This piece of writing is based on my personal experience in learning Japanese. Some of the discussions may be valid for other languages but I will mainly present issues and challenges I faced in trying to put the Japanese I learned into practice, how I overcame them and what lessons could be drawn.
In my country, when I first learned Japanese, I was self-taught. There were not many materials available. Back in 2005, with an old textbook “Nihongo Shoho, 日本語初歩” that I could borrow from a friend and the help of my very limited internet access, I started to learn basic grammar and vocabulary. I still remember the first sentence of the first lesson わたしは日本人です。It was so much focused on grammar and drills and detached from the reality I lived in. But as a good student, I started to dig in without any question. Once I started to master the book, I only believed in grammar and for a very long time, in accuracy over fluency. Later experience made me realize the shortcomings of such belief.
In 2007, two years after my first encounter with the Japanese language, I was working as an interpreter at a Japanese construction company. Due to the rarity of people being able to speak Japanese, they hired me regardless of my very limited experience. I had some time to learn more about the content of the work and perfect my grammar. However, as soon as I opened my mouth for the first time, I was surprised to see that what I said was unintelligible. I thought I was good at Japanese. I even won a beginner speech contest prize one year earlier and I was certain I was good in discussing grammar up to a certain level. But speaking Japanese was indeed different from what I imagined. After this incident, I started to doubt myself and did not feel good for three or four days. Then, a Japanese coworker, very fluent in my mother tongue came and asked me how I spoke Japanese. He said「イメージですよ。イメージです。」. Was he saying I lack imagination? He was right, I was so focused on the words and could not picture what the discussion was about.
For a very long time I believed that language was about input and then output and did not picture the importance of imagination. It helped me a lot to read books I read in other languages and then reread in Japanese. I, for instance, started with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le petit prince” 星の王子さま, which is available in hundreds of languages and talks about so many aspects of life. And if you are religious or just want to try to read some of the sacred texts of different religions, some of them come with everyday life Japanese translation （口語）, which are easier to understand, especially when you already know what they are talking about. The last genre I was interested in was manga. When you live on an island, you do not have much access to new books but I was still able to read some of the old classic Japanese mangas like Black Jack or Hinotori by Osamu Tezuka and some of them had furigana, which was very helpful. Reading for fun helps develop this kind of imagination but has its limitation, which I discovered once in real life situation during my work in my country and especially in Japan.
One day, a Japanese friend and I were invited to a picnic by very important people. They invited us to join them in their car on a hot summer day and as customary in my country, to prompt conversation, we talk about the weather. As soon as I uttered the words 「暑いですね」, my friend was angry with me. That day, I did not understand what happened until I found myself in the same situation many years later. When I first came to Japan, with some friends, we went to a typical Japanese restaurant in Osaka. When asked about the food, one of them was eager to state things as they were using the simple Japanese grammatical forms he knew and said「おいしくない」. I understood because in my culture, when you do not want to hurt someone, you do not say “it is bad”, you say “it is not good” and it is perfectly fine. However, in this particular situation, I was really uneasy as I realized that it badly hurt the hosts who put all their heart in preparing the food as they rarely receive so many foreign guests in their shop.
I realized it must have hurt the owners of the car when I said “it is hot” after they kindly invited us to join them. It was not a complaint, and when my friend said that the food was not delicious, I know it was not a complaint either. Nevertheless, it is normal for people who have been taught to always put themselves in the others’ shoes as common sense (常識(じょうしき)) to expect the others to say something positive. Words have meanings but most importantly, they carry messages. It is important to know the grammar, the vocabulary, and have imagination. But it is much important to understand the culture behind as learning Japanese often requires reflection on the hidden meanings of the words. Without a proper understanding of the culture, one might use the right grammar and vocabulary, imagine a meaning that makes sense but convey the wrong message, which could ruin the communication.