Three Reasons Why You Can’t Learn Japanese in a Year

This post was inspired by what was — I’ll say it — a stupid comment on another one of my posts: Why Living in Tokyo is Hard.  In it I talk about my struggle with getting everyday things done in Japanese. A person named “James” had this helpful response:

Seriously if you’re not going to learn the language don’t expect it to be easy living there… I’m sick of these blogs crying about how hard it is moving there when you SHOULD be getting your lazy ass fluent in their language…

For the record yes, I have been studying Japanese, and I’m waaaaay better than I was when I first came. (For example, I don’t run away crying at McDonald’s anymore when they ask me if it’s eat in or take out),  but no I’m still not fluent.

I’ll cut James some slack, because before I did any research at all about what being an expat in Japan would be like, I also thought that I would be able to converse pretty smoothly in Japanese after just one year. I was…wrong, so wrong, but I think this is an idea a lot of people have. The hard truth is if you move to Japan, especially to teach English, after a year you probably still won’t understand even half of what people are saying to you, and here’s why:

You’re Not Really Immersed in Japanese

In fact when you first get here most of your long and/or meaningful conversations will be in English because…you can’t speak Japanese! So you’re going to seek out English services, get friends and coworkers to help you, and continue speaking in the language you actually know how to speak. You’re going to stream movies in English, listen to your English music on your iPod, think in English, eat, sleep and shower all in the King’s English. Plus, if you work teaching English that’s — what — eight hours a day where you’re in an English environment. In fact where I work we’re discouraged from even letting the students know we can speak Japanese. The idea is to try to immerse the students in English for the time they’re at the school. So I’m actually not hearing as much Japanese as I thought I would.

You (Hopefully) Have a Life

Alright, I suppose it’s technically possible to become at least conversational in Japanese after only one year, but it will be at the complete expense of your social life and you’ll have no one to converse with anyway. It’s not like you can just hear Japanese and magically “learn” it. It takes time, and it takes study. Even if you did want to go the “I’ll just listen and pick it up” route,  think about this: A Japanese baby, living in Japanese society, hearing Japanese since birth, using his baby language-learning super powers to suck up the language into his eager baby brain, will still take a good three to four years to start stringing together sophisticated sentences. So if you want to get past cave-man Japanese in just one year, you’re going to have to work at it like it’s your 9-5.

People Will Want to Practice their English with You

So you’ve made some Japanese friends, maybe got a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend, gotten chummy with your coworkers…what a great resource of people to help you learn Japanese right? Wrong, because you are actually a great resource, a real live English conversation specimen, they can use to hone their English. And referring back to point one, if you want to have any kind of meaningful conversations with your friend/partner it’ll have to be done in English. Besides, your friends aren’t teachers. They may mean well and truly want to help at first, but the halting conversations about the weather will quickly wear thin. I hate to say it, but it’s much more exciting/beneficial for your friends to use you to develop their own English skills, and who can blame ‘em?

So this is my story for why I’m still not bilingual yet, and I’m sticking to it. And don’t get me wrong, despite what I’ve written above I actually really enjoy learning Japanese. I get a secret thrill whenever I understand a few words of what someone has said, and sometimes I even catch a whole sentence! So although I won’t be fluent this year or even next, I’m going to keep at it. And if I’m lucky maybe this time next year I’ll be able to order a pizza.

…And screw you, James.

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31 Responses to Three Reasons Why You Can’t Learn Japanese in a Year

  1. Ann says:

    Ja Dee, Congrats on your upcoming bundle of joy. I read a study a few years ago (need to find it) that said children/toddlers/babies have an easier time learning 2 languages when each parent spoke only their native language to the child. Meaning your wife talks to your son/daughter in Japanese and you talk to your child in English. The researchers found that the children were able to simultaneously learn both languages without as much language confusion (intermixing languages). The study also suggested you each parent speak to the other in their native tongues around the child. Warning: In a few years your child may be better at Japanese than you. Darn those kids with pliable sponge like brains. :-)

  2. zoomingjapan says:

    Hm, very interesting.

