny for me), she sometimes speaks Korean in the way that used to be spoken back when we had kings (for example, in English, it’s like saying thou hath). So like… I can understand her, but no one talks like that anymore.

The best example of this in anime that I can think of, is to how Kuroko talks in A Certain Scientific Railgun. She always ends her sentences with ” ~ desu wa” or ” ~ desu no”. Unfortunately, there really is no English equivalent for this. But from the fact that I’ve never heard any other anime character talk like this, it’s pretty clear to me that most people wouldn’t talk like this. And this probably the most important part of learning a language, getting a lot of exposure to hearing and using it.

The point is, me going into Japanese, I realize that I need to be mindful of the kind of speech forms I should be using. And I predict that this is going to be my biggest challenge for learning Japanese. I can’t even imagine a person with English as their first language trying to grasp keigo other than to just memorize it — at first, anyways — without really understanding the nuances of using different keigo to emphasis different positions in conversations.

Anyhow, going back to the language program, this week marked the start, and I got to meet with Shiori for the first time. Everything was great except for the fact that she doesn’t watch anime. Of course it’s not the end of the world, but it does suck not to have the other person interested in a topic that I have a lot to say in. I would have loved to hear opinions on certain trends and tropes in anime from a Japanese perspective. To be fair, though. we did talk a little bit about the recent overwhelming success of Kimi no Na wa. (your name). She even said that she liked The Girl Who Leapt Through Time better and I absolutely agreed. As for our future meets… I’m thinking that it’ll actually be beneficial for both of us to watch anime or a Japanese movie together. I guess we’ll see.

In other news, a few days after meeting with Shiori, I found out that one of my friends is Japanese and she actually did the same program last term to learn Korean. On top of this, she said that she watches a lot of anime! You have no idea how excited I was. This seemed so perfect. I got to talk to her for a bit about the similarities between the Japanese and Korean languages. This was both fascinating and insightful because, the way I learn Japanese, I always connect it to Korean. I realized then that the fastest way for me to learn Japanese would be to learn it from a Korean person.

There are these videos on YouTube made by an American-Korean guy named Dave that I absolutely love, one of which explores the differences in the pronunciation of words among English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese (and if you liked this video, there are tons more, like this one or this one). This has been one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen in my life, as I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of stuff but have never seen it being explored before. It’s also interesting to note that his video edits are in a Korean style. I don’t know how to explain it but you’ll definitely notice it when you watch the videos. Also — one last thing — I also found it intriguing that the shared language among his featured international friends was Korean.

As an aside, I want to briefly call attention to how widely the current American pop culture has embraced/appropriated the African American Vernacular English (lit, fam, dab, etc). And this influence, or rather a complicated relationship stemming from America’s history, is clearly seen in the attitudes of the millennials. What I’m trying to say is that these aren’t just words and slangs being used, they’re an integral part the current cultural landscape. I feel that this phenomenon is a byproduct of the social media age combined with… actually, I don’t think I’ve thought about this quite enough yet. And I don’t know if it would be accurate to say that hip hop was the major driving force, when hip hop as a culture has been progressing alongside society. You know… I think I’ll resort to saying that I’ll talk about this more at another time, but this is a great example illustrating the bidirectional relationship between language and culture. I would go as far as to say that the heart of a culture exists its language.

In terms of other languages I would like to learn one day, they would be Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Spanish because it sounds so expressive and has a completely different feel from Korean and English, and Chinese because so many people in Vancouver and in the world as a whole speak it — so it would be the most useful, as my employer would say. I don’t aspire to be a polyglot or anything but I do think I have a passion for language. Or, words and communicating in general. That certainly would explain why I’m into rap and blogging.

If there’s a reason to learn a new language, I would say that it’s the same reason for recommending travelling the world (and these two usually go together anyways). Travelling can be fun and full of new experiences but ultimately, it leads to gaining perspectives. And perspectives are a funny thing — you really don’t know what you don’t know. So let’s learn.


Image a screenshot from Kiniro Mosaic E01


2 thoughts on “On learning languages

  1. Brittany 22 Jan 2017 / 12:43 PM

    I’m currently doing a similar program at my university. I self studied for a while and formally took 4 semesters of Japanese prior to participating in the program but I’ve learned so much more from talking with native speakers regularly.

    Best of luck with your studies!


    • simoku 22 Jan 2017 / 6:03 PM

      Hi Brittany!
      Thanks for the encouragement and following my blog! I see that you can write whole posts in 日本語! すごいですね! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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