How I learned English
August 30 2002 at 5:28 AM

I followed my family to Edinburgh, Scotland at age eight, spent about nine months there, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio and lived there until I returned to Japan at age 12.

So I cannot deny that I had a good start. By the time it was time to fly back to Japan in 1975, I had no trouble with daily conversation. I could tell jokes and do a bad imitation of Scoobydoo. I could recount an episode of Happy Days for my classmates who missed it. Since kids pick up new languages like sponge soaks up water, I got to this level without much effort. This was my starting point when I got back to Japan.

At the time I still had a Japanese accent, but I knew English well enough to recognize accents. My grandfather gave me an old tape recorder, which I used to record my own speech and play back to myself. I did this all summer for hours on end until I was satisfied that I had corrected my accent. The tape recorder broke at the end of the summer so I guess I was trying pretty hard.

From age 14 to age 25, I read the TIME magazine from cover to cover every week. My name appeared in the "Letters to the Editor" section three times during this period. I underscored every word I did not know and looked it up in the dictionary. I tried several times to make a "vocabulary notebook" to record the words that I had learned. I never could get beyond the first few pages. When I look back through them I can see that as late as age 20, I still had quite a poor vocabulary. In the six years from the time I returned to Japan until I graduated highschool, I had worn out three dictionaries. From then on for the next few years, I would go through one papaerback dictionary a year.

I never really got into Japanese literature until about age eighteen, so until then I read only English. When the TIME magazine didn't offer enough diversion, I read the Worldbook Encyclopedia. I practically memorized the whole damn thing. Ask me about the history of industrial glass production.

I flunked the enterance examination for medical school twice. During this time, I was sent to cram schools where it was mandatory to take nation wide tests several times a year. My math hardly improved at all but my English soared. I was number one in Japan five times in a row.

I stopped studying English at about age 25. I was already in medical school and I was way over qualified for any job I could possiblly have in that field so far as English was concerned. You don't need to be able to enjoy Kurt Vonnegut in English to be a doctor.

I was having a lot of problems then, and I kept flunking. When I finally failed my examination for my doctor's licence for the second time, I decided to take up a job as a translator. I bought my first computer and learned to type for the first time. I dusted some old books that I never finished and started improving my English again. Soon I was making 10,000 yen every weekend. I started talking seriously about opening a translation agency with my Chinese friend. If I failed the medical exam one last time, I would become a translator. I passed and became a doctor.

That's about the long and short of it. I never did anything special. I just did a lot of dull things. The English I speak is simply the result of the sheer quantity of work I put into it.

I'm afraid it might not be much help to the most of you.


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