A common question I get is “how come you speak Japanese?” – as a pasty white British guy, it does come as a bit of a surprise to people as I babble along with a Japanese client, or eavesdrop on an unsuspecting tourist. My old flatmates in Dubai used to laugh and say all their Japanese at me, which was basically “sensei” and “karate”.
So this all starts with my sister. My annoyingly talented sister, who as of writing (March 2020) speaks 6 languages fluently. At Christmas-time I saw her happily give a speech in fluent Serbian, which she’s been learning for a year or two, and everyone seemed to understand and even laugh at some jokes. In Serbian. No, I don’t have a clue what she said, but I do know that humour is a nightmare in another language.
But I digress. A little. Back in the UK in 1996 or thereabouts I was picking my university course, and wasn’t quite sure what to do. My A-Levels were French, Maths and Biology, and most of the time you generally pick one of those and keep going. But I could speak French pretty solidly, as can many English people and most French people. I could count and Maths was turning into Greek with the amount of Pis, Thetas and Psis that were going on, and frankly a career in Maths didn’t sound very appealing. Biology was definitely a thought, it was the one subject I truly found interesting, and I was considering it – but again, wasn’t sure what the career options were for Biology either. Around that time I went to visit my sis in Beijing, who by that point was pretty fluent in Mandarin, and I saw all these interesting Chinese characters everywhere. Curiosity started to grow – what on earth were all these squiggles? My sis taught me some of the little characters, how they were created and built, and I thought it was genuinely interesting.
Of course, if I chose Mandarin, then my sister would be immediately better than me. Japanese sounded more high-tech and interesting too, and I thought there would be a lot of cool career options ahead if I spoke something more interesting than French. So Japanese it was, with 3 happy years in Sheffield University, and 1 year in Chuo University in Tokyo to follow. Actually learning Japanese, well, that’s another story…