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My Journey Studying a Foreign Language: Japanese

Naomi discovered that studying a foreign language in college isn't quite the same as high school...

Most high schools throughout the United States require at least two years of foreign language in order to graduate, and nearly all colleges require some foreign language experience in their general education. In a fast-paced, globalized world with near constant communication between people of all nations and tongues, the ability to speak a foreign language is already a highly valued skill in the workforce.

I’m a college junior double-majoring in both Japanese and international relations, and nearly all the programs and internships I have applied for or participated in preferred candidates who were “business level” proficient or higher in a second language. Now in my seventh year of studying Japanese, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the journey that has brought me to where I am now, currently studying abroad in Tokyo for the fall semester and entering my second internship in a Japanese business. Hopefully my experience is relatable to others college and even high schools students who have pursued foreign language study as a significant component of their academic career. I also hope to provide some insight to those who are just embarking on their language acquisition journey.

Why I chose to study a foreign language

Growing up I had only spoken English; my parents are Asian American and also do not speak any other language fluently. Unlike many of my Asian American peers, I was not enrolled in a language school from an early age, so my first experience learning a second language started freshman year of high school.

My desire to study Japanese came from my mom’s Japanese American heritage and my previous travels to Japan. Although I had been to Japan several times, I could not fully engage with the culture because I did not understand the language, so I felt that learning it would help me appreciate my experiences more. The opportunity came when a high school in my city offered a waiver program where we could transfer if we committed to take four years of Japanese. I eagerly signed up and was accepted, and thus started my journey studying the foreign language I still am working on today.

My language journey in high school

In the beginning, learning Japanese was a breeze for me. Japanese has a lot of set grammar patterns, expressions, and conjugations that you can easily grasp with just a little bit of practice. The first three years of my in-school classes taught me all the basic grammar I needed to get around Japan, plus the bare minimum phrases and make easy, superficial conversation. The fourth year of high school Japanese emphasized using all of the things we learned instead of teaching us new things.

In addition to my high school language classes, the summer after my junior year I studied abroad in Japan for six weeks and lived with a host family while attending a local high school. Looking back at my high school language journey, I saw a huge improvement relatively rapidly, especially from the first to third year of study. Just like many people when they first start a language, everything is new and exciting, and it is relatively easy to see progress. I was at the top of my classes and people thought of me as the language “expert.” I tried to sound as smart as possible and explain things to my classmates…even though I probably did not understand all the grammar points perfectly myself.

Related: The Experts' Choice: Colleges with Great Study Abroad Options

My language journey in college

Coming into college I was proficient enough to test into the highest level of Japanese, so I was put into a translation class that many seniors often take in order to finish the major. My college classes were quite different from my high school ones. For starters, classes in college are not every day, so instead of having Japanese one hour five days a week, you have it for one hour three times a week. My Japanese college classes also centered on a specific theme, such as translation of essays or reading newspapers, instead of just holistic Japanese learning. The other students in my class ranged from people who studied throughout high school like me to people who spoke it at home and to actual native speakers. I was not the “top dog” anymore, but I still enjoyed the challenge nonetheless.

As my college semesters progressed and I became more involved in other things, I found myself finding less time and motivation to study Japanese compared to when I was in high school. I also experienced “retroactive interference,” where new information learned prevents you from recalling old information. The more concepts I learned, the more my brain felt overwhelmed and it was harder to see a lot of improvement. I often felt envious of my other friends who studied Japanese just like me but moved there after high school who seemed like they suddenly became “fluent.” I frequently fixated becoming “fluent,” without really defining what fluency meant to me; in retrospect I think I just wanted to be the best at something, to go back to being the “expert” like I was in high school.

My sophomore year Japanese classes and my internship in Tokyo this year have truly humbled me and have allowed me to set more realistic foreign language development goals. I have learned to not compare my foreign language journey to others’ or treat it like a competition. Rather, the goal should be to do one’s own best while humbly being able to look to those who are better than you for advice and helping others who are not as advanced as you in a way that you would like to be helped. I have also learned that it is okay to ask questions and to openly express that you don’t understand something, although I still sometimes have trouble admitting that I am completely lost in Japanese class and pretend that I know what’s going on. And there are times when I wish I could just hurry up and improve so I can feel confident while engaging in deep conversations with my friends in Japanese!

These days foreign language fluency for me means being able to enter into almost any situation and feel confident that I can understand and be understood. Or if I don’t understand something for any reason, I am comfortable asking for clarification and then understand the follow-up. Fluency also means being able to keep up the many relationships I have developed with my Japanese friends on a level comparable to how I relate to my native-English-speaker friends. After all, I have to remember that my end goal of studying this foreign language is so I could communicate and appreciate my experiences in the foreign culture I chose to submerse myself in. I recently saw my aunt who is fluent in Japanese and has orchestrated business deals and presentations in Japanese for some language tips, and she said her fluency has been a 40-year long journey. Considering that I am only in my seventh year of my journey, I have a long way to go. I may not be the best, but I am committed to my own personal growth as I study my foreign language.

Did you/are you studying any foreign languages in high school or college? Share your tips for other students in the comments.

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About Naomi Hong

Naomi Hong graduated from Occidental College in 2018 with a degree in International Relations and Japanese and a minor in Economics. She currently works as a concierge/front desk agent at a luxury hotel in Southern California. She's passionate about hospitality and travel and hope to continue my career within the hotel industry. She also enjoys writing articles about career advice, studying abroad, and learning new languages. 


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