What are the Benefits of a Japanese Language Community?
Jessica Brown | July 14th, 2020
I have outlined four major benefits in this blog that I have discovered in my experience of running a Japanese language community, since 2014, here in Edinburgh, Scotland. Yes, in Edinburgh, in Scotland!
What is a language community?
A language community is a group of people who meet regularly with the specific aim of communicating in a chosen language/s regardless of their current location. My language community members speak Japanese to each other whenever we meet in person and online. I'm not just talking about when we meet up in a cafe, but I'm also talking about speaking Japanese when we go about our daily lives. When I see those people from my Japanese language community in the street, our default language is Japanese, even though we are in Scotland. That was the case just the other day when I saw one of my Japanese language community members in the city centre. The first thing I said to her was こんにちは konnichiwa, (“Hello” in Japanese). She told me that she had just finished work. So I also said おつかれさまでした otsukaresamadeshita (“you've worked hard” in Japanese). Straight away, Japanese was our default language.
Who joins a language community?
So, how can a language community benefit me?
Have you ever started learning a language, attended a few lessons and then kind of just stopped? Maybe you got stuck on a particular grammar point. You got frustrated. Maybe life took over and you started telling yourself that you were out of time, when really you were out of motivation... You were trying to go it alone when you needed the support of a language community.
Perhaps you have been doing great with your language learning...moving through the textbooks. You have started taking a few tests, you are doing well. You have certificates! One day you meet a native speaker of your focus language and you try to have a conversation. Nerves kick in. Suddenly you can’t find the words. It feels like you are taking forever and they are standing there, looking at you. You have their full attention and yet nothing is coming out of your mouth or what is coming out doesn’t sound how it should. Disaster! What happened?!
You were learning a language without the living element, the spontaneity of human interaction.
Benefits of a Language Community
I like to think of us as a family and we look after each other. We are a global family as well as a local family. A Japanese language community connects you with Japanese-speaking people from around the world. Now the benefits of being part of the Japanese language community are...
Well, there are several, so here we go!...
Befinit 1: Shared Interests
We've got shared interests, people are coming together who have a shared interest in Japan or Japanese language and Japanese culture. You get to meet new friends, you get to create subgroups within your community. You can find others with the same passions:
- taiko drumming
- Japanese language film
- anime and manga
- Kabuki, rakugo and noh theatre
There are several subgroups within my community and many of the members have gone on to make some really good, close friends with whom they spend a lot of time. All because they connected through shared interests in the Japanese language community.
Benefit 2: Employment Opportunities
So it not only gives you these new friendship groups, but it also brings you employment opportunities. Now, anyone that's come along to the Japanese language community that I run in Edinburgh knows that we have a lot of people that come from different areas of work. And we have Japanese native speakers who come along who may be there for a short time, doing from just a few months to a year of work for their company in Scotland. Some of the native speakers that join us are actually living in Scotland long term and know of work opportunities that have come up where they work. Companies are often looking for Japanese speakers to work for them. We have game companies based here in Scotland and they often need testers for their games. Testers that can go through the games and understand the Japanese that's going on in the games. We also have manufacturing companies looking for office staff to help them with marketing to Japanese consumers. Scotland-based Japanese manufacturing companies send Japanese workers from their offices in Japan to the UK, so they need office workers that are familiar with Japanese language and culture so that their workers can settle more easily overseas.
We have one particular teacher that comes along, a Japanese native speaker who comes along to our group specifically looking for people to recruit for her company. So honestly, the employment opportunities are far reaching.
I am an example of finding employment through a Japanese Language Community.
When I first arrived in Scotland back in 2005, I reached out to the JET Alumni Association because I was a JET participant (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme). I worked in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu from 2000-2005.
Now, coming back from Japan, I didn't have a job. I didn't know what I was going to do apart from I knew that I wanted to play Taiko drums. I went to every single Japanese language event and Japanese cultural event that I could find in the calendar. I went to all the websites, Eventbrite, meetup.com, Facebook events. I went onto the website for the Consulate General of Japan. I signed up for the Japan Society of Scotland and the Japan Society of the UK just to be sent emails about their events, events that were happening in my local area, so that I could then go out to these events and mingle with people that could potentially be Japanese-speaking partners.
Once I had done that for a few times, I started to get recognised at events, the organisers of events from the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh recognised me and invited me to more events because they saw that I was a keen promoter of Japanese language and culture. A few years after that, let's see, so that was 2005, it was in 2013 that I was emailed about a job that had come up at the Consulate General of Japan. I was emailed directly and asked if I would like to apply for that job and I got the job. So you can see, if you have this Japanese language community and people get to know who you are and they get to know your abilities, your skills, they will then approach you for jobs relating to Japanese language and culture.
