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.


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