Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Learning Like A Baby

The Hippo philosophy is to acquire languages naturally, through immersion. I didn’t study Japanese before coming to Japan, except looking at a few books about the basic structure of the language out of curiosity, so the way that I’m learning is by listening, observing, and repeating.  As Yo Sakakibara, the founder of Hippo writes, the Hippo experience is “one of adults experiencing what it is to be a baby,” and this is exactly what I’m doing. I had known this before coming to Japan but it’s really different to experience it first hand. Not only am I learning in the way that a child learns, but I am acquiring language in the same pattern that a child does. The first words that a little kid learns are things like: mom, dad, hi, bye, hot, cold, happy, tired, you, me, want, like, go, eat, this, that, what, where. This is also pretty much the first set of vocabulary that I've acquired in Japanese, without even meaning to.  It made me realize that these are some of the first words that a child (or an adult immersed in a foreign language environment) acquires, not because they are the easiest, but because they are the most necessary, useful, and frequently heard.

I’m actually amazed at how much can be conveyed and understood with just a few words, and how even learning one new word allows me to express a whole range of new ideas. For example, the other day I learned that the ending –tai means to want. By applying this to the things I could already express like, “I eat”, “I go”, etc., I can now say “I want to eat this or that”, “I want to go there”, ect. Perhaps my sentences are not grammatically correct, but I can express the idea, and this is what is important.

“Kore-wa Nihongo-de nan-to i-imasu ka?
Words learned at the dining room table
I try to use the simple phrases I am learning in Japanese as much as possible with my host family when we are eating or doing things around the house so I practice and remember them, and they are very patient with me. One of the first things I learned from my host mom was how to say “Kore-wa Nihongo-de nan-to i-imasu ka? (How do you say this in Japanese?),” which is one of the most useful phrases as you begin to discover the world around you in a new language, just like a little kid learning to talk for the first time.

The Hippo office is also a really great learning environment. Since we have 5 interns from different countries, it’s naturally a multi-lingual environment and we are all learning together and from each other. Yufu-chan always says things first in Japanese and then English or Spanish if I don’t understand. This is helpful because even if I might not understand something in Japanese at first, every time I hear it, it becomes more recognizable and I understand more. Miyuki-chan went with me on the subway one day and I was pointing out to her the Japanese kanji that I was beginning to recognize in the station. She was just as excited about and interested in the way that I was learning as I was. She said I was just like a little kid, excitedly stopping along the way to point out something that I could understand. That’s how I felt too! Now every time I see her at the office she asks me what new thing I have learned and I can proudly show her my notebook with some new name or kanji I have discovered the meaning of. 

Kanji I have learned from the subway station


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