Language exchange opens doors to Japanese culture

A fascination with Japanese history and culture inspired Yalu Zhou to travel to Japan to study Japanese language. She says to truly know a culture you must understand its language, and vice versa. Yalu was supported to study in Japan by a Foundation Japan Study Grant, which are kindly funded by Nakashimato Co Ltd.
Yalu talking to a class of high school students

Yalu talking to a group of high school students about New Zealand Māori culture

My interest in Japan developed in a history course at high school, from which I learned the major periods of Japanese history. I was interested in the stories behind the influential people in different periods and the spirits they left. Coming from an Asian background, I found it easy to understand the context of history and culture. However, it is the distinctiveness of Japanese culture that attracted me and motivated me to learn more about the country.         

When I first arrived in Japan, I was really impressed by the fusion of the traditional and modern. I saw old shrines and temples in the middle of the city centre and women walked on the streets in traditional kimono.

Even though I couldn’t speak much Japanese, people were very patient and supportive, which gave me confidence and gradually I became comfortable speaking Japanese.

In my university, the language class is completely taught in Japanese and classes are made up of fewer than 15 students, which means students have more chance to interact with the teacher than in the bigger lectures.

In the class, we do listening, reading, writing and speaking practice, and every day there are small quizzes of grammar points and vocabulary. My Japanese skills improved rapidly through intensive practice of grammatical structures and kanji.

My university also offers a Japanese buddy programme, where one exchange student pairs up with three Japanese students. My buddies are very supportive and help me with my study a lot. On weekends, we often travel around and try out Japanese food together. It’s interesting to talk to people from another cultural background. They always come up with new ideas and I learn how to see things from other perspectives.

In addition, there is a Japanese culture practicum nearly every Friday, where students can experience Japanese culture and learn about the history, as well as Japanese traditions. For example, at the beginning of the semester we went to the Grand Shrine to experience Japan's Shinto tradition and learned the appropriate shine ritual and prayer etiquette.

Visiting the shrine, the power of Japanese culture was shown more strongly than any words written in a textbook. A tea ceremony experience, tie-dying and soba noodle making were also included in the excursions throughout the semester.

A woman mixing powdered green tea in a small bowl

Taking part in a tea ceremony, visiting shrines and making soba noodles have all been part of Yalu's language learning experience

There are many opportunities for exchange students to interact with local communities and schools. I joined a volunteer programme to introduce New Zealand and Maori culture to high school students. From this experience, I had a better understanding of Japanese culture as well as my own by discussing cultural differences.

My future goal is to achieve Level Three of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and higher.

For me, language is a powerful tool that guides me to understand the culture.

Achieving a high standard of language ability gives me a chance to explore Japanese history and today’s society from local Japanese people and my own experiences.

Being able to fluently communicate in daily Japanese is another goal. Spoken language changes from time to time and reflects the values of a society; therefore, it is another way to learn more about the country and the culture.