Creeping Japanese

Japanese was my major in college, but I’ve barely used it in these three years (almost four) that I’ve been in China. A testament to the worthlessness of a language degree? Or of any degree? Or have I just chosen a “career path” which renders my major particularly ineffectual?

I remember in my final year at UF I won an award for outstanding Japanese major of the year (I beat out the three other people in my class), and I was presented with a copy of the Koujien (広辞苑), Japan’s authoritative Japanese-Japanese dictionary. It’s quite a beast. Anyway, at that mini ceremony, my Japanese professor said to me, “I hear you’re going to China. I hope we don’t lose you. You wouldn’t be the first one to switch over to Chinese.”

Quite some time ago I resigned myself to the fact that Japanese had, indeed, lost me. Nevertheless, I’m finding that the Japanese I learned is staying in my brain, albeit rather dormant. Every time I go back to Japan, I can be speaking fairly fluently (like I used to) after three days of immersion. It seems a shame to waste it.

And now, in Shanghai, I find Japanese slowly creeping back into my life.

My next door neighbor in Shanghai is a Japanese girl that works for JAL.

Recently someone at the office needed help deciphering a Japanese address. The Japanese simplifications of the traditional Chinese characters left her very confused, so I had to show her how to write the address. (For the character 豐, the PRC has simplified it as 丰, but the Japanese write it as 豊. For 縣, the PRC uses 县, not the Japanese 県.)

Yesterday at my favorite DVD store I found four complete seasons of Ranma 1/2 on DVD (24 DVDs). I remember getting a kick out of those in college (hey, it’s educational!). I picked them up.

Tomorrow there’s a Japanese teacher coming to the office to do a teaching technique demonstration. I’m going to be here anyway, so I’m going to stick around and watch (and possibly offer my interpretation services).

I’ve already decided that I need to get back into Japanese. I’m going to find a tutor soon. Japanese will be useful in my future, and I’m not going to let it go. Then there’s also my good friends in Japan. If I quit on Japanese, I’m pretty much quitting on my relationships with them too.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. that’s really commendable. I’ve taken 2 years of both Chinese and Japanese in School so I know how difficult it can be to juggle two languages at the same time.

  2. I really wish your next door neighbor spoke English. I really would like to sit down with her and taunt her over the fact that unless her company gets its ass in gear ANA will dominate the Japanese market, both domestically and internationally, within the decade. Oh, and their new paint scheme is a crime against humanity.

  3. Is the Spanish firmly ensconced? Are you making a home visit to keep your English?

  4. I’ve had a similar experience, except with Italian. (it wasn’t my major in college, though). I spent a lot of time in Italy and used to do Italian translations. Anyway, I haven’t used it much over the past year — just occasional reading or email. Now I’m in the awkward position of mixing Italian and Chinese. I have accidentally said things in Italian mid-sentence when I’m speaking Chinese, quite a few times. The looks I get from my girlfriend when that happens are pretty hilarious. At a certain point with a language, it just becomes part of you, even though your fluency can degrade pretty easily through neglect.


  5. Man, your awesome! 3 languages!!! If I could just get this chinese down then at least i could buy food at a restaurant that doesn’t have pictures on the menu. I studied tagalog for 3 years as a kid and can only remember a few cuss words, spanish for 5 years in high school and college and i can ask you where you live. Can’t remember a thing – to many shooters and mexican flags i guess!

  6. John, a thought: get a Japanese girlfriend, err, girl-friend, and you can maintain both your Chinese and Japanese. Plus, you can pick up new Japanese slang and words in different situations. Good luck.

  7. Greg Pasden Says: May 16, 2004 at 3:45 am

    I think college is just another way for us to continue our learning on a more advanced level and to show future employers that we can learn on an advanced level.

    My degree is in Finance (heavy math based courses). What is my career? I’m an airline pilot (heavy math based profession). But, like you, I find Finance creeping back into my life (considering retirement plans, Real Estate Acquisitions, planning for kids education, etcetera). Maybe that is saying that we subconciously chose something that we knew we’d need to use in the furture.


  8. I studied drinking at university and I don’t even drink much anymore!! God I was dumb not to see that coming.

  9. John, why not mention it HERE that you’ve resumed your Chinese blog so that more people will get informed about that 😉

  10. My fiance is fluent in Chinese, English, and Korean, and believe me it makes her that much more of a prospect. Defintely stay with Japanese buddy. I have this secret pang of a desire to sneak away to Korea for work so that I can be tri-lingual.

  11. Don’t lose it! Another idea could be listening to more Japanese music and reading on-line news (which is what I did while in China — music could be listened to on the bus or while walking/biking, whereas movies or dramas had to be watched and took precious time).

Leave a Reply