I had studied Japanese for about six months before I left to live in Japan for part of my sophomore year in college. Once there, I threw myself into an intensive language program: With five other American students, I sat in Japanese classes for four hours a day. We had hours of homework and memorization to do every night. The families we lived with were instructed to speak to us in Japanese only.
Of course our little group of American college students cheated, and we spoke English when we were away from our teachers and our families. But Japanese surrounded us. Every night I went to bed mentally exhausted, worn out from listening hard, from learning new words, from memorizing more kanji. After a month or so I began to dream in Japanese, which our sensei seemed to believe was a sign of crossing a certain line in the learning of a language. It was progress; if you could dream in Japanese, your consciousness was accepting the language, you were thinking in Japanese, rather than thinking about Japanese. Thinking in Japanese was a mantra of sorts, a shining, elusive goal repeated by every teacher of the language I ever had. “If you can think in Japanese,” they said, “soon you will be fluent.” Fluent was a magic word among us. We longed for fluency, but none of us knew how to get there. How can you force yourself to think in Japanese?
I loved dreaming in Japanese, in part for the satisfaction that I might be making the progress my sensei described, but also because when I spoke Japanese in my dreams, my command of the language was much, much better than it was in my waking life. I did not hesitate, I did not fumble for words, or ask for prompts from those I spoke to. I didn’t act out words I didn’t know, and I didn’t flip hurriedly through one of the many dictionaries I carried with me to Japan. In my dreams Japanese soared out of me. I spoke fluently, understood by all. Thought and speech merged, and my sentences contained words I hadn’t studied the meaning or usage of, words that I’d heard on TV or in someone else’s speech. My brain, my dreams revealed, was studying all the time. I was unconsciously storing vocabulary, grammatical structures, speech patterns — fluency — and my dreams let me know that it was all there.
When I woke up I returned to myself — a student struggling to learn a difficult language. Sometimes I said the wrong words, and I needed dictionaries and prompts. It was some time after I’d arrived in Japan that I understood that you can’t force yourself to think in a language you did not grow up speaking. But through some secret combination of study, time, immersion, and desire, it happens. There was no one point at which I noticed it. Gradually it just got easier, I learned more, or perhaps my sleeping brain shared a little of its knowledge with my waking brain. I began to need my reference books less, and I found myself having conversations with people in which I didn’t scramble for words or grammar, and I could make myself understood. My speech became smoother, the Japanese language became more … available. Like in my dreams.
Last night, for the first time in a long time, probably years, I dreamed in Japanese again. Only this time my dream language skills mirrored the state of my waking Japanese. I was rusty, and fumbling for words that I’ve long since let slip away. I switched back and forth between Japanese (when I knew how to express what I wanted to say) and English (when the conversation moved beyond my current grasp of Japanese). The couple I was speaking to in my dream were people I knew in Japan, people who, just like my language skills, I’ve lost to time. I’m no longer in contact with them in my waking life, but their presence in the dream was unremarkable, unsurprising compared to our use of Japanese. I kept repeating, “I’ve forgotten how to speak Japanese, I’m sorry.” After I’d said it for the third or fourth time it occurred to me that I was speaking Japanese even as I said it, that I could say that much without hesitation, and that I understood their polite denials of this fact when they responded.
I woke up feeling as though I had seen an old friend. Despite our awkwardness together, I was pleased that my friend had returned, but I missed the way things used to be.