Language permeates so ubiquitously in my daily life that it is almost comparable to the air I breathe in that I take it for granted. It comes in many forms. First, there is the verbal language that I use in communication with family, friends, and others around me. Then, there is the written language that I use primarily to obtain information and as entertainment in the form of books, newspapers, and magazines. These are only just a few of the various ways in which I utilize and benefit from the existence of languages as a tool.
I am Japanese by birth, but I moved to the United States when I was about 10 years old and I have lived in California ever since. Naturally, English is essential in the daily life, as everyone else around me speaks English. It is the main mode by which I interact with others. Japanese is equally important, yet less in a practical way, since I could survive in the United States without using it. Its importance is more of a spiritual kind that gives me a connection to my native roots and culture that I still hold on to.
It would be difficult for me to even imagine my life without these languages. The experience of immigrating to a new environment and encountering a new language and distancing myself from my native tongue may have made me more sensitive to what languages can offer. Therefore, it was only natural that my interests were directed towards them so I could further pursue and appreciate them. What did not occur to me was how unaware I was of these languages. I had been immersed in both languages at a young enough age that I never had to struggle to use them as a way to convey my thoughts and feelings. As a matter of fact, the first grammar that I ever learned was in middle school. It would not be incorrect to say that I have a better grammatical understanding of Spanish, which I learned as a foreign language in high school, than the two languages I grew up speaking.
In the same way that I do not question or even stop to think how I breathe or how my heart beats, Japanese and English languages had escaped close scrutiny until I started really to pay conscious attention to them.
In my teenage years, I had the privilege of helping a Japanese writer translate several books for children and young adults from English to Japanese. This helped me to begin to connect one language to the other, and vice versa. As I got more and more experience with translation from one language to the other, I began to notice my lack of awareness of each of the languages. Even if I knew the meaning of a phrase or a sentence in one language, sometimes I had a hard time expressing the same thing in the other, though if I heard the same sentence in the second language, I would have no trouble understanding it. I started to realize that my production skills fell far below my comprehension skills.
I always believe that recognizing one’s inaptness is just as important as working to overcome those weaknesses. After I elucidated my inadequacies around the two languages, there are several points that I have always tried to keep in mind. The first is to constantly be active in perceiving a language. I used to have the tendency to listen to someone talking to me or to the news on the radio and to just pick up the meaning of what was talked about. When I tried to re-narrate the same story, I often could not find the right words. I could not even reproduce what I just heard. In an effort to find a way around this issue, I have been trying to not simply extract the facts and information from what I hear, but to also remember the exact phrase that was used to convey the information. I have found this to be effective in expanding not only my vocabulary but also learning new phrases and proverbs. When I come across unfamiliar phrases or proverbial expressions, I take a note of them and look them up in the dictionary. That extra step helps me to retain the material better and longer.
Another method that has proven effective is to have someone review my use of the languages. I utilize this method mostly for written language. It helps not so much to learn new words or phrases, but rather, to correct any mistakes or awkwardness in the language that I write. Since I live in the United States, neither being exposed much to the Japanese language nor living under the constant pressure of the society, I feel that I often get away with inaccurate or incorrect Japanese. Similarly, since I am not a native speaker of English, people do not judge my English skills against a high standard either. Therefore, I always feel the need to actively find ways to improve my languages. My mother, who is a professional writer and therefore keeps a high standard of Japanese for herself, has been cooperative and has helped me a lot with my Japanese.
To expose my languages is another way that I use to improve my language skills. There are abundant opportunities to use English since I live in the United States, but my Japanese is not used as often. Therefore, I have chosen to work in an environment where Japanese is required. I work at an English language school as a student adviser, and this job involves a lot of verbal and written communication in both languages and the mastery of a variety of styles of them. With the students, I must speak clearly with simple vocabulary and straightforward sentence structures, whereas when I have professional conversations or written correspondences with contracting agencies or other facilities, I must quickly switch to the formal, intellectual type of writing or speech. The latter takes a high level of sensitivity to be flexible to use direct or indirect mode of expression or to be assertive at times and passive at others, in order for me to complete the assigned tasks appropriately. Even though I still feel that my language skills could be greatly improved, my languages are both exposed to others and used on a daily basis, and I enjoy becoming more aware of how versatile they both are.
So far I have discussed a few practical methods to improve the languages I would like to utilize in my future professional career. However, ultimately, I consider that the joy and excitement I feel from being more actively aware of my languages are what drive me to pursue further and further. English and Japanese are not only tools, but they also provide me with opportunities for enriching experiences that I cherish.
＜Profile＞ Sara NISHI
Patent, Technical and Medical Translation Major
Born and raised in Kumamoto, Kyushu, until the age of ten, when she moved to Southern California. She graduated from University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in Environmental Biology. Now she resides in San Diego, where she works with international students and enjoys training and teaching aikido.In the future she wishes to integrate her science background with her interests in languages to become a scientific translator.