“This should not be a place for me.” This is how I felt after the very first day of my English Skills class. I was a freshman from a rural town, who came all the way up to Tokyo to study. While all the other freshmen were excited on a cherry-blossom-decorated campus, I was confused, frightened and alone.
My name is Chinatsu Hara, and I am currently a senior in the English Department. I was born and grew up in Ina-City in Nagano Prefecture until I moved to Tokyo for university. My hometown is just what you would picture when you hear the word “countryside”, where all the neighbors know your name, family members, and even the college you are entering after graduation. For an eighteen-year-old girl from the countryside, Tokyo was a place filled with dreams. Tokyo had pancakes, fashion buildings, Starbucks, Disneyland, Shibuya, things we did not have in my hometown. Sophia University too, was my dream. The English Department here allowed me to study in a variety of different fields, and was full of competitive students. Even the mere sound of “Sophia” attracted me. It sounded intelligent, intellectual, and beautiful. I studied for hours to pass the entrance exam and to study in the English Department at Sophia University.
However, that freshman, full of hopes and dreams for Sophia and college life in Tokyo, had to cry on the very first day of class. The English Department at Sophia University requires its students to take a listening comprehension test to place the students into eight classes according to the test results. I was placed in the A class, one of the top two classes, where most of the students were returnees or students who had studied abroad.
On the first day of the skills class, one of the required courses, we had a self-introduction session. I was shocked to see my classmates speaking English so fluently. To me, they sounded just like native speakers. While most of my classmates introduced the countries and states where they spent their whole childhood or studied for several years, I could only show them the countries that I had visited for a few weeks on a trip. In addition, in my hometown, I had never met anyone who grew up in another country, or that spoke English as fluently as my classmates. So, when I found myself in the A class, I was really surprised and could not believe it. To be honest, I was a little bit frightened when some friends told me “being in the A class is unbelievable for jun-Japa!”
The term “jun-Japa,” standing for pure-Japanese, refers to a person who has never lived abroad during their childhood years. Definitions may vary, for example, it may or may not include those who studied abroad in high school for a year. Regardless of the definition, I was clearly a jun-Japa, since I had literally no experience living abroad.
Now you might be a little curious about how I studied English and got into the English Department. My learning experience is somewhat typical for those who entered the English Department as a jun-Japa. I started learning English when I was seven at an English conversation school. In the school, we basically learned casual conversation, the alphabet, phonics, and everyday vocabulary. Then, I entered junior high school and English became a mandatory subject. Until I graduated from high school, I only experienced traditional, translation-centered English classes with the main emphasis on grammatical accuracy. Since accuracy was the number one priority, I got perfect scores and the best grades by paying careful attention not to make any mistakes. In a way, I was good at English, but it was all about performing great on a test. Even though I got the top scores on the English tests in high school, I still could not fully use the language. I was probably not even good at English. I might have been good at studying it and remembering vocabulary and grammatical rules, but not at using it as my own language.
No words can explain how miserably I struggled or how I had a strong inferiority complex in the A class. Whenever a writing teacher gave me feedback for my essays, it said “you need much more effort to catch up with your classmates!” Whenever a skills teacher gave us a transcription task and projected the list of score results, the worst score matched the one returned to me. Whenever we had a group discussion, I missed a chance to express my opinion while trying to construct a grammatically-perfect sentence in my brain. As much as I felt inferior, I was envious of my returnee classmates. To me, they seemed to have acquired perfect English and used it just like native speakers without the amount of effort that I needed. I could not stop comparing myself to my classmates only to see a huge tall wall standing before me as I tried to achieve their level of language competence. For the entire freshman year, I regretted my choice of studying in the English Department, where I had to face my Japanese-accented/grammatically-inaccurate English. I could only cry at home and blame my little hometown for not providing me a chance to live abroad until one of the classes changed my mindset.
One day during my sophomore year, the teacher gave us a chance to share our English learning experiences. Half of the classmates were returnees and the other half were those who have studied abroad or jun-Japas like me. We gave a presentation and described when we started learning English and what hardships we faced in acquiring English. This was the first time for me to learn how my friends acquired their second language. Until then, I just assumed that returnees acquired English automatically or naturally just by spending time in English speaking countries. However, the presentations made me realize that my assumptions were totally wrong.
In fact, many of my returnee friends have put a lot of effort in learning and maintaining their English. One of my friends, who moved to the states when she was little, studied English every day at home with her tutor. She also had to maintain her Japanese, so she attended a weekend school exclusively for Japanese students, in addition to a local school. While struggling with the language, they also had hardships in integrating themselves into the community. Some of the students experienced both explicit and implicit discrimination during their childhood. Moreover, once they were back in Japan, they tried hard to maintain their proficiency. They read a lot of books, listened to a lot of listening materials, participated in social events where they could interact with people using English. Some of my friends went so far as to transcribe the whole movie of Harry Potter in order to maintain her listening skills.
I was surprised to hear all the stories and see that returnees made efforts to acquire, maintain and improve their English. Returnees faced hardships and struggles during their childhood years, while I was innocently playing hide-and-seek in the field without knowing anything about foreign countries or foreign languages. No one can achieve language proficiency without any effort or struggles. Returnee students have proficiency because they struggled in the past. Everyone struggles at some point in learning. It is just that the timing is different. If so, I told myself, this college life is when I needed to struggle.
After hearing my classmates’ experiences, I stopped comparing myself and envying my classmates. Instead, I started to try a little bit more. During my freshman year, I used to remain silent in the back of the classroom in fear of exhibiting my broken English to my returnee friends. Since I was obsessed with the idea that you had to speak English with perfect grammar and native-like pronunciation, I was hesitant to speak out because I knew that I couldn’t speak like that. However, after the presentations, I decided to try to raise my hand to share my opinions in class. When I could not find a word or an expression to continue my speech, my classmates helped me. I was really afraid and scared to speak English at first, but once I said something, everyone listened and kindly nodded as I continued. I started to feel more accepted than the previous year when I felt that I was not qualified to be in the class.
Being in the A class was often a bitter experience for me but gave me a great opportunity to learn how to overcome my inferiority complex. The experience strongly motivated me to study abroad. I actually studied abroad during my sophomore year in Washington, where I, again, gathered up all my courage to speak English, this time, to native speakers. Of course, I was afraid at first. However, because I experienced what I did during my first two years in university, I was less afraid of making mistakes and more positive about saying things in English.
If you are a jun-Japa and studying in the English Department, do not be afraid to speak up. If you believe that your English is not good enough to speak in front of people― here is a tip; making small mistakes doesn’t matter, because your opinion is more valuable. Do not be disappointed about your language proficiency. Once you try, you will surely take a step further. After all, language is there to convey meaning. Let’s speak up and see how you and the environment around you changes. Let me conclude this essay with a message that one of my favorite teachers once gave me; what you say matters more than how you say it.
(Chinatsu Hara graduated from the Department of English Studies in 2017. This essay was originally published in issue 2 of our student journal Angles)