Why I chose to study a language while working full-time

Language Centre student Bianca Belli discusses how she balances learning Japanese while working full-time, her plans for her newfound skills and shares the Japanese word she would teach a friend.

I've wanted to learn Japanese for years, but the prospect of doing so whilst working full-time seemed daunting. Then I started working at SOAS, and the wealth of Japanese language and culture courses we offer to students rekindled my interest. I asked myself, if not here, where? So I signed up for the 10-week Beginners 1 Japanese course at the SOAS Language Centre. 

I studied foreign languages at university, but this is my first time learning a language outside of formal education. The online and recorded options allow me to commit to the course, knowing I could catch up on any lessons I missed due to work commitments or travel.

[Sumimasen] ... can be used either as an apology (“excuse me” or “sorry”) or to thank someone and express gratitude.

Even though the contact hours are fewer (just one and a half per week), I still find myself learning a lot and being able to communicate and read a bit more each week. Homework also helps strengthen what we do in the classroom, allowing students to connect and practice online. 

I was surprised by how quickly I could read hiragana (one of three Japanese alphabets). I found the phonetic lettering to be easier to learn than, for example, the Russian alphabet, probably because it is easier to build up that knowledge when reading syllables rather than letters. And, of course, having a great teacher who makes learning fun and approachable helps. 

Learning a new language really does open up a new world and expands your cultural awareness and strengthens communication and mediation skills, which are invaluable in any workplace. I hope to be visiting Japan soon and I plan to practise some of the language there. And I also plan to re-read my favourite Banana Yoshimoto’s novels (in Japanese) so hopefully I'll recognise a few untranslated words or cultural concepts. Overall though I am looking forward to deepening my knowledge and appreciation of the Japanese language and culture through the course.

If I could teach a friend any Japanese word though it would be 'Sumimasen'. It can be used either as an apology (“excuse me” or “sorry”) or to thank someone and express gratitude. A good example our teacher provided is someone holding open a door for you. You would use sumimasen to thank them humbly for going through the inconvenience for you. I thought it encapsulated much of Japanese politeness and respect and also expressed the value placed on humility. As a non-British person living in England, I found it to resonate with British courtesy too.

About the author

Bianca Belli works as a Study Abroad & Exchange Partnership Officer at SOAS and is currently studying a 10-week Beginners 1 Japanese course. Originally from Italy, she studied abroad in the UK and US before moving to London. She hopes to complete the 3 Beginners courses at SOAS before visiting Japan next year.