Childhood Fascination With Japan Leads To Fluency In A Difficult Language


When Lindsay Nelson was a child, she liked anything that had to do with different cultures. If she saw a statue, she wanted to know who created it and how it fit into the daily life of that culture.

As she grew, her fascination focused on Japan.


Lindsay Nelson's host parents, Toshiharu and Yaeko Kimura, gave her a welcome party when she arrived in Japan.

"I wanted to learn Japanese so bad, Monica Nitzsche (principal at Center for Success) let me find online courses in beginning Japanese from the University of Missouri," Nelson said. "Not many people would just sit and listen to people talk (in another language), but I just love it. I listen and wonder what are they saying and what's going on. It makes me want to study it and communicate with those people."

Nelson studied so diligently that when she enrolled at Northern Arizona University in the spring of 2002 she skipped Japanese 101 and went straight into 102.

After three more semesters, she had exhausted NAU's Japanese courses plus their study abroad program placed students in a dorm. She wanted a host family.

Meanwhile, she had been accepted by Tokyo International University, but had to turn the opportunity down because federal student loans are not good outside the United States.

Disappointed, but not to be deterred, Nelson locked herself in her room and studied third year Japanese all summer long.

Then she discovered Tokyo International University was a sister school to University of Arizona. She enrolled and immediately tested out of third year Japanese.

Impatient to immerse herself in the culture as well as the language, Nelson found programs at the Yamas Institute and Sophoia University that she could attend before her full year at Tokyo University.

Learning proper Japanese in a classroom didn't prepare her for the spoken language with its slang, the way some people slur their words or older men's gruff voices.

"Listening is the hardest part," she said. "You must practice."

Nelson is now living in Japan, attending Tokyo University. Every day she faces social challenges as a foreigner.

Life can be lonely. When Nelson rides on a train there is a bubble of space around her.

"Many people (outside of Tokyo) have never met one foreigner in their lives," she said. "Their culture is based on smiling. It is all about appearances. It doesn't mean anything about what is going on inside."

Often, when Nelson speaks, it takes a few moments for it to sink in that a young Westerner is fluent in their native tongue.

Despite the struggles she faces, Nelson is still living her dream. She loves the culture and the language of Japan.

"My culture shock is a lot worse when I come back to America" she said.

When she returns to the United States, it takes time to get used to friendly check-out-line conversations or the amount of litter on the streets compared to clean Japan or the way people dress.

Twenty-year-old Nelson has one more semester in Japan before returning to the University of Arizona for one last semester before graduation.

In December 2005, after being fully immersed in the language and culture of Japan, Nelson took the "notoriously difficult" official Japanese Language Proficiency Test given once a year by the Japanese government.

It tests on three alphabets -- one for Japanese words, one for English words and the last for Chinese characters -- and is recognized worldwide as the standard an interpreter must pass.

Nelson was told by her teachers at Tokyo International University that in the history of the school's exchange program they haven't seen any Westerners pass the test on the first try.

In the history of the school, only one person had ever attempted Level One (the top of four levels).

True to form, Nelson figured she might as well go for it, and she passed.

Eventually, Nelson plans to work as in interpreter in a career that will allow her to travel, but first she plans to give back to her hometown. In January 2007, she will teach Japanese at the Payson Center for Success for any student who wants to learn.

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