There are not only opportunities for finding jobs within your own country, your own community. There are also opportunities for finding jobs in Japan. We have an online group as well. And within the online group, there are teachers joining us from Japan and other Japanese language learners who live in Japan and join us to speak Japanese online. Yes. Some of them do join us to speak Japanese online because they are English teachers and they spend all day teaching English and actually don't get the opportunities to have those conversations in Japanese. So therefore they join our conversation club online to get that Japanese language practice from the comfort of their own home (when they've got the energy at the end of the day). They know about job opportunities in their company. Maybe in their English teaching company or perhaps they have a friend who works for a Japanese company that's looking for a certain type of person.
During our online conversation club sessions, they let community members know about these job opportunities in Japan. So that's another benefit from being a part of an online or in person, Japanese language and culture community. So that's employment covered, that's making friendships covered.
Benefit 3: Language Development
What about language practice? Well, language development is a given. If you are in a really good, close knit and supportive community, then you do have those language practising opportunities. We have weekly conversation clubs five times a week in our online community. So those people that come to the sessions five times a week obviously are going to improve even faster. Even if people are coming once a week, then at least you're having that practise. You need to practise a language regularly in order to improve. I always say that I speak Japanese everyday and that is even though I live in Scotland, and the reason for doing that is you can easily lose your language skills if you're not using them. What do I mean by that? Well, when I lived in Japan, I started to lose some of my English speaking skills. How? Well, because at one point I was teaching young children at a Kindergarten. So I would be speaking, and teaching English that was suitable for young children. And then I was spending all of my time outside of school, with adults speaking only in Japanese. So I actually started to lose my adult language ability when speaking the English language. We didn't have Zoom and Skype back then, and I just had a mobile phone, so there were not the opportunities to call home as easily, using a mobile to call from Japan to the UK certainly wasn't cheap. So I didn't make as many English language phone calls as I would've liked to. I didn't get to speak to my family as much as people can do now. So I did start to lose some English, which sounds really strange for a native English speaker, but if you're constantly using the same language, if you're just using basic, basic English, day-in-day-out, you do start to lose skills. So, the same is true with Japanese. If you're not having conversations and you're not stretching those conversations into topics that you're not familiar with, that you don't have the vocabulary for, you're not going to develop your vocabulary.
How do you develop vocabulary when you don't have vocabulary? Well, within a conversation setting, you can use a lot of questioning words. If somebody says something to you in a sentence and there's a word that you don't know, can you ask them:
[mystery word] はどういう意味ですか
[mystery word] wa dou iu imi desu ka?
what does [mystery word] mean?
Asking this way means they give you the explanation all in Japanese. As you go along you're going to get a whole lot of other vocabulary that you're not familiar with during the course of that conversation. Yes, you will learn during the course of that explanation what that word is that you don’t know. So language practice is a major part of our Japanese language community. The native Japanese speakers that come along and give their time to us, help us craft the language that we currently have to help us to improve.
They are not saying "that's wrong, that's wrong". What they're saying is: "have you thought about saying it this way?". In the same way that a child might say something and they say the verb or the word incorrectly, a parent is not going to say, “No, that's not right, you say it like this”. They're just going to say it correctly to the child. And eventually the child will hear it enough that they change what they're saying into the correct form. Having said that, in our conversation club, the emphasis is on communication. You don't have to be perfect with the grammar. Even the vocabulary. We are learning to communicate with each other, to understand and interpret what each other is trying to say. So the emphasis really is on communication and at least trying to communicate with each other. We don't worry too much about stopping you and correcting your grammar.
Benefit 4: Travel Opportunities
Okay, so the next benefit of being part of a Japanese language community is the travel opportunities. How many times have you met somebody on your travels? Anywhere that you go, you start chatting, you find out where they're from and they tell you a bit about that place and potentially even invite you to come and visit them sometime. So that opportunity is also right there for you in a Japanese language community. Our in-person groups have members from all over the world. Even in Edinburgh - it's a very multicultural city. So we have people from Italy, France, Spain, Latvia, Brazil! We have people from all over the globe who come to be a part of our conversation club in Edinburgh.
When those people go back to their home countries (if not permanently living in Edinburgh), and you mention that you are wanting to visit their country or even home city, they are going to suggest places for you to visit. They may even meet you there or connect you with friends that they have there who would be more than happy to show you around their local town.
That is what happened to me! The travel opportunities are incredible when you're part of a language community.
Then you get to meet the Japanese native speakers. Some of them have come to the UK just to visit just for short work placements. Sometimes people come to the conversation club who are just in the UK for a week, maybe two weeks. And then they go back to Japan. They always leave the conversation club saying, "Hey, these are my contact details, when you're in Japan, contact me. And I will show you around my local area". Travel opportunities are never ending, never ending. Next of course there are study opportunities.
