Note: Lest I come off as if i were trying to sound like an expert, I should mention here that my Japanese is not great. I am not fluent in Japanese, but I am fluid in using Japanese to the degree I understand it. My Japanese language skills are exactly as good as they need to be in order to do what I need to do – no better, no worse. My responses are written from the perspective of someone with no desire to be possess native-level Japanese skills.
G initiated this discussion with the following:
I find there are quite a few US Taido students who go on to study/learn Japanese, my son included. Not only do they learn Japanese, but they seem to learn it with ease and correct pronunciation. Since you are an educator, I was wondering about your thoughts on early exposure to Japanese, through Taido, and the ability to learn Japanese. Do you think your early exposure to Japanese aided in your desire and/or ability to learn the language?
Here was my initial reply:
That’s pretty interesting, G. To me, this is a very, very rich topic. Coincidentally, I have been tossing around some related article ideas lately, so your timing is good. At least, your timing is good from the perspective that I have done enough recent thinking about this to give you a too-long response.
“I find there are quite a few US Taido students who go on to study/learn Japanese, my son included.”
Hey, that’s great (and how old is your son now, anyway? And, what do his studies entail?). Actually, I didn’t know it was so common. When I was in junior high, only Uchida Sensei and John Okochi spoke any Japanese, and neither of them really had to study it. One guy who tested for black belt with my father also studied some Japanese for Taido purposes, though I don’t know if he ever got any good at it.
In 1993, I joined the us team to the first world Taido championships in Tokyo. It was great, and I came back with new love for Taido and the desire to return to Japan someday. I found out that Dekalb County’s M-to-M program offered Japanese classes and signed up. During my junior year, I spent mornings at Towers High studying two hours of Japanese a day. I learned how to make some simple statements and ask questions, but not in any kind of conversational style. However, I was able to help out Shukumine and his assistants when they visited the next year.
At that time, I was the only Taido student in America who was studying any Japanese whatsoever. The next year, two others (Bryan Sparks and David Issa) did the same program I had, but to my knowledge, they were the last Taido students to do so.
So when you say that “quite a few” Taido students study some Japanese, I am impressed and surprised. As far as I was aware, only a few had studied Japanese in university (Heather and Chad Gilmartin, Bryan, Chris Healy, Musashi Uchida [I think]). I know that Mitsuaki and Seiji have learned some by virtue of living with their father, and Musashi has spent some time in Japan. I also know that Brendan picked up some Japanese words, but no grammar.
I have always been complemented on my pronunciation by everyone except Ogura Sensei, who refuses to admit that I am capable of doing anything right. I always chalk this up to having heard Japanese for most of my life. Instead of studying the grammar and then trying to speak the language, I heard the sounds, learned some phrases, and then figured out how the grammar works. I would imagine that anyone who spends a lot of time listening to a language will be able to pick up the rudiments easily.
However, this only seems to be true for those students who do so from a young age. I say this because, none of the over-30 set in American Taido can pronounce even the technique names with anything approaching proper pronunciation (which is not to say it matters – after all, they do not live in Japan…). I don’t want to sound elitist when I say this – I’m just stating what I believe to be a fact. The Japanese and American-English syllabry are very different. This is confirmed by listening to Japanese adults speak English – even those with very good conversational skills have a hard time pronouncing certain words properly.
Of all those mentioned above who studied Japanese, the only ones with any real conversational ability and decent pronunciation are the ones who have spent time in Japan: David Issa, Heather Gilmartin, Musashi Uchida, me, and (to a lesser degree) Chris. Perhaps Corey Myers will also return to America this summer with some chatting skills. I think this is a very important point to take notice of. I don’t believe it is possible to attain beyond basic proficiency in any language unless you use it often.
Everyone in Japan studies six years of English by the time they graduate high school, and very few people here can speak English at all. Since they study so much English, and their language even includes thousands of words borrowed from English, it seems ironic that so few people can use English with much success.
Being an English teacher, I am often asked by Japanese people this question: what is wrong with English education in Japan? My answer is always the same: the students live in Japan.
Most Japanese people are born, go to school, work, live, and die within a short radius. They may travel as far as Australia or Hawaii on vacation, but then tend to do so in large groups of other Japanese people. They seem to have no interest in experiencing anything outside of their neighborhoods. Maybe I’m cynical, but regardless, most of my students will never be good at English because they have absolutely no reason to be good at English. They live in rural Japan, and probably always will. That is not a powerful motivating factor when it comes study time. Not only that, they have nobody with whom to practice besides their teachers.
That’s the key point – practice is more important than study. I studied a good bit of Japanese in college, but, when I came over here at age twenty to spend a couple of months in the tea-farming areas around Mt. Fuji, I quickly learned that I could barely communicate. I realized that this was because I had almost no practice in using what I had learned. However, my skills increased dramatically, and after two months, I returned to Atlanta able to speak a good deal of Japanese.
After having a Japanese girlfriend stay at my house for a few months and making another trip over here the next year, I was damn-near proficient at basic conversation. Then I broke up with the girlfriend and didn’t speak Japanese at all for five years. I forgot everything.
I like to give Japanese people the example of exchange students. They study so much English in school that, when they spend a few months in another country like America, their abilities increase very rapidly. Many Japanese exchange students develop a fair amount of fluency within a year of living in America. David Issa attained reasonable fluency within a year of living in Japan because he combined daily study with daily practice.
After a few months living in the countryside, I realized that I already knew all the Japanese I would ever need, so I quit studying. After all, I could fill out insurance forms, order food at restaurants, and chat up girls. I could also have long, philosophical (drunk) conversations about Taido. What more did I need? For me, that’s enough, because I don’t plan on going native, and I don’t plan on using Japanese for any particular career goals. But if I had continued my studies, I am pretty sure that I would be essentially fluent in Japanese now, rather than simply functionally bilingual.
So, to me, it’s the interest that creates the ability to learn Japanese (or anything else). Taido was the spark of that interest in my case, and I believe that my youth was one factor that allowed Taido to be more than a simple recreational hobby to me. Once you have interest, it’s very important to get in at least as much time practicing as you spend studying. Taido can help provide opportunities for this too. Without having made friends in Japan through Taido, I would not have been able to spend several long vacations over here practicing.
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