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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: The joy (and pain) of learning a language

Rika Kayama

I've been examining patients at a clinic that I started working at occasionally from last year, and many of those I treat are from China. It provided me with a chance to start learning their language. I want to speak Chinese, even just a little, although I really don't need to because my patients can speak Japanese and translators always accompany tourists.

However, Chinese pronunciation is very difficult, which has been pointed out by many who have tried to learn the language. No one would understand you if you made a mistake in pronouncing words that sounds the same, but have various different intonations -- some high-pitched and others low-pitched. "No. That's not right either," I would often get corrected by my teacher, and have to repeat a word over and over again.

When I told my friends that I started learning Chinese, some of them laughed and said, "Isn't it too late to learn a new language now?" Some people advised me on ways to use translating functions that are equipped in modern smartphones.

To confirm everyone's concerns, I got stuck around the 10th page in my "introductory course" textbook, due to struggles with pronunciation. Right when I was thinking about giving up, I had a chance to have a chat with a person from France, who could speak English, Chinese, as well as some Asian languages. For a person who had just started learning Japanese, they spoke quite well in the language.

I couldn't help but complain about how my Chinese wasn't improving, even though I'm trying to learn the language for my Chinese patients. Upon hearing my dissatisfaction, the French person smiled and said, "How relieved a foreign patient must feel when they visit a hospital after falling ill and the doctor speaks even just a little of their native language."

I then realized what a relief it must be for Japanese people to be greeted with a simple "konnichiwa" (hello) by a doctor at a hospital when becoming sick in a distant country. It doesn't really matter whether my Chinese is good or bad. I just need to know the most basic phrases and don't need to aim too high.

Even though we live in a global society, language and culture vary in different countries and regions. It's still important in the 21st century to learn even the slightest bit about other cultures, and to let foreigners know that you "understand," once you come across them. Now I can hardly wait to attend Chinese lessons. I wonder how fluent I will become. I look forward to reporting the results in this column in the future. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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