Anyone who's come to our conversation club online (or in person) has met people there who have actually studied in Japan and they can give you the details for the language school that they went to.
They can give you a review, a full description of what that school was like, what they liked about it, what they didn't like about it. You can get some amazing recommendations. So that is yet another reason to become part of a Japanese language community. The benefits are amazing.
So let's just look over them again:
Global and local links that you make through being a part of, for example, our language community. You get shared interests. You're meeting people who like the same stuff as you. They're interested in the same things as you. Not everybody's into anime and manga. There are people who love playing Japanese musical instruments like the Shamisen or the Koto. There's other people who really want to learn about Ikebana (flower arranging) or Kyudo (archery).
There are so many different people within our Japanese language community who have all these different interests and they're all connecting into these little subgroups within our community. I want everybody to be able to find somebody that they connect with, because it's just so important. Okay. So we've got your shared interests.
Employment opportunities. So if you come to our conversation clubs, you're going to meet people from all over the world. People who know of jobs in Japan - if you're wanting to work in Japan. People who know of jobs in the UK - if you're wanting to work in the UK, in a Japan-related area. Even if it's not a Japan-related area, they may know of job opportunities and your Japanese language skills may go towards you getting a job within that industry.
Language development, which is of course a given as a Japanese language community. You get to chat in Japanese with native speakers, with other learners. A whole range of different people with different abilities and different accents. Now don't forget that when you're learning a foreign language, most people take a bit of their accent into that foreign language with them. By speaking to other people with that different base accent in Japanese, you're actually tuning your ear to be able to recognise the Japanese language in all kinds of forms. So when you go to Japan, you might meet somebody, in a very rural area and they have a very thick Japanese accent. And because you've listened to lots of different people, say Japanese words in lots of different ways, you actually may have trained your ear to be able to tune in or to understand what it is that they've said from the context of what they've said to you. So learning Japanese in a community is vital.
Travel opportunities. Don't forget that as soon as you meet somebody from Japan or who has been to Japan or who is planning to go to Japan, that person is from somewhere as well. If you really connect with them and you become friends, there's the opportunity to travel to wherever they're from or to travel with them to Japan, if you haven't got a travel buddy. So that's another benefit right there. There's quite a few people in our community who had never been to Japan and they went to Japan together for the first time so that they could have a travel buddy to experience it. They met through our Japanese language community.
So, what do you think? It is beneficial being involved in a Japanese language community?
So, what do you need to do to create an Online Japanese Conversation Community?
There needs to be a few of you who want to do it or you are going to get kinda lonely sitting there on your own running a conversation club! I spoke to people at Japanese language lessons and cultural events. I let them know what I was doing. I sent them invitations to join in. Just tell everyone you know and ask them to tell everyone they know, get the word out there!
It takes time to set up and you'll need to have a flexible schedule. I'm pretty sure I did the first conversation club call at 8:00 PM UK time. We had a few people come to that. We had people from the United States and people from the UK, and then I got messages on the Facebook group saying:
"Hey, wait, I'm in Australia”
“I'm in Japan”
“I’m in New Zealand”
“I can't make that time. Can you do one that's earlier in the day?”
So, next I would quickly get up, brush my hair, get online and chat to people in Japanese, 8:00 AM my time in the UK. Next, again this didn’t suit everyone... I added a lunchtime session.
Now we meet every week at the following times (as voted on by our members):
Monday 5am Los Angeles / 1pm UK / 9pm Japan
Monday 12noon LA / 8pm UK / 4am Japan
Thursday 11:30am LA / 7.30pm UK / 3.30am Japan
Friday 4am LA / 12noon UK / 8pm Japan
Friday 10am LA / 6pm UK / 2am Japan
Saturday 12noon LA / 8pm UK / 4am Japan
It took a while to get this schedule nailed down as we had to make sure it worked for as many people as possible.
Native Japanese Speakers
Everyone wants to get the language “right”. The best way to get things right is to invite the experts. They don’t need to be teachers, in fact it is better if some of them are not. We want them to be authentic Japanese language speakers who may or may not be able to work out what you want to say. We want you to be challenged to use your language skills. You need to work hard to find a way to make yourself understood. Someone who has been working for a while as a teacher can recognize what a student is trying to say and “understand” them even though they haven't made themselves understood. I think it is better to have someone who might not get what you are trying to say straight away and encourage you to put a bit more effort in until they do.
So you have worked out the who and the when. Now we move on to the what! What can you use to make this work? This was quite fun for me to research. I know what I wanted and I just had to find something that would create my vision. I found out about Zoom and combined this with our Facebook page. Voila! Our online conversation club was born!
Enjoy the Journey with others by your side
A language learning journey does not have to be a solo endeavor. You can learn much faster if you take the time to meet others on the same path and walk alongside each other. You can make more discoveries as well as motivate each other and in the long run connect human to human.