Thinking about my interview with Michael Hughes I couldn’t help but be a little in awe. Growing up in Belfast, Michael’s childhood interest in Japanese led him to complete a degree in the language at Cambridge and forge a successful career as an International officer for Kings College London. As someone who has always regretted letting her teenage-self give up on GCSE French (‘when will I ever need this?’), the thought of learning to write and speak in a language that uses symbols rather than letters is remarkable. Obviously more dedicated than me, would I seem stupid as I asked how you write in symbols or get your head around the pronunciation? As it turns out, although I never summoned the courage to ask Michael to talk to me in Japanese, I really had nothing to worry about. Relaxed, humble and more than happy to share his advice with those hoping to learn the language, Michael quickly became one of my most fascinating interviewees to date.
So Michael, why Japanese?
It’s a long story, but I was always fascinated by Japan as a kid, especially as a teenager. They just seemed to be a level above the rest in terms of technology, and I was always interested in martial arts. I went to Japan when I was sixteen and think that really consolidated my interest – it was just mind blowing. Living in Belfast and visiting Tokyo, with its skyscrapers and neon lights was just mind blowing. I think certainly at that point I wanted to make it one of my goals to spend a few years there and learn the language.
How did things progress from there?
I studied Japanese as my degree at Cambridge and after that spent a couple of years in Kyoto University, doing a research scholarship for the ministry of education. Whilst I was in Japan I got involved in helping at some education fares for Irish universities, and got to know a few people in the international education sector. Once I got back I started looking for jobs in the industry and went to St Mary’s University in Twickenham for over a year as an international officer, before moving to Kings as the regional manager for East and South East Asia for just over four years.
What do you think it is that attracts Japanese students to study in the UK?
It tends to be a range of things but in my experience it’s the reputation of the British higher education system, which really punches above its weight in many respects. It tends to be employment driven, but in terms of going back to their own countries and getting jobs, although some are able to stay. For some students, particularly those from Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it’s personal interest. There are courses offered here that simply aren’t offered back home, or they are offered in a context that is much more appealing than they would be in one of their own countries.
As a beginner, is it harder to write or speak Japanese?
When you start off learning it is definitely easier to pick up a very basic level of speaking ability; no matter what way you go about it, the writing is going to take longer to get the hang of. Saying that, like all languages, with speaking it gets more difficult as you go along and start to encounter the need to use different levels of politeness. But writing is a challenge from the start, especially if you are from a western background, as the Japanese language has a lot of grammatical ideas that don’t exist in English. From the perspective of an English speaker the language is back to front; you’ve got a lot of idiomatic phrases that express ideas that don’t exist here and you often find there isn’t really a direct translation for a lot of things. The characters you have to learn are called kanji; they’re quite complicated and you need to memorise a large number of strokes and radicals. I’d say to read a newspaper you would need to know about 2000 of these and we had to learn around 50 a week in my first year at university – some of my classmates were literally in tears by the end of the first term.
Would you call yourself fluent?
Good question! I think three years of a degree does not get you to the same level of proficiency you would have if you spent that time learning French for example, but you do get very good. I was able to pass the highest level of the Japanese language proficiency test in my final year, which is supposed to mean I am ‘fluent’. After studying to that level I could pass for Japanese on the phone a few times, as the pronunciation isn’t particularly challenging, so if you are a good mimic you can develop quite an authentic accent. But there are all sorts of additional changes and you always end up having to continue to put more effort in.
What’s it like being a Brit in Japan?
It’s very complex, I would say it’s a very easy country to get used to in terms of the transport, the food, the standard of service – in terms of getting used to the quality of life there I don’t think many British people would have too many problems. The disadvantage people say comes when you are there long term. It’s quite a harmonious society, so you often find living there as a foreigner in the long term can become tiresome, in the sense that you might never feel fully part of society.
What would your advice be for someone wanting to go on a course and learn the language?
If you want to learn it to a very high level of expertise, you are almost certainly going to need to go and live in Japan and also study it – it’s not the kind of language you can learn just by living there and picking it up. If you’re thinking of doing it as an evening course here in the UK, I think you have to be fairly realistic about your objectives and what levels you expect to reach – it’s going to take a very long time to get proficient this way. But it’s a satisfying process learning the language – I would definitely recommend it. If you are good at European languages, the chances are with a bit more effort you will be good at Japanese as well – it’s not the sort of language you should be intimidated or put off by.
What are your top tips for retaining the language over here in the UK?
I’m in the fortunate position that I travel to Japan a couple of times a year for work, if you can get to Japan at least once a year you don’t have too much to worry about in terms of retaining the language. If you don’t, there are a number of things you can do – in London for example there are always Japanese residences and students looking for conversation practice, or societies that meet in the pub so getting down to those is a good start.
If Michael has persuaded you to try something new and discover the joys of the Japanese language, why not take a look at the courses listed on our site and get inspired. Although it may take years, practice makes perfect – so what are you waiting for?