He‘s A Japanese Speaking Emmy Nominee!

Meet Dexter Thomas, a Fulbright scholar who has contributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage while working with the Los Angeles Times and has been nominated for an Emmy! You probably know him best as an On-Air Correspondent with Vice News Tonight on HBO. I remember coming across a video of him and Ike Nwala (a Nigerian-American comedian who is Japan’s biggest sensation), speaking in Japanese. I just knew he had a story to tell. Read more to find out more about his love for languages and tips on how to become fluent. 
BGLL: Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed and being open to sharing your story! Tell us about yourself. 

Dexter: My name is Dexter Thomas and I was born and raised in San Bernardino, California. I have a Bachelor’s in English with a minor in Spanish and Japanese. I studied at Waseda University in Japan for a total of about 3 years, including 1 of those years as a visiting Fulbright scholar. Right now, I’m finishing up my PhD in East Asian Studies at Cornell University. Currently, I am an On-Air Correspondent on Vice News Tonight on HBO. I speak English, Japanese and varying degrees of fluency in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.  

BGLL: What made you want to learn those languages?

Dexter: I started getting serious about Japanese just before I went to Japan to study Japanese hip-hop culture, which I later turned into a graduate student career as a PhD student in East Asian Studies at Cornell. Nowadays, I use it in my dissertation work, in everything from analyzing lyrics to reading philosophy or history books in Japanese. I also do some reporting in Japanese, so I’ll occasionally do interviews on camera in Japanese as well. But it’s also pretty much part of my life – listening to rap music is pretty fun, a lot of my favorite YouTubers are Japanese, and all of my devices (Xbox, phone, etc.) are set to Japanese, so it doesn’t really even occur to me that I’m using another language unless someone else points it out. Nowadays I only speak Japanese once every 5-6 months or so, but it usually comes back pretty quickly.

Chinese is a little more rare – I only lived in China for 3-4 months, and that was ten years ago! So, I’ll occasionally have short conversations, but most of my interaction is through reading (slowly), and texting. There is some crossover with Japanese, so that helps a little, I’m sure. Spanish is pretty much all around you if you live in Los Angeles, but I recently started playing Legend of Zelda in Spanish, just to get my level up. I also learned Hangul (written Korean) a couple weeks ago, which is almost completely useless to me because I don’t speak Korean at all, but it’s fun to be able to sound out things on Korean menus before I order.
BGLL: Did you ever feel shy to speak those other languages? How did you overcome it?

Dexter: Absolutely! Especially in the beginning, and even nowadays, if I haven’t used the language for a while, I’ll get a little quiet while I try to readjust. I’m also kind of a perfectionist, which I think is a bit of a double-edged sword. Sometimes you just need to make mistakes! I’ve also tried recording my voice and listening to it. It’s painful, but it can help you recognize any mistakes you’re making. For example, most English speakers sound like they’re riding a rollercoaster when they speak Japanese – your intonation is up, down, and all over the place, whereas Japanese has a much more even, ‘flat’ tone. I didn’t realize that until I listened to myself and compared it to a native speaker. But in general, people just want to communicate, so as long as you’re being friendly, people don’t really mind if you mess up now and again.
BGLL: What do you think helped you the most with learning languages?

Dexter: People say that immersion is the best way to learn a language. That’s partially true. There are two kinds of immersion – physical, and mental. It’s possible to physically be in a country, and not learn the language at all. Being mentally immersed is way more effective, and you can do that right in your own home. So here are three ways to do that: first, find a show you already like and know well, and watch it in your target language. I watched Dragon Ball in Japanese on repeat, and because I already knew the context, it was easy to figure out what was going on. That’s why I’m playing Legend of Zelda in Spanish – I already know what’s happening, so it’s easy to pick up on things. So, if you like Toy Story, and you’re learning German – you know what to do. Put it on repeat. You’ll be surprised how much you learn.
Next, switch all your digital accounts into the target language. Social media, email, iPhone settings, everything. You might think it’s too early, but it’s never too early. If I was to switch my iPhone into Korean right now, and opened up Gmail, I’d already know what ‘Inbox’ and ‘Send’ mean, because I know where the location of the buttons are. It’s an easy way to put a slight bit of pressure on yourself. Resist the temptation to turn it back for ‘serious’ things – this is serious
Lastly, have fun in your target language. If you like video games, play them in your target language. Find some musicians that sing in your target language. Find the lyrics and read along. If you want to learn to sew, look up a tutorial in your target language. It’s all about making it a part of your daily life.
By the way, I got all of this from alljapaneseallthetime.com. A big part of me thinking that I could learn another language to fluency was seeing Khatzumoto, the owner of that site, do it first. I’m also a big fan of Spaced Repetition Systems like Anki (ankiweb.net). I still use that program constantly.
BGLL: How can we keep up with you on social?

Dexter: My site is whatupdex.com, and you can follow me at @dexdigi on Instagram! I'm also working on a few new things that will be on TV (and audio) very soon.

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