James Bollinger, 20, took his first course in Japanese last summer at UNC Charlotte.
Now he’s in an advanced intermediate class.
“I’ve never seen a student like that,” said Professor Chikako Mori. “I was very surprised.”
Just a few weeks ago, James competed at an annual Japanese-speaking competition at Duke University and came in second place at the highest speaking level.
“It is a big accomplishment for Japanese-language learners,” Mori said.
In the competition, he delivered a speech about his major in college, psychology.
But none of these accomplishments would have been possible if, back in middle school, a friend hadn’t given him a Japanese anime show to watch. Anime (pronounced an-i-may) is a kind of cartoon.
He was hooked.
“I watched at least a hundred different series,” James said. “I’d go home and in my free time, I’d watch anime.”
The anime characters speak in Japanese, and James said he was initially guided by English subtitles.
“At first I just kind of started picking up words, then I wanted to see how many words I could learn,” he said. “For most of the time, my motivation was to see how far I could get.”
Later, James borrowed the language aid Rosetta Stone to learn the fundamentals. “I learned the very basic sentence structure – ‘The boy runs’ or ‘This is a yellow plate’ – stuff like that,” he said.
He’d try to translate his thoughts into Japanese before bed and in the shower to get his mind used to the language.
“Talking to yourself, thinking, is really a way to get better at it,” he said.
By his senior year of high school, James, who took Latin and German classes in high school, did his exit project on Japanese and made a video of himself having a conversation with a local Japanese woman he found through his uncle’s international business.
When he entered college at UNC Charlotte, James was over the anime scene – “I didn’t like it anymore” – and last year, he took a class in Chinese. There he met a student who was Japanese and revived his interest in the language.
The two became friends, and James got a lot of practice speaking Japanese with him and other Japanese students.
James said he’s learned a lot since he first hit the play button to watch an anime show.
“The Japanese have a very different way of thinking than Americans do, and it shows in the language,” he said. He’s gathered that Japan values collectivism, he said, and emphasizes interdependence in a group, while the U.S. is all about individuality.
“I’ve been able to see things from more perspectives that I was before,” he said.
For example, the wording for “thank you” in Japanese translates as “you put me in a bind,” James said. “Like, ‘Now, I have to return the favor.’”
People also say something akin to “sorry for the trouble” instead of saying “thank you.”
But most of all, James said, learning the language has introduced him to many friends, for which he’s grateful. He’s even dating a classmate with Japanese heritage he met through his friends at school.
“Meeting all these people is the coolest part about it.”
Ruebens: 704-358-5294; On Twitter: @YoungAchCLT
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