The other night at Monday evening Japanese class, our wonderful teacher was checking the pronunciation of both me and this other girl in the class who I think is more advanced than me in terms of vocabulary and grammar knowledge (and certainly in reading, being from China). She would have us read a sentence or two, or a dialog together out of the book.
For the most part, I'm pretty proud of my pronunciation. The first real compliment I got on my Japanese was on the way I pronounce the words I do know, and in the mornings when I yell out my greeting, Kyotosensei (the English speaking VP) always looks up to see if it's me. I can only credit an acute sense of mimicry and years under the tutelage of my native Japanese Vanderbilt faculty.
Anyway, back to this Monday night. The other girl read a sentence, then I read it, and to my ear it sounded just right. Our teacher had me read it again and then she said, "The way you say this part is technically incorrect. You say it like you're from Kansai."
Hot damn! I've picked up some intonation patterns from the local dialect. Which may be technically incorrect, but to me, basically it's awesome. Furthermore, when she said the sentence both ways (once in Kansai, once in Standard), I could not tell the difference. Which is a fairly rare occurrence for me (see: mimicry).
I want to be as adept at Kansai as I become at Standard, and I'm really glad that I still have teachers who will teach me Standard even as I live here and pick up the local speech patterns. I want to speak Kansai because I live in Kansai. I really do think it's a character mark, and I like the thought of my experience being built into my speech.
I've heard my main JTE (Mikan-sensei) switch between the two depending on the person with whom he's talking, or even the subject matter he's talking about. As a language teacher, he's a master of Standard, but he's also clearly a child of Kansai, and sometimes I hear him relating to students or joking with them using the more laid-back dialect. I desire this power.
In Kyoto, we stayed at a Guest House whose manager spoke flawless English with an Australian accent (having lived there for several years). It was really awesome. Nami-san, who was our hall coordinator at Vandy for several years, was really fun to talk to once I got here on the ground in Japan. She's from Kyoto, and that's part of Kansai, so she actually speaks Kansai-ben on a regular basis. But at Vandy, she always spoke Standard! "I had to; that was my job!" she told me.
Although I grew up in the south of the US, I don't have a noticeable accent. But I can produce one pretty easily, either on command, or because I'm spending time with someone who does have one (ie, The Other Georgian).
I really think that the reason my principal thought I couldn't speak Japanese when I first got here is because he has a super-awesome Kansai speech pattern and I stared at him like.. wha? Upon my first meeting. Really, it sounds like a whole other language. Check this out to hear the same exchange played out in Standard and in Kansai.
On the bus the other day, I heard a woman talking to the bus driver and realized from her accent that she is foreign, probably Chinese or something like that. I was excited to be able to pick up information like that just from listening. It means my Japanese ear is getting better. I also understand a lot more of the morning meetings now.. I can grasp the main topic (if I pay attention.. because honestly people talking to each other and not me in a language that isn't really mine is a great opportunity to zone out) if not the finer points. And when the school nurse wanted to send for the VP to translate her medical explanation of Jermaine, I insisted that it wasn't necessary. (How can you argue with "Keep!" ?)
So there is progress. There's something about being completely surrounded by a language at almost all times that makes it nearly impossible not to learn a thing, or maybe two.