Student Interview: Bent

Pictured: Bent in Asakusa

Posted: 27th Apr 2023

Welcome to the latest post in the Ippo Ippo Japanese Student Interview series!

If you've been following the series, you'll have already heard from Hannah, Gina, Eleanor, Jack and Holly. I've been completely blown away by how many of my students agreed to part in interviews, so thank you once again to all who have been involved!

Today we're hearing from Bent, who is a little different from everyone we've heard from so far in that his lessons with me have been pretty much exclusively one-to-one.

Bent and I had a great chat, and I really enjoyed hearing his thoughts on learning Japanese both via self-study and through online lessons. This interview is a little longer than the others, but I'm sure you're going to enjoy it nonetheless!

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Before We Begin: Bent's Self-Intro

My name is Bent Bunge, originally from Germany. I've lived in the UK close to a decade now, having gone from uni into work and just carried on. After studying Japanese on and off by myself since the end of high school, I’ve been seriously studying with Elly-sensei for two years now.

Student Interview: Bent

ベントさん (Bento-san), thank you for joining me for an interview. It’s been a while since we talked about it, so can you remind me: what was it that originally got you interested in Japan and Japanese?

Of course. I always feel like a lot of people must have felt the same way, but when I was younger, I didn't really have much exposure to Japan. My dad would go on business trips there a lot, but I never really had a frame of reference for it. It was sort of like, “Oh, it's far away. It's one of the faraway places he goes to”. So I didn't really recognise the culture or anything.

As a teenager, I would watch movies and Japan would pop up every now and again. But my interest really started with anime. I was kind of a late bloomer compared to some my friends who started with Pokémon and Dragon Ball and had their interest escalate from there, but this was the really early days when you could still watch whole shows on YouTube. So eventually I got into anime through anime music videos. The more I watched them the more I started to think “Oh, this is really interesting. What's this about?”

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Bent admiring the view from Tokyo Skytree

So long story short, I started watching lots of anime and eventually would run out of English episodes, because that's how it used to be. There wasn’t any anime with German dub or sub to begin with, but you’d get stuff in English. So eventually, although I found it weird watching with subtitles at first, I guess I was so interested and was at that age where you can't let it go once you’re into something, so I started watching stuff in Japanese with English subtitles.

Eventually, because I consumed so much in so little time, I started recognising patterns and kind of getting a feel for the language. And at some point, I had this notion that was like, “Hang on, maybe I could actually understand this”. It also helped that I liked the sound of Japanese. I think that that's always been kind of important to me. For example, later, when I was at uni, I did a semester of Mandarin Chinese, and I never got into it as much in part because I didn't enjoy the 響き (hibiki)* as much if you will. So enjoying the sound of Japanese was always a big thing for me.

*Note from Elly: 響き (hibiki) refers to a sound, echo or reverberation. You may recognise the kanji from the famous whisky brand!

So yeah, by the end of high school I kind of realised “Oh, maybe this is something I could pick up”. So I got, I think for a birthday, a really basic workbook with hiragana and katakana and so on and stuck with that for a while. Then during my early uni days I dropped it again, but it always kind of stuck with me. And when I couldn't really learn Japanese during uni because I never found a language partner or courses or anything, at some point I had another go at a self-study tool, which was Human Japanese.

A while later, in 2018, my brother and I went to Japan. By that time, I was able to rudimentarily communicate, which gave me sort of a boost where I thought “Okay, you’ve got to get really serious about this now”. And then I also had the realisation that while I didn’t have a lot of time, I did have the assets now to pursue lessons thanks to work. So that brings us up June 2021, which is when I first reached out to you about lessons.

That's right. Nearly two years ago!

Yeah. And when we first started, I could immediately tell that this was probably a good idea. Being able to do lessons in Japanese only is also very helpful. I still feel very clumsy with it to this day, but I know from learning other languages that that feeling always takes a while to go away. But just having that extra level of exposure helps a lot.

How do you feel about our lessons being online versus face to face?

I don't think it's that different. Obviously I didn't have the full experience of all my uni or school classes going online due to Covid, so I can't quite compare with what that's like, but it's never felt difficult to me. I still feel like we've got the same connection and have managed to get the same kinds of conversations going. And on the technical side, the audio connection these days is good enough so that everything comes through clearly and it all works fine.

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Bent snacking on a doughnut in Akihabara

Yeah, having a stable connection definitely helps. You've touched on this a bit already, but as someone who's learned other languages, what do you find is different in Japanese? Is there anything you enjoy more or certain things that are more challenging?

That's an interesting one. In a way, Japanese feels very straightforward, but also not, because as we obviously know, it's not always straightforward. For a start, you have to get over that huge barrier of it not being the same letters you’re used to. Right? So that's immediately a big thing.

