My Chinese Roots

Growing up in a Thai-Chinese family, it did not escape the traditional route of studying Chinese from a young age.  After school, I was in a routine of going through textbooks and reading out Chinese passages, repetitively copying out Chinese words and letters and repeating after the teacher.  I was able to recall certain passages and their meanings accurately, but I was unable to understand each word and pull them out of context correctly.  I was able to answer textbook answers but unable to write it in a sentence format.  Having gone through rote repetition, language learning to me was initially a tiring and tedious process. I did not have much interest in my own Chinese roots as a child.  However, I had a good eye at remembering difficult letters and letter formations of each Chinese words. That had stuck with me until now and have helped me as I picked up Japanese later in my life.

A calligraphy painting of kanji

How I came across Japanese

Upon entering international school, I began learning English at school.  Speaking Thai at home, English at school, and learning Chinese three times a week, my world of languages started to change.  With English, my universe expanded: I was open to a series of stories, books, and cartoons.  I was forced to speak and converse in English with my peers and my teachers, read and write in English, which accelerated my English skills.  I began dreaming and thinking in English.  English then became my first language.  Even as a child, I realized the power that language held in expanding one’s horizons and possibilities.

By the time I got to middle school, it was time to choose a third language, and we were faced with a series of choices: French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese.  Although I have been in touch with Japanese cultures throughout my life, this has been the very first opportunity for me to get closer to the Japanese language.  The striking similarity in letter formations in Chinese and Japanese was the main reasons why I chose Japanese as my third language for study.  Japanese culture had also been very close to me through the constant exposure that I have had throughout my life (further details can be read here!).  Studying Japanese had been different for me compared to Chinese in terms of motivation: it was much easier to keep motivated through my interest and curiosity to understand the Japanese culture had kept me interested.  Learning Japanese was the way for me to access many translated books and mangas, TV shows and movies.

Improving my Japanese skills throughout high school

Keeping Japanese skills intact despite learning Japanese only twice a week was difficult.  Hence, keeping the Japanese language strictly around my everyday life was crucial in helping me stay in touch with the language.  This is primarily done through self-study with the textbook, Minna no Nihongo.  The textbook was very easy to follow and accompanied by the contents that were being covered in high school my Japanese skills improve by leaps and bounds.  Having seen and learned many Chinese letters in my childhood have set me a good foundation in remembering a variety of kanji and how it is written, as well as the meaning.  With my interest in the Japanese language and culture in itself, I have grown close to my Japanese teachers who provided me additional materials such as worksheets that helped me accelerate my Japanese learning.  This had led me to choose Japanese for my IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) and A Levels. Keeping a third language throughout my high school had helped me keep a good profile when I was making my university applications in my final year.

Minna no Nihongo textbooks
Minna no Nihongo textbooks (Image source: http://www.we-jpschool.com/samurai_minna.html)

Being in Japan and learning Japanese

Learning Japanese in high school had set me on a good position to adjust myself to live in Japan as I entered Keio.  Although I was taking Japanese language classes offered in university in my first year, most of my language development came outside of class in my everyday life.  At first, it was to listen more and more: in supermarkets, convenience stores, and other shops, or keeping the television on during meal times.  However, the leap of my growth in Japanese came when I entered my seminar, which was primarily conducted in Japanese.  Although there is English support, I was put into an environment which was mostly Japanese-driven.  Being entirely surrounded in this environment I gradually became more used to hearing certain phrases and words, as well as learning more from my peers.  Like how I had naturally learned English in my elementary school, I slowly picked up many things in Japanese.  I became replying instinctively in Japanese, and my dreams are also becoming Japanese.  Even with my grammatically imperfect Japanese, through the support of my seminar, I have developed the courage to express my thoughts and ideas in Japanese.

Everyone putting their fist out to commemorate their success

Final thoughts and tips

Japanese learning for me had changed throughout the different stages of my life, expanding from being just in the classrooms to beyond.  However, I believe that the fastest way to master a language is consistency.  Putting oneself in an environment where you must use the language. It will help shift you in a state of mind where you will slowly think in that language and converse more naturally in that language. Continually challenging yourself, not putting language learning at a forefront but learning to use the language as a medium to relay your ideas will keep you motivated to learn.  In terms of grammatical perfection, there are many free resources on the internet that can match your learning ability.  For me who is a visual and auditory learner, YouTube videos are great to help me retain information.  Channels such as Nihongo no Mori are great for people who are studying for the JLPT.

Learning any language will take time and effort to master.  However, it is possible with endurance and the constant courage to use the language regardless of whether it is correct or not.  Be brave!