Language: Just use it

「まもなく帰ります。」(Mamonaku kaerimasu; I will humbly be returning home) I told my host mother over the phone. Even now, I still appreciate the repetition of train announcements for helping me pick up vocabulary words. But during my study abroad in Shizuoka, I didn’t quite have a handle on 敬語 (keigo; honorific language used with superiors/customers) to know what and what not to use in daily conversation. まもなく(mamonaku) was a word I often heard as the train would approach stops, and I understood it contextually to mean “soon”. So I naturally thought I would immediately apply my newly learned word when the opportunity came. I wanted my host mother to know I would be home soon, so I combined the verb for returning home (帰ります; kaerimasu) with まもなく. My host mother didn’t correct me and I felt proud of myself.

It was only a couple years later that I realized that what I had said was strange, even though the meaning made sense. Of course it was natural for train company employees to say it, because they were addressing passengers. However, my relationship with my host mother is more like family, so to use a formal word like まもなく came off as stiff and awkward. I should have said 「もうすぐ帰ります」(mousugu kaerimasu; I’ll be returning home soon), as もうすぐ (mousugu) is used in daily conversation.

I’ve made several errors like this that I eventually noticed or was corrected on. I officially began learning Japanese 14 years ago. I admit that I have not always been consistent with my studies, but I’ve passed the JLPT N3 and navigate daily life with what I know (more on my Japanese journey to come in future posts). One thing I have certainly been consistent about for a long time is my eagerness to use Japanese when I see an opportunity to do so.

What if I say the wrong word? Sometimes I do.

What if I forget a word? In a recent video chat with my aforementioned host mother, I briefly blanked on the word for last year (去年).

What if my grammar is not correct? As long as you can be understood, it doesn’t matter.

Reading about Japanese matters, but only by applying it do I know if I truly understand how to use it. It won’t happen if I stay in my head, worrying about getting it right. People for the most part are patient and just happy to see you trying. And if they don’t understand what you said? Just try something else. Another time during my study abroad, I didn’t know the word for envelope (封筒; fuutou) and proceeded to make a rectangle with my hands, describing a “white thing you put letters in”. Eventually the bank teller got it.

Gesture. Show a picture (I do this more often now and will ask students to do so as well). Whatever it takes. If nothing else, it’s just another opportunity to learn. The people whom you are studying in order to communicate with have a lot to teach you.

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