That said, for me, being a fairly auditory learner, it's helped a lot that once you get the syllables down, the kana down and all that, you realise the language is actually spoken the way it's written. At least when it’s compared to French, for example. And of course I do sometimes struggle with – as we just had in today’s lesson looking at たって and んだって (tatte and n datte – a way of reporting hearsay) – when there are lots of staccato-type sounds in a row where there can be a big difference in meaning just by changing one little vowel sound. That can get a bit difficult.

But I think in in terms of tenses as well, compared to even German, my native language, I feel like Japanese tenses can be a bit more straightforward because there's really not that much you have to worry about.* But then you get into the weeds with the politeness and the nuance side of things. The nuance is where they get you. Because as we saw in today's lesson, whether it’s a た (ta) or a て (te) makes a big difference.

*Note from Elly: Japanese only has two verb tenses: past and non-past tense, i.e. no future tense.

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Bent enjoying some fresh air in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Park

Yes. People sometimes talk about Japanese being quite a fast language and I think there are two ways of measuring the speed of a language.

One is how many syllables there are per second and the other is how much meaning is condensed into those syllables. And I think Japanese measures faster on syllables than meaning density,* but as you say, there’s not a huge variety of sounds within those syllables, especially with vowels, so when you change from た (ta) to て (te) or from て (te) to と or い (i) to え (e) and it can completely confuse the meaning of what you’re trying to say.** It’s quite a memory challenge in that sense.

*Note from Elly: check out this Tofugu article for more on this topic.

**Note from Elly: for example, changing the vowel when conjugating a verb like 話す (to speak) can produce either 話します (hanashimasu – [I] speak) or 話せます (hanasemasu – [I] can speak) – two quite different phrases. Similarly, saying 食べから (tabeta kara) means “because [I] ate” whereas 食べてから (tabete kara) means “after eating”.

Yeah, but in a way, it's also quite empowering when you’re just starting out because you can make sentences with very few words, right? Like you can, you can just say 大丈夫? (daijōbu? – you okay?) and answer 大丈夫. (daijōbu – yeah I’m okay), and you've done something there. Obviously you then have to work out the right context to use these phrases, but once you’ve got that down, you can say a lot with just a word or two.

Absolutely. Speaking of playing with Japanese sounds, you mentioned you had an anecdote to share about a wordplay. Could you tell us about that?

Yes, and it's another anime story. This was when I'd been studying for a bit and kind of started recognising patterns and hearing things here and there. I remember there was an episode in the show Black Rock Shooter where there's a character called Takanashi (小鳥遊). And she writes her name on the blackboard but doesn't say it. And the protagonist goes up to her and calls her Kotoriasobi-san. So that's what she calls her because that's how the name is written. It's written as “little birds (小鳥 – kotori) playing (遊 - asobi)”, which can also be read as “Takanashi”. And it's probably just a little thing that the writer made up because it's like a nice little story but I thought, “Oh, the fact that he can do something like this with the language is actually really cool and really beautiful”.

I recently saw a Japanese blogger posting about something that Japanese kids apparently do when they're learning English, which is to turn their own names into English using the meaning of the kanji they’re written with. So like, Tanaka-san (田中さん) becomes “Mr Field Middle” or Kimura-san (木村さん) “Miss Tree Village” and so on. That made me laugh.

That’s another thing I think is really cool is how you can see a bit of the history of Japan and its language through family names, kind of like how English surnames like Smith tell us about the kind of jobs people might have had in the past.

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I honestly could keep talking about all this for so long, but I want to ask my next question, which is about long-term goals with your Japanese learning. Am I right you’ve mentioned some work-related goals before?

Yeah. By nature I'm not the most long-term goal kind of person, but the most immediate one is sitting N3 of the JLPT this summer. That's the first actual official certification I’ll have done in Japanese. But otherwise, I guess I’d like to be more secure in my speaking and feel less like I’m grasping for words during conversations. But yeah, as you mention, if there was an opportunity to work with a Western company that I already know in Japan, it would be quite nice to make use of the language and to use that in a business context.

Nice. I know people who've gone from working for a Japanese company in Edinburgh to getting placed out in Japan. I think it can take quite a long time to get to that point, as you have to build trust and so on, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Yeah. I mean, failing that, I’m just looking forwards to the next vacation there.

Where do you want to go on your next trip to Japan?

I mean, you know about my Hokkaido bias. That's certainly on the cards. But really because there is probably a family holiday to Japan coming up at some point. If I can talk everybody into not doing Tokyo, I think that'd be good. Not that I wouldn't go back to Tokyo – it's lovely – but just for variety's sake I think it’d be nice to go elsewhere.

That sounds really interesting. Well, good luck with planning and I hope you do convince your family to venture beyond Tokyo. Is there anything else that you’d like to say to people reading this interview?

Yes. If you have been thinking about learning Japanese, but maybe have felt a bit intimidated or weren't quite sure where to start, I'd say give it a go for sure. There are lots of good introductory materials out there and chances are you’re already into the culture. That always helps. I mean, that helped me with English a lot. So yeah, give it a go.

Great. Thank you for such a lovely note to end on!

ベントさん、ありがとう!

Bento-san, arigatō!

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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