Thoughts on Living Between 2 Languages

I’m absolutely certain that this isn’t some new, unique circumstance for a person to find themselves living in, but I thought I’d comment on it nonetheless. It’s not uncommon for people to move to a country where their native tongue isn’t widely spoken, nor is it a rarity for such people to either adjust to their lives and assimilate into their new community, or hold on for dear life to their past and traditions.

Me? I’m just trying to find a happy middle between both those options. Here’s my two cents on living in a land where my native tongue is only ever spoken at home, and when/where I use both Japanese and English.

Let me just start off with a VERY common misconception friends and family tell me all the time concerning how Japanese people react to the fact that I’m a non-native living in Japan…

I’m not going to say that a lot of the native people I live around are upset, off-put, or offended if/when they overhear me speaking English, but it can get you some pretty interesting reactions. I’ve been here long enough that I don’t necessarily have the awkward gesture parade with cashiers, clerks, or servers when I’m trying to get a point across without the right words to use, but even when my Japanese ability was at its lowest I wouldn’t try to communicate in English.

The fact of the matter is, I’m living in a country where my native language is not the mother tongue. Obviously this means that if I want to get by in life, I’ve got to learn the national language or get help from someone else. I actually know quite a few foreigners who have lived in Japan for DECADES who have little to no Japanese ability, and quite frankly it doesn’t surprise me. I’m said it before, and I’ll say it again: knowing Japanese while living in Japan helps you TREMENDOUSLY, but is not necessary to live and function.

Most people don’t realize that you can live in a foreign country without learning the language, culture, history, or lifestyle of its people. It’s an interesting concept, and ultimately becomes a choice for all expats who wish to live in Japan for lengthy amounts of time. Those that come for a year or two at most more than likely will not need to know the language (and usually find it a waste to even consider learning), but those that stay longer can either dive in and figure it out, or stay distant and live a detached life.

For those who choose to live in a foreign country and not learn the mother tongue of that area, life gets a little less opportunistic and a little more closed off. Sure, there’s usually a large network of expats that you can reach out to an lean on, and the internet can provide multitudes of connections and resources, but not knowing how to ask the cashier at the store if you can have two bags instead of one can sometimes seriously impact your happiness in another country.

I’m getting on a bit of a tangent here, but you get the idea. Before I get any further off track, let’s go over how both Japanese and English play a part in my daily life.

Language at Home

When I’m in the comfort of my own home, I speak English… Mainly. But I watch Japanese TV and have Japanese subtitles on while watching Netflix shows in English. Why? Because I want to continue passively learning. The fact that I can tell that subtitles are only about 80% accurate (as in having the real meaning actually get through in the Japanese translation) lets me know I’m getting further in my understanding and knowledge of the language.

I speak to my cat in both Japanese and English because it’s funny and good practice. It gives me an excuse to practice scolding and baby speak in Japanese that I won’t really get anywhere else. Having said that, I’m sure my partner would be more than happy to speak conversational Japanese with me (seeing as how they’re practically fluent at this point), but I don’t feel like pestering someone else who’s at home relaxing with a mini-language lesson, so generally I hold off on full conversations and just ask a question or two about what we watch on TV.

I also have a vast collection of books in Japanese that I like to practice reading. It takes quite some time, as there’s plenty of Kanji I have yet to study, but it can be quite a fun challenge. In particular I find reading the Harry Potter series translated into Japanese to be a fun undertaking, as it’s a story I know very well and can follow along with.

In summary – At home: speaking English and Japanese, listening to Japanese and English, and reading Japanese.

Language at Work

I speak to my employees in Japanese, though they’ll often ask me a question about an English word or phrase if they want to know more about it. We recently had one of our higher ups throw away a salad container that had two edamame left in it. When asked why he left them, he replied, “異物です” which I laughingly had to translate for them that it was funny because he considers them to be “foreign bodies”. We all had a good laugh at the translation on that one and how strange it was for him to say such a phrase in either language. Real talk, the man could have just said he doesn’t like them instead of making it sound like they were viruses attacking his salad.

Some coworkers like to practice their English on me, which I don’t mind at all. Generally I’ll answer them in Japanese, or very simple English, which they find comforting. It’s almost endearing to have them want to learn more of my language so we can communicate more, even though I’m already doing the same with their language. It shows that some consider language learning a two-way street, which is a great mindset to have.

