School in Tokyo

Thanks to my friends at Google Maps, few words are needed to explain just how fantastic the location of my school in Tokyo was.

My School in Tokyo

  • Giant red circle = my school
  • Thing that looks like the Eiffel Tower = Tokyo Tower (for an explination of why Japan felt the need for its own version of the Eiffel Tower, see here see here.)

  • Big grey blob = Tokyo
  •  A = Tokyo Tower

Pretty great, right?

 The Tokyo Language Center is a school for international students who want to learn Japanese, with a focus on passing the Japanese Literacy Test (JPLT). There are five levels to the JPLT, level one being the highest (which most students of Japanese, including myself, dream of attaining). Once you have a level one cert under your belt not only are you considered to be pretty fluent in the language, you are also eligible to study full-time at a Japanese university - something which a lot of the students in my class were aiming to do. The test is not an easy thing to pass by any means; it is suggested that students need to spend at least nine-hundred hours in total to have a chance of passing. Cramming over 2,000 kanji, 10,000 words, and a hell of a lot of grammar into your head is no walk in the park.

Sadly, I haven't reached that level yet. On my first day in the school I sat a short exam to gauge my level of Japanese, and it was determined that, with a bit of help, I'd be able for the level 3 exam. I have to say, I was pretty chuffed with myself. Fair enough, I had already had six weeks in Suwa, but there were no formal lessons included in that trip and, despite what is commonly thought, you can't become fluent just by living in a country; there is a lot of work and study involved, especially in the case of a language such as Japanese, which is so different from our own.

With other Germanic and Romantic tongues the vocabulary and grammar tend to be somewhat similar, whereas Japanese and English are worlds (or at least continents) apart. I am by no means saying that other European languages are easier to learn, but that the method of learning them is quite different. In the case of French, it is possible to learn a lot simply by listening; the similarities between it and English will allow you to pick up the gist of what is being said most of the time. Even if the word doesn't sound exactly the same, there will generally be some correlation that helps to either to understand the word or remember its meaning once you discover it. A good example is the word for 'landing' - 'terrissage'. On first hearing it might not make much sense, but once you examine it a bit more carefully it become obvious: terrissage=terrace=ground=landing. No such luck with Japanese.

In Japan, if you don't know the vocabulary specific to a topic, understanding anything can be quite a struggle. True, there are plenty of occasions where the Japanese word for something has been taken directly from English e.g pi-ku-ni-ku is the word for picnic, ka-me-ra the word for camera, etc. but this tends to apply only to nouns, and even then only ones that have been recently invented/introduced to Japan. When it came to discussing things such as politics, history (which seems to be a pretty common topic of conversation), directions, local cuisine, cinema, novels, etc. I found myself pretty lost without A) my manic hand-gestures and impromptu games of charades, which were the basis of a lot of my communication, and B) my dictionary. Despite the fact that I was learning tonnes every day, there was no denying the fact that a lot of the time I simply hadn't a clue. At times it was a bit disheartening.

There is this supposition that if you spend any amount of time living in a country for purposes other than a holiday that you will come home practically fluent; many of my friends and relatives seem to think, despite my insistence to the contrary, that I might as well be a native speaker at this stage, when the reality is that I have a long, long way to go. Not that that is a bad thing; I love studying Japanese, but it is frustrating when people suppose you can attain a proficiency that takes natives a lifetime to achieve in a number of weeks. It belittles the hard work that all language students have to devote to their studies, be they in their own country or abroad, and it piles on the pressure. I can remember lots of times when I though I was a bit of an eejit for not being better at Japanese, though myself a fool for having been in Tokyo for four weeks and still be struggling with basic communication. Going to the country and using the language everyday is certainly the best way to learn, but it doesn't happen overnight.

Oh dear. This post was, in fact, supposed to be a basic overview of my time in school in Tokyo, but I seem to have gotten a little side-tracked. Oh well, I'd better get started on my next one so!