I have friends, who speak no Japanese, who are convinced I am quite good with the language, despite my protestations. This impression has been reinforced, no doubt, by going out to eat with me, and me handling the details. But really, it’s no degree of fluency; it’s a basic grasp of the language, a middling vocabulary bank, and a very, very keen grasp of context.
I am good with situations (particularly those that I’ve been through in the past), that have limited possible exchanges or that I can prepare for. It took me one, maybe one and a half visits to the nail salon here to suss out the required vocabulary to say what shape I wanted, what color, what style, what length. And how to respond appropriately to a handful of questions (did that hurt? is this okay?). But because I am abjectly terrified at the thought of calling to make an appointment (even knowing what is likely to be asked), I make a point of making the next appointment before I leave. (I didn’t this last time, which means I will have to have someone call for me.)
Same with meals. I can get you the large size, order something without shrimp for you, or get you condiments. Want that to go? Yep, I can do that too. But again, it’s all contextual. If the meal has rice options, then they’re asking me what size, plain or with beans. It’s a trained response, rather than real knowledge, I think.
It’s when presented with conversational opportunities that I flail. Even with some context (e.g., talking with Rodeogirls at Granrodeo shows), my conversational ability is limited. If we’re talking about the band, songs, or the live shows, I can bumble through and be understood. But if the conversation veers away, I am likely to get lost.
I’ve known for a long time I needed to bolster my vocabulary, and I’m still working on it. May always be working on it. Bit by bit it’s improving, but slowly. Oh how I wish I could devote a year to intensive study. But that’s not going to happen until perhaps retirement.
So, until the day I can actually hold a decent conversation, context is king. Long live the king!