In the early days I would have had to translate every email or memo that crossed my path, but after years of seeing the same words and phrases over and over again it’s become easier to understand them without the aid of Google Translate. Writing, however, is still a bit of a challenge for me, though typing up my responses in Japanese hasn’t failed me yet – despite the fact that I practice handwriting Kanji nearly 10 hours a week.

In summary – At work: speaking, reading, and typing in Japanese with the occasional English thrown in to help a coworker learn a bit.

Language While Traveling

I’ve traveled to Europe, Australia, and North America with Japanese friends and English-speaking friends quite a few times now, and I’ve got to say this one tends to the most interesting in terms of language use.

For my Japanese friends, I’ve acted as a sort of translator/interpreter during our travels, though some knew enough English to get by but just wanted to double-check their understanding with me to feel more comfortable. For the most part, however, I would engage with these friends in Japanese while we traveled so that almost anyone (because realistically there could have been a person or two nearby who could understand us) overhearing our conversation wouldn’t know what we were talking about. We could discuss how much money we brought with us, where we wanted to go, what our plans for the day were, our real opinions and feelings about a place, and so much more without fear.

While traveling with English-speaking friends who know zero Japanese, I’ll only ever revert to speaking Japanese if we’re traveling within Japan. Much like how I’ve acted as a guide for my Japanese friends in English-speaking countries, I’ve come to take on the role of tour-guide/translator for English-speaking friends traveling through Japan. All I ask is to get paid in food for my services, of course!

When traveling with my partner, who knows both English and Japanese, we tend to speak primarily to each other in the language those around us are using. When traveling in Japan, we speak Japanese (unless we’re traveling with English-speaking friends who don’t know Japanese, and then – lucky them – they get two guides!). When traveling through other countries, we speak English to one another unless there is a scenario where Japanese is preferred, or we want to say something private to one another.

In summary – While traveling: Japanese while in Japan, traveling with Japanese friends, or when a private conversation is needed (and can be understood), and English both in and out of Japan with English-speaking friends.

Language in Writing

Though I desperately want this to change in the near future, my writing is exclusively in English. I do, of course, practice writing in Japanese (both by hand and typing) whenever I can, but it’s still just self-study at the moment. I’m not sure if I’ll ever publish any works in Japanese in the future (unless they’re adorable children’s books with very simple phrases targeted at learning Japanese and/or English), but you never know.

When it comes to communicating with friends and family, the majority of those I still reach out to only understand English, and as such I mainly text and email in English. I have one or two friends who prefer to text in Japanese (as they themselves are learning as well), though those messages are few and far between.

In summary – Language in writing: English for 99% with a dash of Japanese thrown in for good measure.

Language in Dreaming

This one has recently become more of a shock to me. It was during my second year in Japan that I would have interesting dreams wherein I would be speaking ‘fluent’ Japanese to someone (though I assure you, my Japanese at the time was far from it). Over the years I now have dreams where I’ll switch between speaking English and Japanese to others in my dreams, or just stick to one or the other completely for the whole dream.

The worst part is that my ‘dream Japanese’ is generally a lot better than my real-life Japanese, which means I usually wake up and curse my mind for trying to fool me into thinking I have a better language ability than I really do. Though, for all I know, the Japanese I use in my dreams may very well be the true level I’m at, but I’m too nervous/anxious when using Japanese in day-to-day life to ever reach that level. We may never know…

In summary – Language in Dreaming: Both English and Japanese, though they do tend to skew more towards English most of the time.

Overall: Preferred Language in Daily Life

I’m sure if I worked elsewhere or lived in a city with a higher population of expats I would be able to get by just fine with less Japanese in my daily life. Thankfully, other than my partner there isn’t really anyone else I speak to in English through my day, so I’ve been immersed in the language and have taken to it like a fish to water. I’m still not perfect, and certainly not fluent, but I’m a lot closer to being so than I would have been if I lived in one of the bigger cities in Japan.

When looking back at where I thought I’d be in life, I never would have pictured living in a country where I had to learn another language to survive. It’s been an interesting challenge so far, and I hope that as my language ability grows, so to does my level of happiness for living in Japan.

Do you live in an area where your native tongue is not the mother tongue? Do you want to someday? Would you rather not? Let us know in the comments below, along with what languages you speak! We’d love to hear from you!

Happy reading, writing, living, and working!

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