5 Things I Learned About Language Barriers After Living in Japan

At the end of last year, my husband Tim and I took 3 months off work and embarked on an adventure to Japan.

We volunteered in a local church in the north of Japan, which was great fun. Living and working in a different culture was a unique experience, and we were thrilled to have our first white Christmas!

Before we left, I started trying to learn Japanese. The language is very different from English, which makes it difficult to learn. I spent a lot of time in Japan teaching English, so I know it is difficult for Japanese speakers to learn English too.

Even after spending three months living in Japan and speaking and hearing Japanese every day, I’m still not able to have a fluent conversation in Japanese.     

Despite the language barrier, however, being immersed in a new language was fascinating! Not being able to communicate was an interesting experience that taught me many things:  

  1. There’s more to communicating than words. Gestures and pictures were so helpful! It’s remarkable what you can understand by looking at the situational context and reading gestures and facial expressions. Even when the words mean nothing, you can often grab some meaning from a person’s tone of voice.
  2. People love it when you try. While over there, the locals were really excited when I tried to speak Japanese. One day, I learned the phrase ‘let’s start’ and used it to begin my English class. The class spent so long clapping and congratulating me that I didn’t use Japanese again, because it was too distracting! A shopkeeper even praised my Japanese when all I said was ‘Yes, thank you very much’.
  3. It takes time. To say anything in Japanese took AGES. I’d spend 10 minutes working out one sentence, and the next 5 minutes psyching myself up to speak it. Then I’d finally go to say it and realised I’d forgotten the whole thing! I would end up standing there, struggling to find the words. So embarrassing!
  4. It’s okay to make mistakes. There were many occasions where I thought I’d understood someone, and only later realised that I’d gotten it wrong. One day a lady asked me whether or not I’d already eaten breakfast. I started telling her what I’d eaten, and she looked at me so strangely! It took me all day to figure out what I’d said wrong.
  5. Google Translate isn’t always reliable. It was helpful having the translating app on my phone, but I quickly learnt that it has serious limitations! The most difficult part of grocery shopping was trying to find the right sauce to use. A clear liquid could be vinegar, mirin or sake. I would scan the labels through Google Translate to try and work out which bottle was which, but the results would come out saying ‘VERY HEALTHY’ or ‘SUPER DELICIOUS’ or ‘GREAT VALUE’. I was often left standing in the grocery aisle asking the bottle, ‘Where are the words that tell me what you ARE?!’

Our whole experience was both immensely satisfying and tremendously frustrating! I loved breaking down the language barrier and learning to understand without words, but I was just as frequently confused and frustrated by my inability to be understood!

After coming back to Australia, I’ve got a whole lot more admiration for people who speak more than one language. Living in Japan certainly helped me understand why many of my clients get so frustrated and find learning a language so difficult. There is just so MUCH to learn.

Have you experienced a language barrier before? What was it like? I’d love to hear from you!

If you’d like to come and see me in the clinic this term, you can ring our lovely admin team on (02) 4948 9800 or send us an email at info@newcastlespeechpathology.com.au

I look forward to seeing you soon!

-Bec