Un momento… Estoy hablando japonés!


(context here, if you have never seen the original movie)

Yesterday, a friend emailed me about a New Year Party thrown by some friends of hers. I hastily misread the description of said friends from 狂言 (きょうげん: stage actors) to 狂信 (きょうしん: religious fanatics) and was, understandably, slightly less excited by the prospect than I should have been.

I could of course play that silly anecdote as yet another illustration of my terminally inept Japanese skills. But in the end, even though I had to quickly look up 狂信, the fact I instinctively knew its reading and felt confident enough to make that mistake makes me feel surprisingly happy about the shape of my Japanese.

About 8 years ago, I decided to learn Japanese. Or more exactly: I hurriedly learnt a dozen Japanese words, fragments of grammar and notions of kana reading, landed in Japan, promptly got drowned in an ocean of linguistic helplessness, then decided that, one day, a visit to my local bank would not turn into low-grade stand-up comedy (at my expense).

When you think about it, 8 years is a pathetically long time for someone who still can’t read a newspaper without a dictionary (and lots of spare time)… Slightly less shameful, I guess, if you account for my constantly travelling back and forth over that period. Also: while I have come to appreciate countless aspects of Japanese culture and developed a perverted obsession with matters of kanji writing, I did not grow up obsessed with Japan. I never had a strong personal interest in learning this particular language (or living here, for that matter) and might just as happily have taken on Russian (maybe will, who knows). It slowly grew from a mix of absolute happenstance, necessity, frustration and stubbornness when confronted with near-impossible challenges (yes: I am the kind of asshole who will devote a sizable share of a decade to learning a language, just because: fuck-it-I-can-do-it).

Back then, when rudimentary conversations with non-English-speaking friends would ineluctably veer over to the finer points of local meteorology and gastronomy for lack of a more diversified language language skill set… Or, not long after, when I had just enough vocabulary to communicate with love interests of the time, but not enough to avoid recurrent bouts of misunderstandings, poorly expressed feelings and intense frustration… At the end of many a botched attempt at elevating the complexity level of the conversation, or giving up on domestic arguments due to the impossibility of properly conveying my point of view, I vowed to one day reach that point where speaking Japanese would seem natural, if far from perfect, and conversations would not be inherently driven by a tiny subset of words and concepts. And I knew I would get there eventually.

In my head, I always had that image, perfectly summed up in the above clip from the (actually quite funny) 2000-era remake of Bedazzled: I would one day wake up and innately know how to say “No thanks, I’m allergic to shellfish” in the local idiom.

OK, so maybe not literally. But after all, if you omit a few thousand days in between, it nearly happened like that.

Anyway, I have not passed any proficiency tests recently, nor particularly improved; in fact, the past four years have been focussed on a lot of other things before Japanese (I probably spent even more time building Japanese-learning tools than using them).

Therefore, for no particular reason, in this end of year, I thought I would stop two seconds, and bask in the fact that I can indeed have natural conversations in Japanese (overlooking my terminally bad grammar, countless mistakes and occasional ‘huh?’ moments) and can even manage to misread my emails the way a (very, very drunk) native conceivably would.

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