Feb 28

News agency Kyodo News has recently been publishing monthly articles written by JET alumni who were appointed in rural areas of Japan, as part of promotion for the JET Programme. Below is the English version of the column from January 2013. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.


Khalid Birdsong (Osaka-fu, 2003-05) attended Howard University, in Washington D.C. from 1993-1997. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design. He is currently an Art teacher at a private school in Palo Alto, CA for grades Kindergarten through 4th. He is also a freelance cartoonist and webcomic artist. His comic about living in Japan can be found at www.friedchickenandsushi.com .




I couldn’t speak their language!

I moved to Japan in the summer of 2003 to work as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Junior High School for the JET Programme. I was placed in a small town called Shimamoto near the mountains in-between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. I ended up living there for two years. Two years full of wonderful experiences and pleasant surprises. As an African-American man from Atlanta, Georgia, living in Japan also had its challenges! One of the most difficult was learning the Japanese language.

Fortunately, this was not my first time to move to a new country. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. I have been lucky to live in countries like Nigeria, Germany and the Bahamas. These experiences opened me up to the richness of the world and taught me about adjusting to a new culture. Unfortunately, I have always been afraid of speaking another language so I never learned any others very well. I felt like living in Japan would give me another chance to really learn a language well as an adult and get over my fear.

 I studied a little Japanese a few months before moving but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to understand everything once there. Most countries I have visited or lived in have many people that can speak English well. They use some sort of alphabet so I can figure out parts of the writing. Japan was the first Asian country I had ever lived in or even visited! It was tough to get around without help from someone translating. I felt handicapped because I could not go out and do much by myself. It was difficult to get used to being so helpless.

 The first three months were the hardest. Adjusting to the food, hitting my head on doors from being too tall and of course not knowing what was going on around me. Everyone I worked with at my Junior High School was used to having foreign ALTs so they were friendly and patient with me. I was not very patient with myself. There was one teacher who made me take roll and call out all of the students’ names before we started our lesson. Japanese names were so difficult for me to pronounce and I am sure I sounded ridiculous trying to say them! I would get so upset with how terrible I was with saying those names that I was afraid of going to classes. The teacher could sense my frustration and taught me how to break up a name into parts and then say them all together. It worked! Even though I still made plenty of mistakes, I was not as afraid to pronounce complicated Japanese last names.

 The JET Program has a very good Japanese correspondence course so I took it and studied hard. My Japanese improved and after several months I even learned to read and write hiragana and katakana. The only problem was, I could understand what people were saying pretty well but I still felt afraid to speak in public. I was always hearing the language all day every day but there were not many opportunities to speak it. My fear of making a mistake and looking silly was difficult to get over. I committed myself to speaking Japanese with people at work and when I was out. This was not as easy as it sounds. When I would try to speak to people in Japanese, they would give me a funny look because what I was saying would either sound incorrect or confusing.

 I remember practicing how to ask people about their weekend. When I asked the principal of the school I was working in how his weekend was, he gave me a surprised look and almost laughed at me. He was nice to tell me that his weekend was enjoyable but I knew I must have done something strange. I asked the English teacher I worked with about it and she said that no one at the school ever asks the principal about his weekend. He was probably shocked and did not know what to say. Of course, the reason for this is because I did not understand the way things were done at the school and not because of my language mistakes. The principal understood my Japanese and I understood his response. Unfortunately, I was so embarrassed by my cultural mistake that it just made me feel like I should not try to speak because I always make mistakes.

 Dating my Japanese girlfriend, who is now my wife, really helped with my confidence. Fortunately, she could speak English pretty well and she was patient with me when I tried speaking Japanese to her. I could ask her questions about how to pronounce difficult words and she gave me advice on how to sound like a natural speaker instead of like a textbook. Even though I had her help, I still had to get accustomed to making a lot of mistakes and looking foolish speaking Japanese with others. We would go out together and she would have me practice ordering food at a restaurant or have me ask a question to an employee at a store. Spending time with my wife gave me a chance to ask questions about real life in Japan. I was able to understand the people better and realize that they all have challenges and fears just like I do.

 Over time, I became more comfortable with living in Japan. This comfort gave me more confidence to speak the language. Learning about Japanese culture and history made me more aware of how to talk with people and why others may react in a certain way to things that I say or do. I learned that becoming comfortable speaking a language is about more than just studying it. You have to get to know the culture of the country the language is from. The JET Programme gave me the opportunity to spend time in Japan and have a full experience around learning a language and sharing my culture with Japanese people while learning to love theirs.

Comments are closed.

Page Rank