    I got in touch with Japanese in elementary school when doing karate in the 80s.
    I studied a little in the late 90s, but seriously started in 2002, always on and off.
    When I moved to Japan in early 2008 I became super serious and motivated.
    By that time I was already JLPT 3kyu level-ish, could read a few hundred kanji etc.

    I was shocked when I learned that most of my male co-workers (most of them from English speaking countries) could only speak ONE language: ENGLISH! … and despite living in Japan for many years and being married to Japanese women, none of them could speak more a few sentences of Japanese!!
    I just thought to myself: “What the hell have you been doing all that time in Japan, guys?”

    They are generally very useless, not only when it comes to Japanese.
    Whenever I asked them things, e.g. how they obtained their credit card, I usually only get the “Oh, I don’t know. My wife took care of it all!” … Oh, jeez!!!
    Don’t get me wrong, I like my co-workers! *g*

    Back to the topic.
    I passed N2 in 2010, but could have done so much earlier, I think.
    I also got in 1st place in a prefectural speech contest for foreigners. I thought I’d never have a chance as the others were all university students who were getting proper Japanese lessons at university while I was all self taught…

    As my native language is German I obviously speak more than 1 language.
    During my school time I studied: English, French, Latin and Spanish.

    Although I’m used to studying foreign languages and really enjoy it, I have to admit that Japanese is a tough one!
    You really have to put a lot of effort into it!

    To be honest, I haven’t studied much this year. N1 is still missing on my list, but I just lack time and most of the time my Japanese is good enough for everything I need to do.
    It’s still a long way.
    I’m also worried that I’ll lose it easily once back in Europe.

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah I think the reason you were able to beat out the university students is because you were having a lot of speech practice every day with other Japanese. My Achilles heel when learning Japanese is that I don’t speak it that much. I’ve just stared going to a conversation class once a week, so I really hope that helps.

  3. Emsk says:

    Too true. If you work at an eikaiwa you’ll be speaking English all day anyway. And if you make Japanese friends then their English will probably be much better than your Japanese, if they are to be friends you can properly relate to. And don’t even get me started on the English Language Bloodsuckers!!

    I think you can probably learn it to a conversational level, but fluent in a year is probably wishful thinking. When I lived in Japan I could converse – and I was proud of myself, given that I could only say ‘arigato’ when I arrived – but I ever learnt to read. Still, tat gave me the extra opportunity to ask the lady in the supermarket to read ingredients from labels to me. because I couldn’t read Japanese!

    Many years ago I taught myself Italian from a book called… Teach Yourself Italian. I already spoke French and so Italian was quite straightforward – and easier! – plus I had an almost immediate opportunity to visit Italy. I thought I could do the same with the Teach Yourself Japanese book, but it was a bit more challenging that I thought.

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah Japanese is just too different than English I think. It’s not a latin-based language, and you don’t have the advantage of reading to help reinforce comprehension. Still, I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a good foundation, and I’m excited to see how much I’ll know by the end of this year.

      • Wulf says:

        English isn’t Latin-based either. It’s a Germanic language, which can be confirmed by doing a quick Google. The similarities we share with Romance languages are due to borrowings and the fact that Indo-European languages are all distantly related.

  4. Samuel says:

    This isn’t three reasons why it’s impossible to learn japanese in a year, this is 3 reasons why you didn’t learn japanese in a year.

    Sorry I hope that doesn’t sound judgmental… I have nothing against you and your methods to learn Japanese and the way you choose to live your life in Japan or whatever, just I think this article addresses your problems. To me it seems you haven’t really tried very hard or made any sacrifices to learn Japanese, I know the word sacrifice makes it sound like I want blood, but like, changing your English podcasts to Japanese podcasts isn’t that big a deal… You do it, and you’ll improve a lot. Also you could get skype lessons every evening for like 5 dollars an hour… You could’ve done a lot more than you did, which again, I don’t care about, people can do what they want whatever, just I don’t think that because you didn’t manage Japanese in a year without really committing yourself to it much, you should then be telling people that they can’t do it.

