Japanese Language Proficiency Test

11 Jan. 2014

Recently I’ve been entertaining the idea of moving to Japan for 9 months, maybe a year, sometime in the not-so-distant future. I’ll get into the why of that decision later. It's just a pipe dream at this point. But I studied Japanese in high school and for my first two years of college, I’ve been to the country 3 times, and I once spent a summer there. And now I’m a graduate...and two years is a long time to go without much practice.

Current language status:

Vocab – mediocre to begin with. Casual watching of Japanese TV and anime has helped keep this up somewhat, but I don’t feel comfortable saying I could understand a conversation anymore.

Listening – see above.

Speaking – probably my biggest disappointment. I used to be comfortable opening my mouth and letting the words flow forth in a mostly-intelligible stream of middle-schooler Japanese. But now? I freeze up mentally, half-formed sentences dying in my throat. My declining ability brings my confidence down and the less confident I am, the less I practice, the worse I get, the less-

You get the idea. Shy death spiral.

Writing – objectively my weakest area. But honestly I don’t care about this so much right now. It’s not that I don’t understand how important it is to be able to communicate with the written word...I’d just like to know the words themselves first. Statistically also the activity I'm likely to use the least.

Reading – my reading was fastest and most comprehensive 6 years ago when I spent that summer in Japan. 6 years ago, despite studying the language through 2011. When I was actually there being able to read was like a mini-superpower. I could go places, read maps and signs, follow directions, find the one store that still had a Nintendo DSLite in stock…

You get better at things by doing them, language or not, and while I was in Japan I had to read in order to get what I wanted (and speak too, to a lesser degree). So I did a lot of reading and speaking, and not much writing.

And while I still hear Japanese on a semi-regular basis (TV shows), I never see it written in the course of my average day. Predictably, my reading skills suck.

[Quick aside for non-Japanese speakers – Japanese has 3 modes of writing. Hiragana (48 simple characters each corresponding to a syllabic sound, used for native words), Katakana (another 48 simple characters corresponding to the same set of sounds, used to write foreign words), and Kanji (logographic Chinese characters according to Wikipedia. The complex little pictures non-comprehending foreigners tattoo on their body because someone told them it meant Love. Or Dragon. There are 50,000 of these little bastards).]

After a recent reevaluation I realized I’d actually forgotten some katakana. Ouch. Speaking I could get around by virtue of never doing it. Watching subtitled anime was enough to deceive myself about my listening skills. But forgetting how to read kana?

In principle, in practice, in any use-case, it’s the same as forgetting how to read the letter “Z”. Sure, it might not be used that much. But you don’t forget the alphabet.

So at this point I have a choice. I can accept that I studied a language for over 6 years, spent multiple months in the country, watch(ed) native TV shows, and at the end of it all…have nothing to show for it beyond the memories. “Once I knew Japanese.”

On the other hand, I could dive back into it, spend the (hopefully brief) time getting back to where I used to be, then build on that knowledge base even more. “I know Japanese.”

There’s arguments for both sides. Realistically I have much better job/life prospects in the US. Japan is no longer an ascendant nation either, so it’s not like I’m putting myself between an important (read: growing) trade relationship. Honestly, if there’s any economic gain to be had from learning Japanese…I can’t see it.

A little mercenary, I know, but if I’m going to invest in myself, spend the time studying and learning, it makes a lot of sense to invest in something that has a meaningful chance of having a return. And it makes sense to cut the waste.

On the other hand, I believe in the future. Wishy-washy, I know, but here’s the way I see it: at any moment in time the set of knowledge and skills I have should be larger than any time before then. Not just different, but larger. Extend that forward into the uncertain future and I get progression. I find the idea of holding steady, static, deeply saddening – an acknowledgement that things have already peaked. And regression? Unthinkable.

But I can’t hide from it any more. My Japanese has regressed massively. The only thing that could excuse me would be if I learned enough about other subjects to not only offset my declining language skills, but to lift me far above where I used to be. Well? Has it?

I don’t know. I got a degree in (Mechanical) Engineering over that time. But something small I learned in that process was that I’m not cut out to be a mechanical engineer (story for a later date). So did I trade one set of “useless” knowledge, Japanese, for another?

I can’t answer for sure, of course. But I do know that it doesn’t feel like personal progression. Things feel very static.

So what am I going to do about it?

I’m going to fix it.

Or at least try my damned hardest to fix it, while working 100 hour weeks at my day job.

Goal: Pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level 2