Athena Pult is a junior majoring in history. She spend the past semester abroad in Japan.
Last semester, I studied at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. I am a mixed-race third generation Japanese American, and I saw study abroad as an opportunity to learn more about my family’s heritage and connect to the Japanese relatives that I had never been able to meet before. However, before leaving I was feeling anxious about the state of my Japanese skills. I have always struggled with learning languages, and though I had taken two years of Japanese at Oberlin, I still felt unprepared for any real-world applications. Fortunately, I found that my Japanese improved a lot during my time abroad. While it’s still definitely a struggle, having studied in Japan has given me new confidence and enthusiasm in my language studies.
Living with a host family allowed me to practice my Japanese every single day. My host sister was seven, so we would watch children’s television together and she would impatiently explain any plot points that I hadn’t picked up. My host mother especially enjoyed telling me about her job as a doula, which allowed me to learn a lot more vocabulary about pregnancy and childbirth than I would ever have learned in a classroom. On Sundays, my host mother and host sister would spend all day at church, so my host father would usually pick up some beer and sashimi from the supermarket and we would talk about American action movies. Living with this family allowed me to learn more about Japanese home life and work on my speaking skills.
It was also exciting when I was able to use my Japanese to communicate with my relatives. I was embarrassed of my Japanese, but they all assured me that they could understand me fine and they were thrilled that I was so committed to learning about my mother’s heritage. The relationships I formed with them would not have been possible without my language study, and they were definitely worth all the late nights studying and failed kanji quizzes.
As somebody who is not a natural foreign language learner, I’m so grateful that I still decided to go abroad. My advice to those who are nervous about their language level is to approach the experience with an open mind and a sense of humor. It’s much more fun to butcher Japanese when you’re actually living in Tokyo than it is in a classroom in Ohio!