One of the most common questions I get from people back home is, “So, how’s your Japanese?”
I never really know how to answer this, because depending on where you are coming from, the answer could be anywhere from “terrible” to “not bad.” It’s all about how you set the benchmarks.
My impression is that most people have two benchmarks: zero and fluency. Those are poles, and anything in between is evaluated relative to one or the other. In fact, some people will even replace the question “How’s your Japanese?” with “How fluent are you?”, as if the two were interchangeable.
This is pretty silly, since fluency is more of a state than it is a matter of degree. You’re either fluent or you aren’t, and while people may have different definitions for what constitutes fluency, it’s still basically a yes or no proposition. To say I’m “sort of fluent” is like saying I’m sort of a liquid. (For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not actually a liquid, but I’m as much a liquid as I am fluent in Japanese.)
There’s a reason I only get this question from people at home: if you see someone in person, you can tell how skilled they are in a language within minutes. And in person, you don’t judge someone’s ability relative to absolute states like zero or fluency, but as a function of what they’re able to do with the language.
For example, when I first arrived here, I really couldn’t do anything in Japanese other than greet people and introduce myself. Now, there are lots of things I can do, like go grocery shopping, ask directions, buy train tickets, and order in a restaurant. I’m certainly not fluent–and if you want to place in a relative context, I’m not even close–but I’m more capable than I was a year ago.
But if you aren’t here to see it for yourself, it’s hard to assign a skill level to random examples like these. If someone asks me about my Japanese, and I say, “I can go through customs at the airport no problem,” that doesn’t really answer their question. Such a response is likely to be met with puzzlement. Unless you work as a customs official, the ability to go through customs does little to inform you how my Japanese is progressing. Despite being a very concrete, specific example, it’s too abstract to help the average person understand your ability.
Until recently, though, I couldn’t think of a better way to convey my progress in Japanese, because generic responses like “It’s okay” or “It’s getting better” are truly empty. But as of today, I think I have a concrete example that actually works as a meaningful waypoint for locating my ability in Japanese:
This afternoon, I finished reading my first Japanese book.
Now, I’ve read plenty of books by Japanese authors, and in fact they are a special interest of mine. But they had all been translated into English. Today, I finished one in Japanese.
Before you get too excited, I have some disclaimers. First, what I read wasn’t exactly 1Q84, or any other great work of Japanese literature. It was a manga–a comic book–that is wildly popular amongst elementary school students in Japan. If you live in Japan, or are otherwise interested in Japanese culture, you will no doubt recognize it straight away: Meitantei Conan, which means “Great Detective Conan” in translation.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, Meitantei Conan is a detective manga. Actually, it’s many. I finished the first volume today, but with 76 and counting currently in print, I could spend a lifetime sleuthing along, one word at a time. I somehow doubt any of my readers in the U.S. are interested in young adult detective stories, but if I’m wrong, it’s available in America under the title Case Closed.
My second disclaimer is that, when I said it would take a lifetime to finished 76 volumes of Conan, that wasn’t terribly conservative. At just over 180 pages, all of them filled with pictures, this book took me almost as long to finish as 1Q84 itself earlier this year. That’s because, while my vocabulary is improving, it’s not good enough to read more than a few sentences in a row without referencing a dictionary, often two or three times. As you can imagine, this slows things down just a bit.
My final disclaimer is that, while I did read this book cover-to-cover, I didn’t read every word. Not because I was skimming, but because I just couldn’t. Written Japanese relies heavily on kanji, the Chinese-style ideograms that came over from the mainland centuries ago. But, because there are literally thousands of kanji, learning to read and write them is a task that takes most people many years. (Bobby Valentine claims to have learned 1,800 kanji during a single year of managing a Japanese baseball team. In the same video, he also claims to have invented the wrap sandwich. I’m calling bullshit on both accounts.)
But so anyway, I can’t read very many kanji. Conveniently, neither can most Japanese elementary school students, so children’s novels like Meitantei Conan frequently include furigana, which are small characters that give the phonetic spelling of the word represented by the kanji.
Now, the presence of furigana allows me to read words that would otherwise be beyond my ability, but breaking the kanji down into phonetic characters and then looking up the spelling in my dictionary isn’t an exact science for any number of reasons.Sometimes, the word just isn’t included in my dictionary. Other times, variations resulting from conjugation or other stylistic flourishes make it difficult to figure out which word–out of half-a-dozen possibilities–is being used. Context helps, but it doesn’t always help enough.
And, in the end, I’m left to do what we all do when we’re learning to read–take a guess and move on. In general, a missed word here or a tricky sentence there isn’t enough to knock you off the storyline, especially when there are pictures to guide you.
So, if you’re wondering about my Japanese ability, there’s your answer. I can read a book in Japanese. Not a difficult book. Not without a dictionary. And not without some trouble. But while I’m not a master detective like Conan, when it comes to solving a sentence, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”