Thursday, 5 June 2008

Do I HAVE to learn Japanese while I am living in Japan?

This is a question that is frequently asked. Before or while being in Japan, we ask ourselves this question.

Before I go into what I think is the answer, let me explain the situation here. Japanese people do not depend much on English. They use their own language in everything, starting from conversations up to the Engineering courses they teach in universities. So, it is hard to find Japanese people who fluently speak English.

Does that mean I have to learn Japanese before I can enjoy living in Japan?

Notice the stress on the word have. Because this way, the answer to the question is NO. You dont have to learn Japanese so you can enjoy your time, but you better.

For me, I spend most of my time in my lab at the University of Tokyo. And eventhough this university is considered the legendary ultimate university in Japan, and Asia, only very few students can make conversations in English, surprisingly. So I am forced to speak Japanese. Yet, I do not have much time to spend learning Japanese and taking courses. So, with my intermediate Japanese skills, and their intermediate English skills, a conversation can be made.

Generally, I know cases of people who lived in Japan for over 5 years and still cannot read the hiragana. Also, people who lived for more than 7 years and still cannot speak a complete sentence. And I know people who lived and studies in Japan for years and are only able of introducing themselves.

That means, we dont have to learn Japanese to survive. But I say you wont be able to enjoy then. I like the language so much and I totally wish I had more time to study Japanese and specifically study more Kanji so I would be able to read. I cant though, while in the middle of the research.

As a summary, Japanese is not essential to live in Japan, while its still important and better to have.


Anonymous said...

Sanadsan, konnichiwa!
very "dokidoki" report(for japanese teacher) o arigatou.
what you said is maybe true. but,please don't give up totally to learn japanese.
i understand your situation that now you have to consentlate to your reserch and you don't have much time.
demo,you already have many japanese words and i know you are very smart person for keeping&useing them. plese don't loose them! and also, i saw you still have a motivation to learn more japanese, don't you?
so, why not? please do that.
if you cut your motivation, what i afraid, you should keep telling your excuse, "why i don't learn japanese". ...i know you don't like that...and i know you have been challenger.
please try to learn japanese even 10min a day...O NE GA I!


subzero said...

dear k-s,

I am as you still know me. I always try to speak Japanese with my lab friends. I also try to make my Japanese stronger by talking in shops and in the streets.

Plus, I refresh my Japanese knowledge by teaching the basics to my wife, who takes weekly lessons in Japanese in the neighborhood. She teaches me new words sometimes!

All that makes me always connected to Japanese language on a daily basis. Yet, the question the newcomer might ask: "if I dont know japanese, will be able to survive?" So my post here responds with a "yes".

I am still the challenger you know. Actually, I am facing much challenges these days and I am having fun (^_^)v

Anonymous said...

you makes me happy!!


Kanji_chan said...

This post looks like a section in the "I am coming to Japan FAQ" lool
Interesting unusual post.

But..I stress on the fact that if some one is not willing to learn the language..he/she is missing A LOT..

Saemon 左衛門 said...

Very interesting post! dispells the myth that knowing japanese is necessary to survive in Japan.

As you said, it's not necessary, but I think that anyone who stays in a country for a long period and returns without learning its language, wasted a big opportunity.

I think languages are one of the very few things that you can't measure the benefits of. For example, I can say I studied industrial engineering, so I learned and know 1, 2 and 3. But with languages, you really can't measure the benefits. It's very mind opening. I think of a language as a key to the culture and people.

So again, I think it's a big waste.

Plus, Japanese is a very fun language to learn!

I really wish I can stay for 2 to 4 months in Japan. I would become so fluent in it. :(

hiro said...

If you are not going to live in Japan forever, you don't need to study Japanese at all.
Especially if you are in Japan only for university.

If you are staying after graduation of university, it's better to learn Japanese because no apartment owner wants to rent a room to foreigners who cannot speak Japanese fluently. Only very expensive condominium owners or hotels will rent it to westerners without Japanese speaking skills, who are staying in Japan on business. Those apartments for foreigners are starting from $3000 USD per month. So, unless you improve your Japanese, there is no way you can rent a normal apartment and live in Japan!

subzero said...


I always wish to speak fluent Japanese so I can read all the documents in my laboratory regarding the unique design algorithms. Its amazing. I am losing too much. But studying to READ differs from studying to SPEAK. Reading means memorizing lots of Kanji, which means lots of time and effort.


Agree about the countless benefits, but disagree about the four months period. Not even a year. Not because its hard, but because its not Time related. Its effort related actually. As I said in my posts, people lived in Japan for 5 years, and yet know no Japanese. So, if you lived a very short period in Japan with the ultimate goal of studying Japanese, ull make it. While if you lived for years and you had another goal in mind (Phd, work, business, .. etc) focusing on the language would be a little bit difficult.

Hiro san,

This is my goal. To gradually build my Japanese knowledge such that it wont affect my original goal, but I would be good after I graduate.
But let me tell you that renting apartments from big companies doesnt really depend on which languages you can speak. Also, big companies protect your rights in taking your deposit back after you leave the apartment. Thats why I encourage contracting with big companies not a single land lord.

Saemon 左衛門 said...

Agreed subzero-san. The numbers I chose (2-4months) are very personal because I need to eliminate the hesitation and stops in my speech.

So I'm looking for a program to go there temporarily! Any programs around you? :P

Awonderingcatalyst said...


Such a great thing to get to your blog , Im living my dream in Spain and will share some thoughts with you on this.

- don't you agree that a distinction should be made between someone who communicates in a language and someone who can speak the language?

- I do believe that time isn't really the issue with learning a langauge, it is rather the technique you choose.

- No matter how many movies I watched, I never learnt a new spanish word from a movie!