    However I couldn’t agree more with what you said about immersion not actually giving immersion. You have to work for it, and you can actually obtain that immersion anywhere if you just search for it; for example I live with a Japanese family, but in Milan. And in fact, yeh, I live in Italy, and I know countless expats who have been here 2 years and still suck at Italian, and they’d say all the things you have. Japanese isn’t that special in that regard, all languages are difficult in the same way, and require you to do the same things to learn them.

    As I said I’m not having a go, but the reasons you’ve given for why you can’t do Japanese in a year… well, you can get around them and it doesn’t have to kill you. I learned to be highly conversational in Italian after 6 months because I was a little dedicated, and in ways I could explain how Italian is harder than Japanese so it’s not just a language difficulty thing. And dedicated didn’t mean like being a slave to studying, it just meant refusing to use my language whenever I could and communicating in Italian. It was a lot of fun in fact, just like you said it can be in Japanese.

    Right now I’m learning Japanese in Milan, and I speak in Japanese for 2 hours a day, using skype and Japanese friends I made here. I then watch stuff in Japanese and do some reading as well. At the rate my conversational ability is improving, I would think by the end of a year I would be able to understand pretty much most things anyone said to me in sort of everyday context and have a very high conversational ability too.

    No I won’t have ‘learned Japanese’ after a year, but you know what does that mean anyway? Will I be able to have conversations with groups of Japanese people and understand most of what everyone is telling me after a year? yes, I reckon. This isn’t me trying to brag, just all the other comments agree with this post, while I just want to say it’s not true;

    If you chuck yourself into the language, and listen to it lots, and learn vocabulary, and try speaking it everyday for a year, you will get really good at it. You can still have lots of fun on the side too.

    That’s just the message I’d like to send to people who read this and think that they won’t be able to speak Japanese well after a year.

    Sorry, hope I don’t seem like a douchebag… I don’t think you’ve written a stupid post or anything, I understand the problems you’ve written about and they are real, just I don’t agree with the title, and I think you can get around those problems too without ruining your life in anyway (in fact in learning the language you’d be enhancing it lots).

    Hope all is good in Tokyo,


    • Amanda says:

      You’re absolutely right that these are the reasons I haven’t become proficient at Japanese, and the aim of this article is to let people know it will take a lot of dedication to be able to have complex conversations in Japanese, even if you live here. Good to hear you’re throwing yourself into it, do you plan to visit Japan any time soon?

    • Bobby Ming Lee says:

      Beautiful Response! I agree!

  5. Samuel says:

    Yeah it does take dedication, and I’m glad you are letting people know that, because nothing annoys me more than when I come home to England after being in Italy for 6 months, and everyone in England just says ‘ah so you are fluent now then?’

    And when I say no, they just seem disappointed. But the reality is being immersed does not mean being immersed… It’s not easy to make friends who only speak that language when you don;t, as why would they want to hang out with you. And Then even if you do completely immerse yourself for 6 months, languages are wildly complicated, and though you will become very good at the language after 6 months, you still not see yourself as ‘fluent’.

    And yup, I’m coming to Yokohama in January :)

    • Amanda says:

      People also say that to me about Japanese, they assume you can just “pick it up” in a year, but it’s not the case is it?

      Yokohama is a great place! Enjoy.

  6. Jake Brunton says:

    Ah, I’m not learning word by word for Japanese, or even how to read it. I’ve been repeating common conversation phrases within my head until I’m forced to remember them ^_^ Hopefully when I go there, I’ll meet some English speakers that are Japanese. Plus: Most of my music is J-Rock, so I’m fine with the music part.

    • Amanda says:

      Yep you can make a lot of friends who speak both languages. In my experience Japanese people seem to be happy that I’m trying to learn Japanese and willing to help me out.

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