Motivational Monday: Why I’ll (and Most Likely You’ll) Never Learn Japanese

A little practice of Japanese calligraphy (shod, 書道)before learning Kanji became a detested mundane.

A little practice of Japanese calligraphy (shodo, 書道)before learning Kanji became a detested mundane.

When I moved to Japan more than two and a half years ago I had many doubts, but I was sure about one thing – my Japanese will be native speaker level in no time. I couldn’t’ve been father from reality. Two years later I was leaving Tokyo angry and disappointed with myself – I might have communicated more and less effectively in Japanese, I might have passed the JLPTs and what nots, but the language remained elusive as ever. What went wrong?

  • No Total Immersion

I have to say that this had taken me aback. I imagined that going to a place where they speak the language is enough to master it. It’s not if most of your classes, all your friends and generally your entire environment does not use the language you hoped to learn. It’s also not very helpful when you realize you need to master the language you’d thought you know well enough (see point 4).

  • University of Tokyo does not have a reputation for its language training…

… and there are good reasons for that. In my first semester I took a zillion of classes, including no-credit-but-same-heavy-workload elective classes. I thought that, just like in my previous university in Poland, the workload will translate to knowledge, or et least measurable effects. No and no. In Japan, learning a language seems to be all about homework, tests and reports; you suffocate in everything that is expected from you (and you expect from yourself), but somehow it doesn’t make you any more fluent. I was afraid it’s only my own impression, until I talked with my classmates and until I met an absolutely fantastic Japanese teacher at the University of Michigan, who has taught me more in just one semester than a year of classes before that.

  • Motivational Ups and Downs

As much as I love to blame everyone and everything around me, I can’t say that there’s no my own fault in what happened. Learning curve in Japanese goes in a similar way for everyone: you start on cloud nine thinking that yay, you’ve just learnt two new alphabets and you can ask for directions. Then comes stagnation, and even more stagnant stagnation. And then there’s a wall you need to knock down before moving on to advanced level – there’s a name for it in linguistics, but I’m not a linguist. Anyway, it took me way too long to become advanced and even longer to get motivated again.

  • You can never learn a language, and Japanese will painfully remind you about that

Many people will disagree with this, but ask yourself when can you say you really know any language? When you can communicate with others? What, then, does it mean to communicate? I suspect this only pertains to the non-multi-lingual ones, who learn a second, third etc. language in sweat and tears (but we all love it, don’t we?). For me the line was the ability to do research, as in read closely, think critically (well, most of the time) and write. A lot. This is what I mean I had to learn more English and I still have to – there will always be a way to do it better, there will always be the need to improve the vocabulary, there will always be the room for betterment. Japanese is similar, but with a different writing system, the little nuances that make you go nuts, saying yes instead of no and no instead of yes, without good guidance it can easily become more daunting and discouraging. Luckily as I said, I got my guidance in Michigan, I got my tips, I got support, now the only weak link is my laziness.

That’s why, just because it’s Monday, and just because it’s still January and we can all make throw about resolutions, I’m making a concrete one, too – to read a text a day. Any text, really. I have a few more weeks before going back to Japan and more than two months before the new semester. That hopefully means about 70 things read in Japanese by the second week of April. If you need a little motivation too, check out this little entry on getting things done.


6 thoughts on “Motivational Monday: Why I’ll (and Most Likely You’ll) Never Learn Japanese

  1. Great post! I wrote up something vaguely similar awhile back, about how I knew people who had lived in a Japan for a year or longer and definitely weren’t fluent after the experience. It surprised me at first, but your post further solidifies the fact that you can’t learn Japanese by passively being in the country.

    For various reasons I decided to try and master Japanese (as much as possible) by staying in America, and given the fact I’ve only set foot in Japan for ~3 weeks total (and didn’t speak that much when I was there) I’m pretty satisfied how far I’ve come, though it’s been around 15 years or so. Though my conversation is still weak, my reading ability is pretty good and I have been able to tackle a few novels in Japanese.

    Good luck with your quest, and your resolution to read a text a day. Though speaking is definitely the hardest to learn (at least for me), I think with the internet available it’s definitely possible to get quite fluent with reading, writing, and even listening to a certain extent without even being in Japan.


    • Thanks for your comment! I think for me it was quite reverse, I had plenty of opportunities to practice conversation (obviously), but these hardly ever went beyond everyday situations/Japanese culture and what I like about it/”nihongo ga jouzu!”. It was easy to let go of the reading and writing, so I’m really glad I was pushed while in the US and I hope to keep up with my challenge! (I’d better hurry, I only have an hour to do my first reading 😉 )


  2. Pingback: The Art of Conversation (in a foreign language) | Self Taught Japanese

  3. Pingback: Fluffiness | distance from necessity

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