The most common question I have heard from friends back home since being here (a month already!) is "How's the language barrier?" I've been here a month, and I've adjusted to some things, but I still can't understand 99% of what is said in Japanese, and I still can't (and probably won't ever) read much Kanji. I do know the symbol for "shaved ice" though.
Living in a culture where you don't know the language is an immensely humbling experience. I have to have help with everything I was able to do independently at home - the first time I withdrew money from the ATM, I had to get one of the Japanese people in the office to help me with the buttons because I couldn't read them. Even if I wanted to drive a car here, I probably wouldn't be able to because I cannot read half the road signs. Getting dinner is often a guessing game, and I am beyond grateful for picture menus. Several conversations have devolved into purely miming what I needed, which is slightly embarrassing.
I love the English language, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a linguist. I have a decent grasp on German, so it's not like I can't learn other languages...I'm just not very good at it. It takes a lot of work for me to get a grasp on basic sayings in a language and get them to stick in my head - I have to be told multiple times how to say something before I will actually be able to say it.
Today I walked down the hall to class practicing how to say "Good morning" in Japanese. Part of my hesitation in learning a new language is the fear that I'll bumble it and come out sounding like some sort of caveman: "Me go to mosquito Kokura?" Or that I'll say something completely unknown to them.
I've had the reverse happen several times in class already - if a student doesn't know how to pronounce a word in English, he'll do his best to say it, but often it comes out sounding nothing like the actual English word. Frequently this happens with English words that are pronounced in ways vastly different from their spelling. I imagine similar things will happen in Japanese, and it is hard to humble yourself to knowingly go into a situation where you don't know all the answers, where you've got a 99.9% possibility of screwing things up, into a culture where no means no and yes also means no (something strange with the way they structure their questions, a bit like the "do you mind" construction in English).
I have to rethink how I teach some things. In debate class today, I could tell in the middle of the lesson that I'd lost them entirely. I had to backpedal and go to a lesson from two weeks ago in order to catch them back up to speed. This was simply because I had talked too fast in English, and now had to explain myself over again. I have to be extremely patient, and extremely forgiving, and realize certain limitations. As much fun as it might be to discuss the Big Issues with my students, it's a little hard if they still don't know the word "corner" or "wrench."
I get to see a different part of the teaching spectrum, and it's one that is interesting, humbling, and I think will ultimately make me a better teacher. And a better learner - willing to take risks, to make a fool of myself on the bus, and to get lost a couple of times. After all, isn't that what adventure is made of?