One must travel to learn, so spoke Mark Twain. True, that, but one woman discovered that in learning a second language, she could travel the world.
Florinda “RinRin” Palma Gil’s remarkable journey started with a desire to learn languages. Taking up B.A. Linguistics at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, she found to her dismay that her chosen course wasn’t all about memorizing different languages as she had first thought; rather, it was “actually a course on researching about the intricacies of languages” especially the Philippine languages. Overcoming her initial disappointment, she eventually learned to love the course, especially when she had to travel to different provinces and interview locals with whose language she was unfamiliar.
In order to compare and better grasp the intricacies of Philippine languages, the course required the students to learn one or more foreign languages. She chose Nihongo.
Having heard from the 3rd and 4th year students that the Japanese program had long been offering a one year full scholarship in Japan, she chose to study Nihongo as her minor language and saw the scholarship as a first step to fulfilling her dream of traveling the world. She then took up her MA in Japanese Language Education at GRIPS or Graduate Research Institute on Policy Studies in Tokyo.
After graduation, RinRin became a Japanese Language Lecturer for the Department of Linguistics of the University of the Philippines (UP), Diliman from 2004 to 2013. While teaching there, she also took up the position of Program Coordinator and Japanese Language Instructor at the Japan Foundation, Manila, for Japanese Language Education in Secondary Level from 2010 to April 2017. Working hand-in-hand with the Department of Education, they developed teaching and learning materials as well as training modules for High School teachers.
Today, she lives in Chofu City, west of Tokyo and 25 minutes away by bus from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS), where she teaches Filipino to Japanese students.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Unquote. In learning and mastering another language, RinRin Palma Gil has found her world to be unlimited.
I interviewed her about her fascinating odyssey from UP student to a full-time Japanese language teacher.
Can you tell us about your first experience as a student in Japan?
“After studying Nihongo in the Philippines for one and a half years, I finally got my chance to study in Japan. It was there that I got my first shock in learning a foreign language. I could understand them, but I couldn’t find the words to reply to them. “Why?” I asked myself several times. “After studying for so long, why couldn’t I say a word? Why couldn’t I even remember how to say thank you?” To make the story short, after a few months of studying there, I could finally use Nihongo for everyday conversation.
“After studying for so long, why couldn’t I say a word? Why couldn’t I even remember how to say thank you?”
“I realized that I was not able to say a single word because I didn’t even try using it while I was learning it in the Philippines. Reading and writing were not enough. However, even after realizing it I was still hesitant to speak the language. I was afraid to make mistakes and I didn’t like looking at my friends’ faces while they were waiting for me to finally utter a few lines. Well, I survived my one-year stay there mostly because I had friends who could speak English. I didn’t realize the gravity of not being able to express my ideas in Nihongo until much later when I came back to Japan to study again and train as a Japanese language teacher.
“In the Philippines, due to the lack of Nihongo teachers, even if you don’t really use and speak the language, as long as you have been to Japan and that you know the grammar, you can already be a Nihongo teacher. Although this is not really true anymore, during my first years as a teacher, unfortunately, this was the case. I am a living example of this. As a teacher, I could explain the grammar and I could pinpoint which are the correct sentences; however, I couldn’t keep a conversation in Nihongo.
“Still, I was fortunate to be given another scholarship to study and train in Japan as a teacher. This time, almost none of my classmates could understand English, so we were really forced to communicate in Nihongo. That was good because, finally, I was able to communicate and keep a conversation in Nihongo. What I realized that time was how good the teachers from other countries were. They were truly fitting to be called a Nihongo teacher, a Japanese language teacher, whereas I was just a Nihongo teacher by name.
“Not all of my co-trainees then spoke really good Nihongo. However, I saw that even if their grammar was not correct or even if they forgot a word or two, what was important to them was to be able to say what they want or be able to chat happily with new friends after class. I realized that even if one forgets a word or finds it difficult to express something in a sentence, struggling to understand each other and helping each other to speak is actually very important in getting better in speaking a foreign language. This was my greatest discovery then.
“From then on, I never hesitated anymore to speak the language, even if I knew I might make a mistake or even if I feared that they might misunderstand me. I started trusting my listener that he or she will help me say what I wanted to say. If I couldn’t express something or if I didn’t understand them, I would try to ask them for help in simple Nihongo. “Sumimasen, ________wa Nihongo de nandesuka.” (Excuse me, what is this in Nihongo?) “Sumimasen, mou ichido onegaishimasu.” (Excuse me, one more time please? / Could you say that again please?). So that the next time I talk to them, they will feel comfortable enough to speak and they themselves would try to explain difficult words, and so I also learned a lot.
My next discovery was that if I also don’t make an effort to speak in Nihongo, the listener would hesitate to speak in Nihongo as well, and sometimes would hesitate to speak to me at all. With this, there is no learning. I guess you can also use the saying here, ‘No pain, no gain.’”
PART II of RinRin’s story coming up!
Note: All pictures were provided by RinRin.