Video Games | The Sanest Reason to Learn Japanese

Video Games | The Sanest Reason to Learn Japanese

By Shehzaan Abdulla on August 19, 2014

A few months back, GameSpot ran a story on Kotoba Miners: A Minecraft mod designed to teach would-be learners the Japanese language. But it wasn’t the game that stuck with me so much as the reaction to it: many commenters either wrote video games off as a poor reason for motivation to learn a language, or tried to dissuade people from learning the language because Chinese, French, Spanish, Klingon, etc., are more readily usable. And to be fair, these points aren’t without merit. But I can’t shake the feeling that they were coming from the wrong place.

Keep in mind that these kinds of comments often come from people who jumped into learning Japanese lightly, and found out that it was too much, too hard. Video games aren’t a good enough motivation to pull one through learning the language, they concluded. But how many of these are qualified comments that come from those who’ve actually gotten past the elementary stages? Hmm…

Yeah, so I think we can agree that the study advice of dropouts is probably not the most sound in the world. There’s a difference between a student who wants to learn Japanese because they love Japanese video games and one that loves learning the language itself, with video games being one of their primary sources of positive reinforcement.

The former is going to feel like they’re going through an irritating several-year-long initiation that they just want to be over, while the latter gets a sense of how much better they’re getting week-on-week through the process of demystification and revelation that comes with better understanding a game each time they look at it. The former’s chance of reaching practical language acquisition (enough to, say, play a JRPG well) is practically zero; they were doomed to fail before they began. The latter however, has a chance. The voices of dissent appeared to be overlooking this point.

But the dismissive comments I saw were also coming from another place, a blind spot that typically characterizes monolingual Anglophones – a group that typically disassociates culture from language. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that these people have no concept of how culture and language go hand-in-hand; on some level, even if only abstractly, they acknowledge that relationship – they know of it.

Keep in mind that English is a widely-spoken language across vastly different cultures, from the US and UK to India and Singapore, essentially making it (relatively) a-cultural. As a result, it’s easy for English monolinguals to slip into dismissing the powerful, even destructive effects that culture shock can have on language learning, and the unique role that video games can play in overcoming them.

These effects are given little consideration because the popular interpretation of “culture shock” isn’t really culture shock at all. Being taken aback by how a foreign country looks, sounds, and smells radically different from your own isn’t culture shock – it’s culture surprise. Likewise, soaking up the mechanical skills – the reflexive bowing, business card etiquette, and the nimble use of chopsticks – that isn’t culture shock either, it’s cultural initiation – less The Last Samurai and more “the first step”.

In fact, culture shock actually has little to do with “foreign” cultures; it’s the shock at being confronted with the (up til now invisible) framework of culture itself. You’ll be surrounded by people who all say the same things, have the same opinions, and, if the shock hits you hard enough, you might even be convinced that their uniformity is rehearsed rather than spontaneous. And it will make you resent the people of the culture for their seeming lack of humanity – how else could they be following their cultural template to a tee short of being “robots”?

In other words, the “shock” doesn’t come from the “foreign” elements of the culture, but the reflexive rejection that people can and do follow rigidly transparent (cultural) behavioral templates. It won’t occur to you that you’ve been unwittingly following a template of your own your whole life. This is true even if you think you’re a black sheep in your own culture – you aren’t as far removed from the template as you might think. Yes, even you.

Instead of confronting the reality and realizing that you’re no different, you resolve the conflict by attributing fault to the foreign culture – they’re the weird, irrational ones. This will go double in Japan, a culture locked in its echo chamber in a futile attempt to create an exclusively unique cultural identity, making its people’s adherence to its cultural template that much more obnoxiously obvious – an issue which Hideo Kojima tackled with aplomb in Policenauts.

Confronting culture itself is a mentally tiring process that means more than a few will swing from enthusiastic Japandom to disillusion and racism. Once you’re in culture shock’s grip, being able to use the language in a practical way stops being a compelling, sustainable motivation for language learning; after all, why would you continue learning the language of a culture and people you’ve come to hate? And when you interact with a culture so fundamentally different from you own, sooner or later you will reach that tipping point; it’s practically a rite of passage.  

If you’re still in the elementary stages of learning Japanese, or have yet to start learning, you’re probably still in the honeymoon phase of your relationship with Japan; maybe you’ve even considered moving over there. You’ve probably already batted away the suggestion that you’ll fall out of love with the country and its people as nothing more than jaded cynicism. But it happens, almost without exception, to everyone – making it a question of “if” rather than “when”.

The important thing is making sure you come out of the other side of your disillusioned stint with a healthy, positive mindset. Chances are that if communicating with the Japanese people with whom you’ve become disillusioned is your primary motivation, you may well not come out the other side at all. And you can’t hate the Japanese forever if you intend to keep learning their language. You need to look to sources other than communicating with people for motivation, preferably something that reminds you of why you wanted to learn the language in the first place. This is where video games demonstrate their unique role in overcoming culture shock.

If you loved video games before you started learning Japanese, then the odds are good that any cynicism you have for Japan won’t affect your appreciation of them. Unlike interacting with people, the intercultural hurdles introduced by video games can normally be overcome passively, from a bystander’s perspective: you only have to know about Japanese cultural norms to enjoy the games, rather than awkwardly meeting the norms halfway as you’d be expected to do in real life.

Video games have always been a safe way to interact with worlds without getting physically injured, but they also allow you to inquisitively poke and prod at cultures from the outside in. This can be the case when playing games set in Japan such as the high school antics of the Persona games, or even with Japanese takes on genres familiar to Westerners such as Bayonetta (Action) and Vanquish (TPS) which ooze their Japanese creative influences.

To be honest, music, dramas, films, anime, or whatever you’re into can also fulfill a similar role in helping you regain motivation. But that new album from your favorite band comes to an end after it runs its play time, dramas and films rush to their inevitable ending credits sequences whether you’ve understood them or not, and anime, surprisingly enough, is harder to see live (and ludicrously expensive boxed) than you might imagine.

Video games are different. Progression in them, especially in text-heavy games, depends on your language skills. But try playing a game you’ve never played before and (even if you only understand it partially) grasping that the innkeeper is telling you where to go to get the sword you need to slay a dragon. That’s a dragon you could never have slayed without your language skills. Kill it and as your reward you’ll have a small showering of EXP, gold, and newfound motivation to keep learning Japanese. Understanding the video game changes from being the end goal of your language studies to being a barometer against which you can keep checking yourself week after week – a long-term motivation to keep you going while your relationship with Japan heals.

Understanding video games, far from being a poor reason to learn Japanese, is actually one of the sanest, most grounding motivations for plowing on with the chore of habit that language studies sometimes becomes. That is provided you know upfront that understanding video games is supplemental to language learning rather than the end goal. If you have that down, you have one of the sturdiest shields against true “culture shock” that you could ever hope to have.