How good is my Japanese?

Thoughts on doing an interview in a foreign language after 3 years of living abroad

When I left the room I felt like a champion. Thus, without caring about the results that would be announced next week, I was in peace with myself.

I always liked Japanese culture, from its worldwide known pop culture’s anime to the traditional culture such as zen meditation and origami, however I never had any serious thoughts on studying in Japan or formally studying Japanese when I was in school. In 2013, following my appetite for trying new things, I enrolled in a Japanese language and culture course that my mom found in a small room on the second floor of our favorite library. The course consisted in one class per week and it relied pretty much on independent studying, yet, in every lesson teachers shared their stories of the time they visited, or for some of them, when they lived in Japan. The passion with which they shared their anecdotes about Japan and its multi-diverse culture filled our minds with beautiful images and curiosity, and it sparked in me the idea that, perhaps I could too enjoy this adventure and live those experiences first hand.

5 years have past since that feeling roused inside of me, and almost 3 years since I enrolled in Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. Here, I started taking Japanese courses as soon as classes started back in 2016, where I was placed in the first (beginners) level. At the time, I couldn’t speak with my Japanese friends nor understand what people was saying to me anywhere I went, as I only knew some short phrases such as おはようございます (good morning) or トイレどこですか (where is the toilet), the numbers, some colors and hiragana and katakana (the Japanese writing system that one must learn prior to kanji). Now, after making my way to the intermediate-advance level of Japanese class, I’m not only able to join daily life conversations and understand 90% of what people is telling me, but also I managed for the first time to be interviewed in formal Japanese.

Because the program I’m enrolled is in English, there is no real need to actually know Japanese. In fact, in a city such as Kyoto, as a result of the yearly increased tourism and the upcoming Olympics that will be held in Tokyo, not only the University but also the government and private owned businesses offers support to people from abroad in Chinese, Korean and English. Even though one could live here for years only using English, as an be fine, as an international student one of the benefits of knowing Japanese is that there are way more opportunities for getting scholarships.
One day after I applied for one of these for the first time, I received an email from the student center telling me that I was being elected as a candidate for the Mizuho International Foundation scholarship.

Email send by Ritsumeikan International Center notifying me about the opportunity

Later on, once the screening was finished and I made it to the interview, I e-mail them in English asking about the language in which it will be held, to what they replied “The interviewer is Mr. Okudera. You may speak both of Japanese and English. Wearing a suit would be desirable”. As soon as I read this I started to get on nerves

The interviewer is Japanese …….
I don’t have a suit! …….
What do they really mean with you may? …….
What should I do!?

Only thing I knew for certain is that I had to be prepared for anything, especially knowing that in Japan formal interviews have their own rituals which one should follow in order to succeed. For example if one knocks the door four times instead of three times before going inside the room or if one seats down before the interviewer asks one to do so, it could cost one the entire interview. In addition to that, learning a new language is different from perhaps a physical activity where results are visible to the eyes. 
How good is my Japanese? is a question that led to me to use comparison as a mean to get the answer, but this often resulted in disappointment and frustration with myself as it is expected, there is always going to be someone better than me at it. Also, a written test or my Japanese class grades couldn’t tell me anything of my speaking skills.

There are people who became famous for their ability to learn a language in 3 months fluently, who encourage us to learn them faster, and which personally made me blame myself and think that I’m taking too long because I’m lazy and insufficient. Yet, what I realized is that the key was not the paste but the consistency. That slow but steady one is capable of achieving anything if one keeps persisting.

Interview day, wearing the suit, feeling nervous but prepared

The interview was an experience that helped me realize or remember this simple advice, reason why, when I walked outside of the interview room, I felt the my progress so far, as if it was tangible in my hands… I realized the power of being confident and patient with oneself myself, and how this enabled me to actually to see both the results of two weeks of practicing in from of the mirror over and over again and of 5 years since I started to learn the language. It was amazing.

My advice for anyone who is studying any language is to not compare yourself with either those who learn super fast, neither those who seems to go very slow. Everyone have their own unique ways of learning, and only focusing on one factor such as speed, won’t tell you much about your own ability. If you really want to measure your progress, the best way to do is going out there finding challenges and/ or experiences where the only player is you. From finding people who speak the language to chat with in the streets or a cafe or doing a video of yourself speaking about a whatever topic in that language and deciding later whether to share it or no, There are many tons of options that will take you out of your comfort zone, but still you can prepare for it.

Don’t stop your self from trying when you feel “you’re not ready yet” or “not good enough”, if it doesn’t work, there is a good new for you: its okay, because you can try again :)