One year ago, when we arrived in Tokyo, Silke and I did not know much about Japanese culture and language. So, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that there would be a basic in-house Japanese class for ELSI researchers and family, and immediately signed up. We started off learning some useful phrases, and soon mastered having simple conversations - first within, and then outside of class. It remains to be said that Japanese is quite a bit easier than we expected; and with some sentences consisting of only one word, it's no big surprise that we mastered building our own sentences soon. That said, we enjoyed a steep learning curve in a casual environment and are very happy with our progress over the first year. It feels as if we are now well equipped for basic conversations, particularly once we take some extra time for regular practice and cramming vocabulary at home.
A big thanks to Sayaka Price that we have been able to advance that much in such a short time. She is a great teacher, and the ELSI Japanese class may perhaps be one of the best of its kind. Admittedly, we do not have much to compare with, but we hear that many other classes are rather theoretical and do not involve a lot of conversation and hands-on practice. In Sayaka's class we had plenty of those. For example, Sayaka organized conversational meetings with the staff as homework assignments. In these meetings, we would chat about our hobbies, where we live, our daily routines, or our family backgrounds (thank you Asai-san, Endo-san, Kobayashi-san, Kamatani-san, Suganuma-san, Tajima-san, Tanaka-san, Uchida-san and Yonehara-san and for sharing your time and being patient with us). In class, Sayaka put a lot of emphasis on understanding, speaking and intonation. She presented new vocab using cartoons and gestures instead of long lists. Thus, we learned Japanese quite naturally and not so much filtered through English, which isn't our native language either. In the beginning we even had the luxury of having Sayaka to ourselves, pretty much like private lessons. Later on, Nathaniel and Rehana (and Inna for some intermittent time) joined, and we enjoyed talking to each other in Japanese, for example about what we did over the weekend. Sometimes, we tried to be accurate but failed to express ourselves correctly. Sometimes, we just made things up, but at least it was grammatically correct.
For all of us, the class has come to an end as I write this blog - at least for the summer break. Even though progress always seemed to be incremental, and setbacks appeared to be huge particularly when classes were missed due to business-related travel, we realize how much we learned looking back. For Silke and me, summer break will unfortunately last forever. We will return to our home continent Europe, after one year in Japan (and the previous years that we spent in the US). Our experiences abroad shaped ourselves and changed us for good. In addition to the friends we made along the way, bonds which we hope will stay forever, the places we've seen and the languages we've learned will stick. During this one year in Japan we've started to appreciate a completely new language with a totally different structure. This experience taught us about yet another way people can communicate with each other and express themselves. Although we intend to continue studying Japanese in Europe, we will certainly miss the regular Japanese conversations in class, and our meetings with the staff. We are looking forward to coming back for a visit to ELSI soon, not only to catch up with colleagues but also to sit back in Sayaka's class.