-People in Spain are super excited about people writing in Arabic and chinese/japanese/korean.. :) they even sell written names for 1 euro each.

Will check your blog more often from now on.

Have a great experience!

hiro said...

Yeah, I agree that big real estate companies are better to avoid problems when renting apartments.

By the way, you are very wise and your point of view is correct, Mr. Subzero.
Sparing your time on your major is much much more important than spending time for studying Japanese language.

Japan developed its technologies and cultures because they concentrated on science/engineering etc. by saving time for learning foreign languages.

I haven't seen any bilingual/trilingual people who are good at anything other than their language skills.

So, if you wanna be really good at science/engineering, you must give up learning a difficult foreign language. It's a waste of time and your brain. If you spend too much on learning a language, you won't be good at anything after all.

Anonymous said... much I disagree with your opinion :) , I guess humans have the potential of learning languages and be good at science at the same time.

The proof is the C.V of most the pioneers in sciences and engineering, when you are good at something, you are also good in at least one more thing :)

Don't you think?

hiro said...

Dear Mr. anonymous..

>I guess humans have the potential
>of learning languages and be good
>at science at the same time.

I know every human being has a great potetial. but we are living in reality, where time and energy are limited. How many of us can do everything at an excellent level??
The reality is, Jack-of-all-trades try to do everything, but aren't good at anything.

>The proof is the C.V of most the
>pioneers in sciences and
>engineering, when you are good at
>something, you are also good in
>at least one more thing :)

I don't know which person you are talking about..I guess you mean Arabic/English bilinguals. Because Arabic and English are relatively simple languages and not a hard burden on your brain, it would be possible to learn both languages without interferring much with other part of your brain. And first of all, I haven't seen many science/engineering books written wholly in Arabic. It seems to be a must to use import books for textbooks.

Well, speaking of Japanese langage, it is so difficult even for the native seakers. It takes a lot of time to learn Kanji, grammar, ancient Japanese(Kobun/Kanbun), etc. Japanese primary school students are required to write every single kanji character on notebook at least 100 times each to remember it. An average Japanese adult can read/write at least 1000 kanjis, and that is achieved by daily homework of such hard repetition of at least nine years.
Because it takes so much time to learn Japanese language itself, we have no time to learn English at primary school stage. It is clear that those Japanese who went to International School or American School in Japan are high in English language skills, but low level in either in Japanese language skills or in science.
Those three factors, Japanese/English/Science cannot co-exist. You can take two of them, but not three of them.

And as a matter of fact, it is clear those Japanese who are very successful in any science/engineering field, are not good at speaking English.

That is because they concentrate on science field instead of using their limited energy on learning English.

Bilinguals(Japanese + other language) can be good at literature/cultural fields, but never in science/engineering field.

It seems that they have different nature and cannot co-exist in someone's brain..

Saemon 左衛門 said...

What if the scientist/engineer is learning the language as a pasttime activity or a hobby? Would this still count as 'wasting the brain'?

Many of the fun activities we do require brain power, but we don't feel because we're having fun. Recreation and breaking routine are keywords here.

He or she is not doing homework or studying for examinations, so there is no obligation and time is not an issue.

I don't see how studying a little language will make someone a lesser engineer or scientist.

Kanji_chan said...

Hiro san,
you are underestimating the power of the human brain. If you really want to learn something you will, especially if its something you enjoy doing as Saemon san said.

subzero said...

Hiro san,

I kind of agree with what you said. If I have time to learn another that means I have time to get better in my field. And actually to be honest, I am working in one of the most difficult labs in the university and the work is very demanding.

Still, I wanna improve my Japanese. I will do this slowly and gradually so it wont affect my work.

You have excellent Japanese. But you gained that level while studying at a university which can never be compared in difficulty with Toudai. When you start your real research as a master student, tell us if you have time to do anything beside working :)
I am not under estimating you. I am saying this because while I used to study at JU Engineering, I used to have a part time job, study Japanese, work online and work on my Project. Nowadays I barely have time to breathe!

Kanji_chan said...

Sanado san,

Thank you,you are overestimating my Japanese language.
I am still not satisfied with it.

No matter how busy you are, It's impossible to reach to the cutoff in your language improvement..there is always leakage :)
1 kanji/month is an improvement too.

The studying I am talking about doesn't necessarily mean setting on your desk and surrounding yourself by nihongo books and sheets.

You can always learn new things by staying connected to the language, because you want to not because you have to.
This can be achieved as simple as just looking up a new kanji you see in a station name on your way,and talking in Japanese with your friends.
It's ok to make mistakes and its totally ok to reach dead ends, you can always ask about the right way to say what you want to say.

And there is no difference here(in terms of improvement it current if you wish :p ) between someone who studied for 4 years or someone who studied for 1 year because when you have basic Japanese, you have what it takes to advance on your own.
So what is left is up to the learner.

I am not saying you have to achieve a language level as those who study it as a major.
Good conversational skills and fair reading skills should be generally enough.

...Again it depends on how much you enjoy the language whether it's a tool that you are obliged to use or something that you really enjoy.

Saemon 左衛門 said...

Very well said Amani-san! Migoto desu!

To correct subzero-san, I want to mention that your first contact with Japanese was from 8th grade and not university if i remember correctly, right? And you went on and off and at your own merry pace since then. I think that this proves that time is not an issue.

I started around 5 years ago.. and I think it might take 5 more years to achieve my goal (of bringing my Japanese level up to my English level).


Kanji_chan said...

Saemon san,
Yea somewhere in the 8th~10th grade period.Can't remember the exact point.
The K.H.I. jidai
*K.H.I.:konnichi wa. hai. iie ww

I think I have the same goal too,so otanoshimi ni too!:)

brad said...

I think you have to learn Japanese language so you can't get trouble while behaving with society.

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