Ringing the bell at a shrine just outside Tokyo's old Tsukiji Fish Market during my second ever visit to Japan, summer 2013
CW: mental health; burnout
A couple of months ago, I realised I was on the cusp of a huge milestone in my adult life: 10 years since I started learning Japanese!
My Japanese learning experience began back in August of 2012, when I was getting ready to begin the MA Japanese course at the University of Edinburgh. I remember (for some forgotten reason) being on the train between Glasgow and Oban, scribbling away at a notebook as I tried to cram in all of the hiragana and katakana we were expected to know by day one of class. This was before I’d ever owned a smartphone, so I was lucky to discover that this repetitive study method was one I actually quite enjoyed!
Looking back over a whole 10 years, it’s an odd sensation to realise quite how much the decision to learn Japanese has shaped my life so far. Throughout these years, I’ve been extremely lucky to meet all sorts of wonderful people and experience many great things – as well as occasionally unlucky enough to encounter some pretty tricky situations and meet other, less-than-wonderful people. (This post isn’t about pretending it’s all sunshine and roses!)
In any case, today I want to take a moment to reflect on some of the things that I’ve learnt through my time studying Japanese. This, by the way, includes my time as a teacher. I still get Japanese lessons, and through both teaching and translation (another part of my work) I still learn new things all the time!
So without further ado, let’s get going! If you’d like to skip ahead to any particular section, you can do so by clicking on the titles in this list:
- Motivation is Key
- Structure Can Make All the Difference
- Knowing Your Own Language Can Boost Your Progress
- There’s More to Communication than Words
- Learning Doesn’t Have to be Solitary
- Slow but Steady Wins the Race
- There’s No “Right Way” to Learn a Language
- Learning a Language is Incredible – But Your Wellbeing Matters Way More
Note: my blog is currently undergoing some maintenance/restructuring. This should be complete before the end of September. Apologies for any weird formatting in the meantime!
1. Motivation is Key
To start with what may sound like an obvious point: when I first started learning Japanese, I couldn’t get over how different and EXCITING it felt in comparison with my French and German lessons at school. This isn’t a complaint about those lessons as such – it just blew my mind how much easier it was to take in information when the subject matter was something I was genuinely curious about!
Japanese felt like a massive adventure that I was embarking on, and what’s more, it was one I found myself setting out on along with a whole load of likeminded individuals, from my classmates to the other students in Japanese Society, to my teachers and lovely flatmates.
If you want to learn Japanese but haven’t started yet because you know you didn’t enjoy learning languages in school, my advice is to remember that doing something because you’ve chosen to is oh-so-very different from doing it because it’s something you had to do as a teenager.
2. Structure Can Make All the Difference
Over the years, I’ve learnt languages not only in school and at uni but also through weekly lessons with a private tutor, via pure self-study and by enrolling on courses at places like the Confucius Institute. (Fun fact: I actually learnt Mandarin Chinese before Japanese! This definitely helped with kanji.)
Having tried all of the above, I can confirm that – at least for me personally – self-study was by far the hardest approach. I’ve learnt both German and Mandarin Chinese through self-study, and with both languages, I found myself getting caught up in the anxiety of which topics to tackle next, which apps I should (or shouldn’t) be using and how to keep up study habits without running out of steam.
While this is not at all to say that self-study doesn’t work, my personal experience is that external structure can make a massive difference to success in progressing in a language. At uni, for example, we had language classes almost every day of the week, with plenty of homework to boot. Did I always enjoy having all that work to do? No. Could it have been slightly less intensive? For sure. But did it mean that I kept going with my Japanese? Absolutely.
As you may gather, I’m not necessarily a fan of structured learning when it gets in the way of students’ wellbeing, and I certainly don’t advocate for an attitude of just “pushing through” when things are, in truth, too much. However, I do think there’s a good middle ground that can be reached where having a bit of pressure external to yourself can really help with keeping up the momentum required to put in the hours to learn a new language.
3. Knowing Your Own Language Can Boost Your Progress
Have you ever been in a language class with someone who seems to be flying ahead of everyone else with minimal effort? Or been on holiday with someone who picks up phrases in the local language like it’s no effort at all?
