Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Avoiding bad habits

When studying a foreign language, it is important to practice as much as possible. One of the best ways to practice, of course, is by speaking. Living in Japan, it's fairly easy to practice speaking Japanese - there are plenty of opportunities at work, with friends, with your native significant other, or just out and about. If you're living here, your excuse should never be a lack of opportunity. More often it's a lack of confidence, and I myself am guilty of this sometimes. For example, when buying shinkansen tickets I usually balk at going to the window when I can just buy them from an automatic vendor. If I went to the window I would be on the spot. What if I didn't understand some keigo (honorific language) or train vocabulary? I'd have to stop and figure it out with a line of people behind me.  Last week I was forced to buy my tickets at the window, however, as the ticket machine wouldn't sell me round-trip for some reason. You know what? It was completely fine.

Because I often feel more confident in my reading ability, I tend to prefer to use vending machines or the internet when doing business in Japan. Hotels are another example - I always book online because I prefer not to speak on the phone. This is a habit I need to break out of.

Shifting gears a little, but still remaining on the topic of "bad habits," I have recently noticed that I am starting to (I think) overuse certain words. Now this isn't necessarily all that bad - it's better to be speaking and sounding a little weird than to not be speaking at all, and I am a subscriber to the school of thought that mistakes are completely fine and a natural and even useful part of the learning process. We must be careful, however, not to make a mistake into a bad habit. For a non-native speaker, it's all too easy to pick up an incorrect grammatical device or improper word usage somewhere and file it away for use. It's also easy to become comfortable with a particular word or expression and to start using it willy-nilly. These are traps to be wary of. 

For me, I have noticed three words that I have recently begun to use extremely often. In my mind, probably too often. These are: なんか, かな, and まあ. Now these words are used quite frequently in Japanese, so that's not the problem. The problem is I want to sound somewhat natural and intelligent. 

When I am trying to think of a word or formulate a sentence, I often start with "なんか・・・" Sometimes I'll just say it when I don't know what to say. It's become my "Um" word. I keep, like, thinking of, like, English speakers who can't help but using "like" like 5 times in, like, every sentence. 

I also seem to be sticking かな onto the end of my utterances a lot more often. かな is used in this way to denote uncertainty or reflection. Sometimes it's used to ask questions a little more indirectly, and sometimes it's used rhetorically. For example, 「これは大丈夫かな」。If you're speaking to yourself, this could be "I wonder if this is okay..." Asking someone else, though, it could be "Is this all right?" This one is a little more difficult for me to judge. Am I overusing it, or am I just expressing myself differently in Japanese than I do in English? Because I know in English I have never been so uncertain as to wonder aloud all the time.

Lastly, there's まあ. This one has a variety of uses, such as "Oh well" or "Kind of" or "Maybe". It can also be kind of reflective. Actually, I think it's quite difficult to pin down the exact meaning in English. Example: 「ポール、明日何したいの?」「まあね。何でもいいよ。」 ("What do you want to do tomorrow, Paul?" "Ahh, well...anything's fine.")  Anyway, まあ is another one that I seem to be using quite liberally these days. 

I think it's important to keep in mind that if your goal is to become as close to fluent as possible, you need to not only assimilate as much grammar and vocabulary as possible, but be mindful of how you're using it.


  1. Very interesting post. I also am falling into these traps. Honestly, I'm terrified of the phone. I don't know why really. Maybe I just always heavily rely on gestures to guess meanings. Either way, keep that phone away from me. Here's a brief story:

    I was having an issue with my Mac so I went online and booked an appointment with the Mac store in Osaka so they could take a look at it. Soon after that I figured it out on my own and went back online to cancel my appointment. Which, of course, was not an option. Oh no! I have to call! That, or be a jerk who doesn't show up. Keeping my pride intact I called them up. After the employee answered the phone with the normal spiel, I immediately asked if he spoke English. I got a "No". But he asked me in Japanese what the problem was. I explained the situation, he asked me a couple questions about name, time, and date, which I understood and answered. He then said my #1 favorite thing to hear in Japanese :かしこまりました! I guess it translates as a polite "Certainly!" but to me I like to think of it as a "Congratulations! You communicated!" I feel like I should get a high-five whenever someone says it. In conclusion it wasn't bad at all. We all need to just get out of our comfort zones. That's hard motivation though.

  2. Haha...yeah, I hear you, Joe. And "かしこまりました" should come with a prize.