Make friends in a foreign language: Making mistakes is the key to getting comfortable!
Hello! My name is Reimi and I currently live in Japan. Like many of you, I fell in love with Japan a long time ago, and so living here is like making a dream come true. But of course, there are all sorts of obstacles to overcome when it comes to living in a foreign country or learning a new language. Given the chance to write about it, I wanted to write about the difficulties and rewards of learning Japanese. Saying you want to learn a foreign language is definitely easier said than done; you’re not alone in struggling, but it can be so worth it!
What brings you to Japan?
The answer to this question might be different for each person, of course. Some people move to Japan for work, some come for school. Some have always wanted to visit, interested in the things that make Japan unique, like scenery, art, or food. Some want to learn Japanese or make friends in Japan. Some even come to Japan and end up never leaving! There are even programs that allow one to travel extensively and stay in foreign countries for an extended period of time with accommodation provided, such as work holidays or internship programs.
No matter what one’s reasons are, however, the fact remains that moving to a foreign country gives one a chance to learn about a new culture and learn a new language. They say that travel can teach you about yourself, expanding your horizons and challenging yourself in unfamiliar situations, so imagine how much more you’ll learn when you live somewhere entirely new.
EXPECTATION VERSUS REALITY
Myself, I’ll have been living in Japan for almost five years total. For most of that time, I came as a student, so making friends was definitely something I was looking forward to. Plus, at the time I moved, I had just barely graduated high school and I had never lived apart from my family, so there were always concerns that I would be isolated without a network as I had back home. I would be fending for myself for the first time – and in a foreign country where I barely spoke the language no less! From the start, I was too excited to think of anything but finally being in Japan for the long term, but my family held a lot of apprehensions about a young woman living alone in a foreign country.
But honestly speaking, if I had to choose one thing, the scariest thing about having moved to Japan is speaking Japanese. There are still times I worry that my language ability is not enough when I am nervous about being able to convey to the other person the things I am thinking. Or that I’m going to misunderstand or be disrespectful.
For a younger me, this was actually really terrifying. I would think to myself: How can I become friends with someone when we don’t speak the same language? Why would they like me when I can’t tell them about myself? When I can’t understand them? When I’m constantly making mistakes?
But as I’ve gotten more comfortable living in Japan, the more I realize that that way of thinking is entirely wrong. As scary as it is, and especially how difficult it is, I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that making mistakes is the key to getting good.
No one does anything perfectly from the start. No one can automatically play piano without hitting a few wrong notes or ride a bike without falling a few times. Learning a language is no different. Language learning shouldn’t be treated as a one-time test where you are either fluent or you’re not. Learning how to speak a new language and getting comfortable with it will take time. You need to ‘break in’ so to speak.
The easiest way to do this is to simply use it, mistakes and all. Every mistake I have made while learning Japanese makes it easier as well to remember the correction, which in turn gives me the feeling that I’m really improving, even if it’s little by little. And sometimes too, the mistakes I make are the very reason I make friends. Sometimes it’s someone catching an error and generously correcting me, or sometimes it’s a little slip of the tongue that makes us laugh, humor transcending language in a way that needs no translation.
We learn from our mistakes.
When I first moved to Japan, of course, I heard a lot more Japanese than I had in America. I had gotten used to the convenience store routine (‘do you need a bag?’ ‘would you like this warmed up?’ ‘do you have a point card?’), and I could tell which ingredients I needed at the grocery store. But compared to when I first came to Japan, my speaking ability had barely improved at all.
The issue was this: I was not actually speaking Japanese!
AN IMPORTANT WAKE UP CALL
All of my friends spoke English. I didn’t have a tv and didn’t even try to read books in Japanese. There were events at school that I did not join, thinking I didn’t speak enough Japanese to be of any help or have any fun. In other words, I was a foreigner living in Japan, without really living in Japan. In other words, I had found myself in the “foreigner bubble” where I was not using Japanese in my life.
Naturally, it’s easier to express yourself the way you want to express yourself when you are using your mother tongue. And no surprise, it can be easier to “click” with another person when you don’t have to first surpass the hurdle of understanding what the other person is saying.
But I think that being able to speak fluently is completely different from being able to communicate, and your language ability will have nothing to do with it!
Every time you speak you are improving your language skills, polishing things like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Just like riding a bike, practice makes perfect!
CREATING THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITIES
So maybe the next question is, how do I start to speak more Japanese? Of course, maybe it’s a little strange to start striking up a conversation with the cashier at the register. But there are many ways to find people in social settings and the more you open yourself up to meeting new people, the more friends you’ll find you’ve made!
Here are a few suggestions:
● You can join clubs and sports meetups to find people with similar hobbies. Sharing similar interests means you already share that common ground!
● Striking up a conversation with someone in a bar or restaurant is another great way to practice and sometimes these spontaneous conversations are extremely good practice because the topics can be diverse. There’s no pressure or goal, it’s just a few folks having a good time over food and drinks!
● If you’re in Japan for school or work, you might be in a great spot to meet people! There are always student activities, like group circles or hangouts. And you can also take advantage of working with the same people every day to strike up conversations in passing or use Japanese in more formal settings. Who knows, maybe you’ll become friends naturally?
● There are also language exchange apps like Hellotalk and HiNative. I’ve met lots of people through these apps, and the best part is that these are people who share the same desire as me: to get better at speaking their chosen language.
● Sharehouses! No surprise, sharehouses are great for learning languages! They’re a little like the best of all worlds; they bring together people with similar goals: making friends and learning more about other cultures. Borderless House in particular hosts lots of great events that give tenants a chance to kick back and have fun with one another, so you can really take advantage of the Borderless House’s support network and Borderless Mates network. Another great aspect of sharehouses is that you’re forced to really communicate with each other to live together happily and peacefully. You’ll learn more about other people’s values, unique perspectives, backgrounds, and what inspires them. And better yet, because you live together, it’s only natural that you can become closer a little at a time, day by day.
What do you think?
Truly, it wasn’t until I made a concerted effort to step out of my comfort zone that I felt my language ability starting to improve. And as my language ability began to improve, Japanese also started to become more and more fun and making friends became easier. Even now, I still make plenty of mistakes, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s important to remind yourself that everyone starts somewhere, even you, with your native language, and look at you now!
Perhaps you haven't yet had the chance to visit, but you’d like to experience Japan for yourself! If you’ve found this page, maybe that day is sooner rather than later. Good luck!