Preparing to emigrate – the language question

My partner and I have discussed vacating the shores of the UK and settling in Japan. Frankly Brexit was a major wake up call that made me realise I’ve been limiting myself creatively and professionally by remaining within the UK. While there is potential for me to benefit in the short to medium term from the vote (ironically helping companies move out of the country!) the longer term is harder to judge. Given my skills are increasingly in demand and can be delivered to any country in the world from any location there’s no rational reason I couldn’t continue my business from Japan as easily as Watford.

There is a problem : the language.

Those who know me well know I play with language. I can pick up a basic working knowledge of European languages within a month or three and I’m not afraid to dive in and make a complete tit of myself in the quest to be understood and to understand. This doesn’t, however, mean I’m some amazing linguist and I’ll never claim to be fluent in any language but English.

Which brings me to Japanese.

It’s a complex language for an English speaker to pick up. The grammatical rules are at heart fairly straight forward but the nuances of when to use plain, polite or honorific verbs, the lack of a future tense and the way context matters add to complexity. Layer onto this the importance of tone and three completely alien writing systems and the learning curve is somewhat steep. I’m barely at the “saying good morning and asking for coffee stage”, let alone being able to conduct a bank transaction.

There is an argument to say it doesn’t matter. I’ll be working predominantly with English speaking companies across the globe, so knowing Japanese is irrelevant. My partner is Japanese, so she can translate for me and there are enough English speakers and signs for it not to matter. Perhaps this is the case in a business setting or for tourism, but I want to live there. I want to have friends, conversations with the barista and even watch baseball (OK, maybe not the last one). I want to be able to participate in society, not be someone who is outside it.

So I’ve committed to learning the language, only more so. It has to become a part of who I am, something I can slip in and out of as context demands. It means I have to overcome the inherent laziness that comes with being an English speaker, as well as find time to build my word base and put into practice what I’ve learnt.

I’m setting meaningful objectives for myself. By the time of my next visit in early 2017 I want to be able to express myself in Japanese. I want to be able to ask for things more complex than “iced coffee”, explain my view on some point in the news or say how I’m feeling. After that, in 2018, comes listening. Being able to listen to a conversation, understand it and be able to question aspects of it.

Already a couple of people have asked whether someone “at my age” can really become fluent in another language, particularly one so different that I can’t just play with word substitution. Short answer is I genuinely don’t know, but given the future might hinge on me becoming a competent Japanese speaker I’m going to give it a bloody good go.

About Ross A Hall

I'm a freelance writer and editorial designer, working with small and growing businesses. For a chat about how I could help you drop me a line.

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Preparing to emigrate – the language question

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