Changing Your Operating System

If you ask a low-level student what’s hard about Japanese, they’ll probably say kanji. Maybe grammar or particles. But probably kanji. If you ask a high-level student what’s hard about Japanese, though, they’ll probably say intonation or natural phrasing.

Foreigner intonation of Japanese grates on my ears. It’s nails on a chalkboard. It’s also how I sound if I’m not very, very careful. T_T

There are quite a few methods for improving your intonation, but the best advice I’ve heard is that you should consciously direct the development of your Japanese personality—your Japanese “avatar,” if you will.

Losing Yourself to Fluency

When I speak Japanese, I am a different person than when I speak English. I have different gestures. I sit differently. I respond to people in a different way. It’s almost like my Japanese-speaking self is a completely different person than my English-speaking self.

I’m not unique in feeling this way. Scientific studies have shown that multilingual people have multiple personalities, and that their behavior will vary based on what language they are conversing in.

Way back in 1964, for example, a study performed by Ervin-Tripp interviewed Japanese women living in the San Francisco area. These women were highly fluent in English, and they only used Japanese when visiting Japan or talking with certain family members. They then conducted interviews with them—some in Japanese and some in English. A portion of the interview where they had the women complete sentences was particularly interesting:

  1. When my wishes conflict with my family...
    (Japanese) is a time of great unhappiness.
    (English) ...I do what I want.

  2. I will probably become...
    (Japanese) ...a housewife.
    (English) ...a teacher.

  3. Real friends should...
    (Japanese) each other.
    (English) very frank.

On a certain level, this all makes sense. Different languages have different ways of expressing things. As a result, you say different things. Which means that you think different things. In this way, language shapes personal beliefs, views, and culture as a whole.

You sometimes hear people talk about how you should “think in a target language.” Usually their argument is that doing so will give you lots of valuable practice forming sentences, recalling words, etc. On another level, though, it is important because it forces you to start thinking the things that a native speaker of your target language thinks.

At some point in your Japanese studies, you will experience the following situation:

  1. You will think something in English, then say it in what you figure is a pretty close Japanese equivalent.
  2. A native Japanese speaker (if they’re nice) will say that your Japanese sounds strange.
  3. You ask, “How do I say it, then?”
  4. “You don’t.”

Reaching high-level fluency, you will begin to experience the opposite of this. You will want to respond to people speaking English with Japanese words and phrases that simply do not translate naturally into English. My wife Rei and I, for example, tried to switch to speaking only English a while ago. At times, it is extremely difficult, because the things we want to tell each other do not work in the English language.

Your Many Avatars

The idea of being different people in different situations is not well-received these days. Search online, and you’ll find some article saying, “Businesses Beware: Millennials Demand Authenticity.” Or some BS like that.

I want to clarify, though, that you can have many personalities and still be authentic. Are you still being yourself when you talk to your 3-year-old niece? I’m sure you use different gestures, a different tone of voice. But you’re still being yourself, still being authentic (I hope). The same is true when working with someone on a business project. When applying for a job. When talking to your parents. Your friends. Yourself. We have different voices, different gestures—different people—inside of us.

I have one version of myself that I like to think of as “Douchebag Niko.” I hate that guy. Honestly. He’s the version of myself that wants to quit huge projects that I care about (looking at you, kanji). He’s the version of myself that wants to make lots of money online, even if it means helping less people to learn languages, improve their lives, etc. He’s the version of myself that frames everything negatively, that makes me self-conscious, blah blah blah. But by separating “Douchebag Niko” as a separate personality, it’s a lot easier to boot that loser anytime he shows up in my head. Similarly, the Japanese version of myself (who is, in many ways, “the real ニコ (Niko)” is welcome. And he’s not shy about mimicking Japanese people’s weird gestures, or pronunciation, or expressions—because he is Japanese.

That’s what I tell myself, at least. The practice of it can be a bit difficult at times

Your Japanese Avatar

While developing your Japanese personality, there are generally three things you want to emulate:

  1. Pronunciation and intonation.
  2. Facial expressions.
  3. Body language.

It will feel embarrassing at first, but if you watch YouTube videos, for example, you can try to completely imitate a Japanese person. Not just the copy the words he or she is saying—we’re talking about copying the pauses, the rises and falls in their voice, their posture—everything. Because it’s embarrassing, it might help to turn it into a game.

As you play this game over and over again, you can pick out certain behaviors for certain Japanese people and add them to your Japanese self—who will, in time, become a full-fledged person.

Or not. Whatever floats your boat, as they say.

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