NK Refugee Passes 1st Level Language Exam
Just three years after arriving in Japan, I have passed Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, so I decided to write about my experience in the hope that it might encourage others.
When I arrived at Narita airport, I finally met the person who had worked so hard to get me to Japan. The first words he said to me were, “Why did you want to come to Japan?”. At the time, I could only manage simple greetings in Japanese, and although I could vaguely understand what he was saying, I could not reply in his language.
It was frustrating being unable to tell him why I sacrificed everything and risked my life to escape here. I was sad because I could not express my gratitude to this person for saving my life.
At that moment, I decided that, no matter what, I would do my best to be able to express my thoughts in Japanese.
Mumbling to Myself the Words I Studied
First, I made sure I had a detailed plan, but there was one concern – with my personality, I often could not stay focused for very long. To conquer this weakness I watched television. There were three reasons for this: 1) To make study fun without getting bored. 2) To naturally learn Japanese history and culture. 3) To keep up with the latest news, trends, and celebrity topics. (No matter how much I studied, I thought it would be hard to live in Japan if I could not follow the topics that other people were discussing).
It was not fun watching television when I did not understand Japanese, but I watched earnestly. With a dictionary next to me, I made a point of looking up words that gave me trouble and repeating them again and again under my breath. Talking to myself like this became a habit that, even now, I cannot stop (laugh).
As time went by, I could understand words spoken slowly and clearly like the news. But it was a long time before I could understand the fast talking variety shows.
After I could understand a certain amount, I learned “hiragana” and “katakana” and decided to try and read a book. I had always loved reading, so I thought it would be great to study while doing something I love.
That was about 4 months after I arrived in Japan. My first book was the PHP special issue “Techniques for Making the Most of Money and Time” (February 2009). More than half the book was pictures, and it was less than one centimeter thick, but I remember it took me almost two months to finish it. I started out with two lines a day, taking notes on all the words I came across, and earnestly learning them. After two or three days, two lines became 3 lines, then 4 lines…
In this way, I read thin books one after another. Sooner than I expected, I was able to read a lot of Japanese and I was conversing happily with Japanese people.
As the books piled up one by one, I gained self-confidence and a sense of achievement.
Gratitude Toward Night School and Part-time High School Teachers
Reading my story so far, one might get the impression that I passed the exam’s highest level just through self-study. But the truth is, during this time, I was going to middle school at night for one year, and part-time high school for 2 years. In my own country I had graduated from college, so I was reluctant to enroll in middle school in Japan. But when I think about it now, I am grateful for the guidance of the teachers who helped me reach my goal sooner.
Now I’m in my late twenties, and having recently passed a big milestone, my next goal is to enroll in a university. It makes me happy to think that there are probably not many people who have attended middle school, high school, and college in both Japan and North Korea.
Next I would like to become even more like a native speaker, to the point of making jokes and even quarrelling in Japanese (laugh).