Three ways learning Japanese has changed the way I think

A beautiful painting by Monet

Language and word choice can affect our mental patterns in interesting ways.

When I started learning Japanese there were a few words that gave me a lot of trouble because I couldn’t fit their meanings into English. For the first year or two I even avoided using them because I wasn’t confident in the nuance. I thought that if I kept studying, I’d understand them fully. It took longer than I expected.

Over time I realized how these simple words can actually represent deeper parts of culture.

The first was kirei (綺麗, which means both “beautiful” and “clean”). I had never thought that one word could handle both meanings. To me clean is the absence of dirt, like a clean house; or it can be a kind of perfect simplicity, like the Helvetica font or Scandinavian design. On the other hand beautiful is the presence of pleasing things. A cheery tree with blossoms in full bloom is beautiful, a piece of art  is beautiful.

I showed a Jackson Pollock painting to my Japanese teacher, and I said I think the messiness is beautiful, even though it’s the opposite of clean. My teacher said kirei is still ok to use.

But then after a couple years I was surprised to notice I'd started thinking of my clean room as kirei, and I think it’s helped me live a tidier life.

Another surprising word was chigau (違う, which means both “different” and “wrong”). This was more troubling because, as a person from a multicultural country, differences are celebrated as a strength. I wanted to talk about difference without saying one is better, but saying that the difference itself is good.

My Japanese teacher said that isn’t the way Japanese works. To be honest, I still have trouble talking about differences because it seems negative, and I think I discuss differences more in English than I do in Japanese.

Finally, the word komorebi (木漏れ日, which means sunshine filtering through the leaves of a tree) is an idea that I’ve never really thought about in English. Of course I’ve seen this kind of light many times before, but I don’t think I appreciated it until I learned the Japanese word.

Now I’ve been studying Japanese for quite a while and I’ve come to accept that these language points are simply part of life.

But still I wonder how these words, as well as many others, affect our way of thinking in ways we might not realize. What do you think?


Jeremy's picture

Can you think of any more words in English or in your native language that effect your mindset? If so, you can post a comment here. We'd be happy to hear about it.