If so, you may already know what I’m about to say, which is that the more languages you learn, the easier it gets!
But what if you don’t know any other languages, or don’t want to learn anything but Japanese? Fortunately I have a suggestion for you.
Even if you’re no polyglot, getting to know your own language – e.g. English – can make a real difference to how quickly you pick up another language like Japanese. Why would this be?
Perhaps the easiest example of this is when that when you are already familiar with what a noun or a verb is, you’re likely to recognise these kinds of words relatively quickly in a Japanese sentence, thus helping you to understand the patterns in how words behave differently. What’s more, when you get into slightly more advanced language, you may find that being able to do something in English like writing a formal email (vs a casual text) can help you to pick up similar writing conventions in Japanese.
This, by the way, is something an old teacher of mine at Kwansei Gakuin used to get intensely frustrated about! As a former journalist, he insisted the reason we were all terrible at writing was because we’d never been taught to write in our own languages. While I think he was exaggerating – and being quite mean about it too – it did strike me that he may have a point.
The real reason I recommend my students be curious about their own language(s) is not because I want them to become linguistic geniuses, but because learning about language can in fact be incredibly liberating! Once you delve into the world of linguistics, there’s so much to discover about the true freedom and beauty of language beyond the rules we’re taught in school. Having spent a lot of time investing heavily in ideas such as that old favourite of “not knowing the difference between there/their/they’re is simply stupid” (spoiler: it's not), I was amazed to discover that there’s no one way to speak any language “correctly”, and a lot of what we’re told is “substandard”, “slang” or “improper” is simply the natural diversity and changing nature of language. While there are rules and conventions that can be helpful and important at times, it can be deeply empowering to learn that certain ideas about language are far more antiquated and political than you may think.
4. There’s More to Communication than Words
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m quite a big fan of words. Or rather, learning all about words and their various ins and outs. However, one of the biggest things I’ve learnt through Japanese is that there’s so much more to communication than simply knowing the right word or being able to string a sentence together coherently.
Somewhere around my first or second year of Japanese, I remember telling a joke for the first time. Sadly I can’t remember what it was, but I’m pretty sure it was suitably terrible and cheesy. The feeling of telling it, however, is something that’s stayed with me.
Sharing a laugh over a silly pun; connecting through a love of the same band; bellyaching over a frustrating cultural difference; not knowing the word for something but managing to mime it out anyway – these are but a few of the ways in which communication can be something much greater than just words. And while it’s something we take for granted while floating in the familiar waters of our own linguistic and cultural sphere, attempting to connect with others without any shared cultural references can be awkward at best, isolatingly hollow at worst.
While I think that pretty much anyone learning Japanese will have an interest in Japanese culture one way or another, it’s important to remember that developing an understanding of Japanese culture goes hand in hand with building real, meaningful communication skills.
5. Learning Doesn’t Have to be Solitary
Prior to learning Japanese, I’d always been somewhat alone in my pursuit of all things language. In S6 (the final year of secondary school in Scotland), I was the only person in my year studying English, and one of just two people doing French and German. As such, my idea of learning a language was pretty much restricted to sitting in my room working through vocab lists and reading exercises – to be fair, not something I minded much!
While I’ve never stopped being happy to sit and learn by myself, my view of things changed pretty dramatically once I joined my Japanese course, where I suddenly found myself part of a group of people – classmates, teachers and language exchange partners alike – who shared the same passion for language learning. For me it was pretty much heaven, and I threw myself into every social and cultural event with a wholeheartedness that, looking back, makes me tired just to think about!
While university happens to be the way I came about a community I could learn and be comfortable within, it definitely isn’t the only option. There are Japanese societies and clubs of all kinds out there – both online and in person – and having the support of others to share resources, encourage one another and simply be able to have a chat about your interests can really help change things up.
6. Slow but Steady Wins the Race
Recently, I’ve been preparing some materials for my Japanese for Beginner’s course. Part of what we cover in our very first lesson is the idea of what “progress” looks like in learning a language.
Oftentimes, I think we have an idea of progress that looks a bit like this:
This seems pretty logical, especially if you have particular targets you want to hit at various points along the way.
