My town was originally five separate villages. They joined together a long time ago and started sharing resources. Still, there are five different elementary schools, and up until six years ago there were three, maybe four, different junior high schools. Once the shiny new junior high school opened, the old junior high school buildings shut down and started to rot. One of them is an old wooden building, probably a prototypical Japanese junior high – a long, two-story building that faces south, with stairwells at either end and hallways running the length of the building.
To prevent such a resource from going to waste, the town found a non-profit organization that helps them organize an artist residence program. Every year or so, two artists come to live in the building. They are paid only a nominal fee to cover food expenses and a small amount of art supplies, but the town covers the cost of all utilities other than the phone bill. For the first few years the artists were all from Lithuania.
The second set of artists arrived early in my first year in the town, and I accompanied town representatives to Tokyo to “translate” and help them out a little. I say “translate” because the artists could barely speak English and had zero Japanese ability. Their year and three months in the town was a shinkansen wreck in slow motion, but it did enable me to meet the most impressive foreign Japanese speaker I’ve ever met.
On the day I met the artists in Tokyo, we went to the Lithuanian embassy to have a short meeting with the ambassador. In addition to the Town Hall worker in charge of the program, the assistant mayor of my town came. They sat down across from the ambassador and listened to him speak on end about exchange between Japan and Lithuania. He switched back and forth between Japanese and Lithuanian, moving his glance between the artists and the people from the town, and I sat there spellbound at his Japanese ability.
Here’s the thing – his pronunciation was awful. The accent was so strong it could have been a totally different language. His command of grammar and his active vocabulary, however, was incredible, and judging by the reaction on the face of the assistant mayor, everything he said made perfect sense. He didn’t slip once during the whole meeting.
I often think back to that meeting when I think about studying Japanese and when I think about teaching English. Sure, the harder you work at something, the more it will improve, but we are only human. We are limited by our innate skills. Unfortunately, pronunciation is one of those. Some people have 66-inch vertical jumps, others have 20-20 vision, and others can differentiate Ls and Rs and repeat them back perfectly. That’s from the Japanese side of things, of course. The fact is, no matter how long or hard you practice a language, your pronunciation will only ever improve to a certain degree. You will always have an accent unless you grew up in the country – think back to your home country and about the wide variety of accents that immigrants have. Your vocabulary and grammar usage, I feel, can top out at a much higher level. The key thing to remember is that there is NOTHING WRONG with this. It’s completely natural and doesn’t affect your ability to say what you want to say.
Which is why I urge you – grow out of that phase where you try and talk like a Japanese gangster/Kansai fool/kogyaru/regional dialect oyaji as quickly as possible! Yes, you should work on your pronunciation, but correct usage will take you much further, and, no, you don’t sound cool! Try and find your own voice in the language rather than adopting someone else’s, and focus on your ability to communicate information more efficiently.