During a semester in which you often find yourself on the wrong side of a language barrier, seeing others work on a foreign language is encouraging. In the English circle Klexon, I was not only able to interact with Japanese participants of various backgrounds– I was afforded a different perspective regarding my own Japanese studies. For all the moments you feel insecure, unsure, or even embarrassed during your interactions with native speakers, Klexon is a reminder that the embarrassment or discomfort is not mutual. In many ways, Klexon motivated me to study harder, interact more freely, and test my own Japanese in areas I initially may have shied away from.
As I continued to participate in Klexon weekly, I began to recognize a handful of faces, and became friendly with a considerable number of the circle members. Klexon’s Japanese participants vary in age (as do the native English speakers), but every one is extremely friendly, and very willing to talk. As friendships develop, you may find your English conversations slipping into Japanese. In my opinion, this is one of the great benefits of Klexon. For all the English you speak, you’ll find ample opportunity to work in your Japanese as well (in the all-important arena of informal conversation). With the older participants you may want to keep your Japanese respectful and formal, but you’ll find with your younger friends that slipping into comfortable and informal conversation happens quite naturally. This may be a consequence of the importance and function of age in Japanese relationships, and the way in which age affects interactions (especially in first-encounter situations). In a group setting such as Klexon, where internal hierarchy isn’t clearly defined by rank, significance is placed on age instead. In my own observations, I noted the use of polite Japanese between members of different age groups, but not exclusively from one side. In conversations where an older and younger circle member were speaking, both parties kept the exchanges polite and reserved. It seems that for those with less in common, interactions remain more formal by nature.
In direct contrast to this, I noticed that peers in the same age group would sometimes immediately jump into informal conversation once they realized they were students at the same university, or were both the same age. As a foreigner, you may be hesitant to switch from polite to relaxed conversation with a partner, and you may not know when or how to do so. In my experience, if a peer speaks to you informally, you should probably return the favor. It is at the same time a sign of comfort and friendship. Why reject it? I suppose in many ways Klexon helps a student understand how friendships develop in Japan, and when certain barriers of formality can be crossed and discarded.
Though Klexon has an informal atmosphere in general, one curious point I did notice is that at meetings all the English speakers stay seated, while those who came to practice English rotate from person to person every ten minutes. While this is of course practical, I couldn’t help but feel there was an element of respect attached to the gesture as well. We, as English speakers, provide a valuable learning resource for the Japanese participants. As such, we’re treated by the circle leader almost as guests. I suppose its something you might expect in a society where hospitality and manners are valued so highly.