However, while I don’t argue that progress happens “step by step” (it is, after all, the meaning of “Ippo Ippo”!), I think this graph does a better job of showing what that can actually look like:
While we may be taking one step at a time, that doesn’t mean that our progress keeps moving steadily upwards.
This was something I struggled with a great deal especially during my year abroad in Japan, when I was battling a major amount of fatigue and spent a long time plateauing – essentially feeling as though I just couldn’t make headway. It turns out that even without the extra battle of extreme fatigue, this is very much the norm. Indeed, I often found that once I got through the plateau phase, this was precisely the point where my skills and confidence would suddenly shoot up, as though all the things I’d been struggling with over the past few weeks had finally been processed and could now be put into action.
While this almost certainly doesn’t describe everyone’s experience, it does seem to be true that progress isn’t linear, and that more than anything, the path to progress is mostly a case of keeping on putting one foot in front of the other – whatever that means to you at that time.
7. There’s No "Right Way" to Learn a Language
Trawling through forums like Reddit’s r/japanese, one can find question after question asking what the best apps, the best textbooks or the best overall learning methods are. Flashcards? Immersion? Anime? It doesn’t take much to end up lost in the sea of choices.
Having found myself overwhelmed by this sea more than once, my honest advice to anyone similarly confused about where to start is to do a bit of research, but after that to simply pick something and go with it. If you find out it doesn’t work, move on and try something else.
As someone who loves to gather all the possible info available and compare all the different options available to me, I very much understand the feeling of dissatisfaction this advice can provoke. However, when it comes to learning, your energy and attention are your number one resources, and you will always benefit more from picking a learning method and going with it than spending hours agonising over whether that learning method is the right choice or not. (For the record, r/japanese is a sub I long unsubscribed from because of how anxious it made me! If you feel the same, my advice is to cast your attention elsewhere.)
8. Learning a Language is Incredible – But Your Wellbeing Matters Way More
Finally, I don’t think I can release this post in good conscience without addressing what – to me – feels like a pretty big elephant in the room.
My experience over the last 10 years is, on the whole, not something I would trade for anything else. Learning Japanese has brought so many wonderful people and experiences into my life, and I wouldn’t be without any of them. That said, there have been some more difficult chapters that, given a second chance, I would handle differently.
(On a related note: I’ve also relatively recently had an autism diagnosis. I could probably have done with that info a bit earlier!)
As much as I honestly still get a thrill from remembering how exciting it was for me to be learning Japanese in those early years, I recognise now that my hyperfocus on Japanese – while not a problem in and of itself – was something I was not equipped to handle while also looking after my own wellbeing. As such, I often struggle when asked about how I learnt Japanese so quickly (passing N1 after four years and getting a job at a Japanese law firm post-graduation) because I honestly don’t want to recommend my own intense – in hindsight, fairly brutal – approach to others. Ippo Ippo is not about selling survivorship bias.
While I don’t want to discourage anyone from chasing their own goals, I feel it is important to mention this, especially as I know there are plenty of people out there who, like me, care hugely about learning Japanese and – completely understandably – want to give it their best shot.
This is perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt in these 10 years. While I do think that my success in learning Japanese is largely down to the huge amount of time I put into it (something that was attainable for me as a relatively privileged student with opportunities to study in Japan), I’ve come to see that the “give it your all till there’s nothing left to give” method is far from the only one out there. Although it’s easy to say this from the other side, giving it your all day in and day out is simply not worth it in the long run. For me, part of the eventual cost I paid was that for a couple of years post-graduation, Japanese was something I simply didn’t enjoy anymore. This, coupled with the built-up toll on my mental and physical health, is not something I’d wish on any of my students.
If you’re concerned about the burden learning a language may put on your health, I hope I can offer some assurance by letting you know that this is just one story. There are plenty of ways out there to learn more gradually and less punishingly, and my advice now to students who experience anxiety around learning is to start small and stay at that pace for as long as they need. Even if you get knocked back or find yourself feeling demotivated for a while, it’s always okay to take a break, and above all, it’s never too late to come back to learning Japanese. After all, it’ll be waiting for you when you do!
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