Obies Using Languages: Xun Zheng ’18

Xun Zheng is a second year majoring in East Asian Studies who shares about his experience with Japanese!

I didn’t know my Japanese was not yet usable until the first night I arrived Tokyo when I was trying to talk with my ryocho san (dorm manager), who didn’t speak English, and realized I could speak nothing more than “yes” and “no”—to make it even worse—in an unnecessarily formal manner.

Even though I didn’t take Japanese in high school, I thought I’d been living with it for some years through a huge number of TV shows, social networks and a little bit of self-teaching. But the delusions of being able to speak Japanese were all gone at that night. On the way to the dorm, I could mostly understand what the manager was talking about, but I wasn’t able to let him know about that. Words that I used to be familiar with didn’t come up to my lips as an organized, meaningful sentence: I didn’t know how to phrase my thoughts or choose the proper verb conjugations within few seconds to keep the conversation flow, and I didn’t even know what would be an acceptable translation of my name. I was indeed an alien of this language.

Referring to my performance at the first night, the following few days were not surprisingly awkward. Being such a nice person, the dorm manager would call me in my room during the mealtime if I didn’t show up. Those phone calls turned to become a mess of multiple languages. Knowing that I was from China, he sometimes tried to speak the word “dinner” in Chinese. I would repeat the word in Japanese to make sure I got what he was saying, and then we both gave a last try, counting on communication ability of English, to clarify the complicated fact we’d been working around, “Dinner, no. Breakfast, yes.”

In the following month, though quite slowly, I started to pick up some basic but useful words (I found it so useful to know the word for “trash”). Relearning some kanji words and English-based loanwords was also proved incredibly helpful, because their pronunciations and meanings could subtly and unpredictably change in a Japanese context. Progress was being made bit by bit. I got to understand whether the salesman was asking me if I wanted a receipt or a bag, and I also stopped inappropriately saying “thank you” to the manager after each meal, but would use “thank you for the treating me so well” instead.

I come up with a theory that learning a foreign language is more or less living through someone else’s childhood in another culture. As a new-born, according to my theory, one has to depressingly grab every single piece of information passing by in order to read the meanings out of the puzzle of languages.

Share

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*