It was not a good week for language learning.
By which I mean that if my linguistic ability was the average for mankind, the wheel would have been invented 7,000 times since nobody would have been able to share their discovery.
It began when I remembered to check the outcome of the NJLPT exam I had sat back in July. The NJLPT (or the New Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is the standardised language test for non-native speakers. There are five levels which roll in reverse order from basic knowledge (ordering a coffee at Starbucks) for the N5 exam through to the N1 (let's enjoy that Starbucks coffee while we contrast the different translations of the 11th century literary work, 'The tale of Genji' in its original tongue). The range of abilities examined results in big jumps between the levels, so much so that 5 years ago an extra level was introduced between the original JLPT 2 and 3. The JLPT then became the NJLPT and less people spent their lives feeling like failures.
However, none of that applied to me, since I had just failed the N4. By four marks.
Potentially, such a near miss might be considered just plain unlucky. Yet, a fairer assessment would note that the pass mark is sufficiently low that if I hadn't soared right over it, I probably didn't deserve the qualification.
Nevertheless, as an individual imbued with a huge amount of stubbornness, I was not deterred! Instead, I struck out and sat the placement test for this semester's Japanese classes at the university.
And failed that too.
Technically, it's not possible to fail a placement test. However, when you are assigned to a class two levels below your desired selection and moreover, it's a class you previously passed with a grade close to 100%, one does not feel a sense of achievement.
Feeling cheated, I emailed the help desk for the language courses and pleaded my case. I have dyslexia --I pointed out-- and timed reading tests are terrible, hard and DOWNRIGHT CRUEL for me. In truth, a bigger problem (or at least an exacerbatory one) was that the Japanese font rendition on the computer test was ghastly, but I felt trying to blame their system probably wouldn't get me brownie points.
Their response was to summon me to see the director.
This wasn't good.
In fact, I almost gave up right then and there, plugged my ears and pretended I didn't live in Japan.
The problem was that I knew the conversation would be held entirely in Japanese and my spoken language was my weakest area. Without written words and with a healthy dose of panic, the only placement I was likely to gain would be in the corner wearing a cone-shaped hat marked with a 'D'.
I reminded myself I had nothing to lose. Then I wrote back in Japanese and requested a different appointment time, largely to demonstrate three grammatical structures from a higher level of class than I'd been assigned.
I tried to persuade my cat to eat me during the night. She declined.
Feasibly, I wasn't taking this situation particularly well.
The next morning I skulked into the language building on campus and peered around the director's door with a look reminiscent of Puss in Boots in Shrek. The director informed me she understood my situation, had my previous grades on record but said that my placement test was bad and the same rules applied to everyone.
That was reasonable. And unfortunate. I didn't like it at all.
Then she gave me the option of sitting a replacement paper test right now. If I passed, she'd write-off the poor original test and allow me into the 'Japanese Intermediate I ' course I'd requested.
That was highly reasonable. And high pressure. I didn't like it at all.
I reminded myself I hadn't like the previous situation. And that I had nothing to lose. Apart from the shredded remains of my ego and any delight in earthly things. Then I thanked her, attempted to look delighted and sat down to take the test.
It was harder than the placement test.
I recognised maybe half the grammatical structures and no more than two-thirds of the vocabulary. By the time I turned over the page, I was ready to keep turning and roll my own dunce's cap. I clearly couldn't be taught. In fact, I couldn't even remember being taught. Ruefully, I handed in the test paper, admitting that my vocabulary had been a problem.
"Oh," the director said. "That is because this test is for 'Japanese Intermediate II '."
WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU SADISTIC PEOPLE?
"Your score it fine. Please go to the 'Japanese Intermediate I ' class next week."
Sadly for all concerned, the last hour had destroyed my mind and I was now convinced I understood nothing.
"Please go?" I repeated blankly.
The director looked at me in surprise. Since the term 'please go' (行ってください) was taught in 'Japanese Beginner I ', four classes below the level I'd spent the last hour proving I had reached, her confusion was understandable.
She repeated in twice more. It didn't help. I now knew as much Japanese as a buttered muffin.
In the end, she showed me the class in the course booklet, likely in the vain hope I was obtusely questioning the room number. Logic suggested that such an act would be spectacularly cruel if she hadn't intended for me to actually attend the class.
... actually, that only increased the probability to 50%. Since that was the pass mark for the NJLPT, I decided that was good enough.
Wednesday 8:45 am. Pray to your gods.