As the rollercoaster of a year that was 2016 neared its end, sweeping without pause into the next, just as swiftly did my living environment evolve. During the second week of January, I moved out of the dorm and in with my first-ever host family. Commuting to class is inevitably more cumbersome—an hour-long commute via train, compared to my previous two-minute walk to campus—but I would wager that those who have lived with a host family would almost unanimously agree that lengthy commutes are a small price to pay for such a unique, intimate cultural immersion.
I'll be the first to admit that it was quite intimidating moving into a Japanese-only (i.e. very little to no falling back on English) household with a family I had never met before—I still sometimes find myself clamming up at the dinner table when they speak a little too quickly, constantly doubting my listening abilities. However, even after my short time here, I'm already finding myself more deeply immersed in Japanese culture than I could have imagined while living in the dorm.
I sometimes watch Japanese variety shows, for instance, with my host family after dinner; these programs are simultaneously ridiculous, and so quintessentially Japanese—as well as a convenient way to stay up-to-date on Japan's pop culture—that I'm not sure how I got by without watching them before. Some other perks that I've come to appreciate are my host family's comfy 炬燵(kotatsu) during this cold winter—which is basically a low wooden table covered by a futon and table top with an electric heater underneath—as well as being able to enjoy two delicious meals prepared daily by my generous host mother. These are only a few examples of the benefits of homestay. Moreover, and possibly most importantly, I'm experiencing cultural exchange and language practice in a warm, friendly environment every day. From what little I've tasted of the homestay lifestyle so far, I'm finding that it truly is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I'm extremely grateful.
Of course, there are aspects of my freedom that I had in the dorm that I don't have with my host family—I am living in someone's home, after all, and have to abide by certain rules. However, despite my anxiety about speaking only Japanese at home, I feel as though I'm beginning to leave shallow waters, wading out into the deep end and embracing immersion more fully. I hope that if I'm able to grab my trepidation by the horns, I'll be better able to achieve my long-term goals with the language.
Beyond the immediate benefits and anxieties involved with my switch to a homestay, I'm also interested in exploring the idea of long-term goals for foreign language learning. I can only speak from personal experience, holding onto the glimmer of hope that others might be able to relate, at least a little.
To me, language acquisition might just be one of the most mysterious, fascinating concepts I've ever encountered. Each small triumph when communicating in your foreign language of choice can make you feel ready to conquer the world; contrarily, a single mishap or confused interaction can leave you despairing, wondering if all of this mental labor is really worth it. I realize that this probably seems pretty melodramatic, but when you've been studying a foreign language for as long as I have, it becomes easy to question whether you'll ever actually, finally reach your long-term goals.
If you were to ask any scholar about foreign language learning, they would undoubtedly reassure you that the benefits stemming from studying language are plentiful. According to an article by Anne Merritt of The Telegraph, foreign language learning provides a plethora of unexpected mental benefits, such as improved memory, decision-making skills, perception, etc.
However, when it comes to the actual study of language as an adult—especially when this is added to the attempt to simultaneously acquisition not only with the language, but also with its culture and people—these long-term benefits can often be overshadowed by the overwhelming mental strain of it all.
While I'll admit that there's always a small part of me wondering whether I'll actually feel satisfied with my language skills, there's also an equally strong part of me that's excited to watch myself grow with Japanese. I'm coming to realize that when it comes to language learning, there will always be good and bad days; days where everything you want to say actually makes its way out of your brain and into spoken, grammatically-coherent sentences, when communicating in that language feels like one of the most natural things in the world, and days where you feel extremely frustrated with yourself and your surroundings, wanting to crawl away and hide when you botch a conversation with someone, or hear yourself mispronouncing something or saying something completely wrong, but somehow feel unable to correct yourself in real time.
This semester has proven one of the most difficult of my life. Of course, it goes without saying that the classes were challenging—my Japanese classes in particular were very demanding of my time, energy, and mental stamina. However, I don't believe that one is ever done learning a subject, and my study of Japanese is no exception. Wading deeper still into cultural immersion, I find myself finally in waters so high that my feet no longer touch the floor—which leaves me no other option but to keep swimming.