At face-value, learning a language is a respectable pursuit that broadens the mind and has the potential to change thinking patterns. While this may seem like a quintessential truth of second-language acquisition, the ability to communicate with a new group of people has much more unpredictable and profound implications than its novelty first implies.
My first foray into acquiring a second language has been an expedition that has made up nearly the last five years of my life. Japanese tossed me into a tornado of cultural misunderstandings, language flubs, humiliating and mortifying moments, and has spit me back out as a world traveler with a new appreciation of the human condition.
As a culturally ignorant American, my image of Japan before arriving was, of course, one of the two stereotypical caricatures of Japanese life. There’s a painfully exaggerated portrait of Japan’s capital Tokyo, which isn’t really Japan at all. This entails bright, colorful neon lights, endless electronic entertainment, wild club scenes, costumed anime-lovers in droves on the streets, and alleys lined with street food. It’s just as romantic and thrilling as you could ever imagine in your wildest dreams.
There’s also the Kyoto-inspired characterization of women in kimonos serving tea to samurais who only have time to sharpen their skills in bamboo forests, while politicians discuss feudal war strategy in wooden huts with paper doors. This silhouette of Japan is just as thin as the paper on those doors, but it’s the reality I chose to believe.
That is, until I arrived and realized that the Japan which Spirited Away had promised me was really just a concoction of thousands of years of history trying to find a compromise with the modern, western world. But more important than the setting, it turns out, was the people. I tossed aside my silly notions of what Japan “is” and tried to get down and dirty with Japanese people. I got so deeply entrenched in learning their language and opening communication that I ended up alienating my wife and creating a distance between me, her, and the Japanese that was more than just a trial in our marriage.
Despite the sacrifices that I made, the Japanese people continued to reject me and hide their true humanity. I grew tired of conversations about favorite Japanese foods and whether or not Americans know what chopsticks are. Talks about things “over there” in America started to make me furious, and at one point, I considered how big of a waste not just the last few years of my life had been pursuing this language, but also the years leading up to the beginning of my study.
It got dark. My wife was too lonely and decided to go back to America for a while. I was alone, miserable, confused, angry, and sad. But I had never given up, and I decided that such a dark time was not the right time to start giving up. I reached out to the local community of non-Japanese teachers, and through them made new friends who shared my struggles.
But the true miracle arrived when I started meeting the Japanese folks who decided to spend their time with a wily bunch of rogue globetrotters like us. I met real humans who decided not to mold to the golden Japanese standard. These people stood out from the crowd, despite their inclination from childhood not to be the nail that gets hammered down. It’s a courageous thing to be Japanese and walk a path that’s your own – it’s ingrained in the education system to teach children to walk the one that everyone else is walking.
And yet, there stood among my friends a free-spirited single mom, a young Japanese girl who just came out of the closet and discovered the acceptance and love of her foreign friends, a young man who was unafraid to profess his love for his soon-to-be wife and spoke freely of his ambitions and motivations, and a world-traveler who found herself comfortable in her own skin. All Japanese, and all moving against the grain.
While they all speak formidable English, it was through our Japanese conversations that I learned the value of learning the language I’d been struggling to grasp for years. We had conversations about societal issues, the struggles of being something that others don’t accept, worries, fears, dreams, memories, experiences: these were times that no one wanted to end. My wife came back, shared these wonderful times with me, and a smile returned to my face.
As it turns out, it’s not the silly surface aspects of language learning that bring value to communication. It’s the people and what’s inside them, their darkest secrets and brightest ideas, their hopes, their sacrifices, and their love. Certainly, we use words to hear, to take in the world around us, and to comprehend, but it’s a truly great moment when language learning transcends words.