Confessions of a Novice Traveler – Foreign Languages

As I looked for my return flight to the US in Narita International Airport, I showed my passport to a guard as part of the usual process. He was an older gentleman, one of a few guards at the checkpoint I came across in the international terminal. “Arigatou gozaimasu” I said, bowing my head slightly as he let me through. He bowed back, smiled, and told me that my Japanese was “very good.” I smiled back and thanked him again; even if he was just being nice, it definitely made me feel better about how many times I had to say that phrase before my pronunciation was “very good.”

I’ve never been the most adept at learning multiple languages. Growing up, I felt like I never really understood concepts like “conjugation,” or the fact that intonation can change the meaning of a word to something completely different. My English has always been above average, but I always felt like learning another language wasn’t for me.

As I grew older, I began to understand why learning a second language is encouraged, especially at a young age. Not only does it make you more valuable in the global economy, but you become a more well-rounded, cultured individual by being fluent in a non-English language in the US. And of course, traveling to foreign countries would be a lot easier if I could understand the local dialects wherever I go.

I am only able to read and speak English, but I am not letting that minor shortcoming stop me from traveling to different places around the world. Many places that I would like to visit still have many English speakers, even if it is not the primary language. My understanding is that even where English is not the primary language, you can usually find enough English resources to get by in major metropolitan hubs like Tokyo. Even street signs and transit announcements were in English to a certain extent in Japan, and that fact really helped me out when I proceeded to get lost and confused in the middle of Tokyo.

For Japan, I remembered a few key Japanese phrases that I figured would be useful. The ones I probably said the most were “arigatou gozaimasu” (meaning “thank you”) and “sumimasen” (meaning “excuse me” in the context of forcing your way through a crowd). These really helped me through situations that happened literally every day in Japan, including ordering food from restaurants and navigating through crowded streets and trains without being too much of an ignorant tourist. Of course, the moment I entered conversation in Japanese beyond phrases like “hello” or “sorry”, that’s where my ability to communicate simply died on the spot (unless I was lucky and they knew enough English to get by).

Within the first three hours of me landing in Japan, after rushing through customs and riding a train from Narita Airport to the nearest station, I ended up having to ask a police officer for walking directions to my hostel. The man I talked to was friendly, but his English was very, very limited. I fumbled through my guidebook just to find the phrase for “Do you understand English?”, and he answered, “Very little.” After a lot of back and forth, he had to summon a cab for me, and of course the cab driver barely spoke English as well. I was lucky to have printed a little card with the address and contact information of my hostel; this was all he needed to give me a drive so that I could check in before reception closed.

Japan was particularly eye-opening because of how vastly different the primary language is. When I went to France, I felt that seeing English characters gave me a nice sense of familiarity, even if none of the words made sense to me. In Japan, I couldn’t help but look helplessly at the Japanese characters that were prevalent everywhere, from grocery stores to local temples.

I would make a comment about these handwritten prayers, but I can't actually read them.
Photo by Lester Maceren

Even though I was with a few English-speaking friends of mine for most of my time in Japan, that trip helped me truly understand how tough it was to navigate and function in a place where not everyone speaks your language. Not only that, but I now feel like I can empathize more with people in the US who are fluent in another language, but may not be entirely comfortable with English. Most people I talk to in this situation are living and working in America, and I respect them even more for having not only the drive to learn an additional language, but the ability to do so while still going through the everyday grind like the rest of us.

One day, I really would like to learn another language. Maybe I won’t become fluent in it, but even if I could read and understand the language to a basic level, I think that would be another milestone for me. Funny enough, I’m still figuring out which language I would want to learn the most. Should I go for a language that would look good on my resume, or a language that I simply find interesting and fun? Either way, I know that exposing myself to more languages and cultures can really help me in my goal of becoming a more worldly individual.

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