If I could only live in Japan…

By | December 28, 2013

Have you ever thought to yourself, “If I could only live in Japan, I’d become fluent in Japanese in no time”? If you’re struggling to learn this monster of a language, especially self-taught, then you likely have at least once.

There is no doubt about it, living in a country whose native language is one you are studying is clearly the best way to give a boost to your fluency. Being immersed in the culture 24 hours a day gives your mind a massive amount of data, and your liable to pick up on many new things without even trying.

But whether living in Japan (say for a year) will definitely make you “fluent” (or even close) – that’s another story.

I’ve spoken with several people who have lived in Japan for a year or so, and none of them are what I would consider fluent. Some of them taught English for most of the time (using only English), and one of them stayed in a dorm with other foreigners. Another one got quite good at daily conversation, but is extremely weak on reading. Regardless of their level, I’m sure all of them learned a great deal about Japan, it’s people, and had an awesome time.

I’m sure some people have stayed in Japan for a year or so and gotten quite fluent. How quickly you learn in such an environment depends on the following factors:

  • Your inherent language ability (which declines as you age)
  • Your experience with the language before you arrive
  • How ‘immersed’ you really are – are you forced to understand native Japanese and speak with those who don’t know English?
  • How much time you spend speaking English (and other things which wouldn’t improve your Japanese)
  • Your motivation and willingness to learn

If you have an opportunity to live in Japan, by all means do. Just don’t expect it to be a magic bullet for fluency. Study before you go, and plan on continuing to study while you’re there.

Some ways to help assure you get enough practice while there:

  • Try to find work where the majority of the people you will be interacting with don’t know English. Jobs teaching English are common but many of them involve a great deal of conversation in English.
  • Make a few online friends via pen pal sites, social sites, blogging sites, etc., and make plans to meet with them while you are in Japan. I recommend the site http://mixi.jp.
  • Consider finding a place to stay that is farther from big cities like Tokyo, so that less people know English and you are forced to use Japanese. Be aware if the area has a regional dialect/accent since you will probably pick that up naturally.
  • If you travel with someone else, promise to each other that you’ll speak primarily in Japanese while you are there. That will give you more of an opportunity to try using new words you’ve learned, which helps cement them in your memory.
  • Keep a diary/blog of everything you’ve learned so you can go back and reference it later.

And for those who don’t have an opportunity to travel or stay in Japan for very long, make the best use of your time to polish your Japanese skills wherever you are.  You’d be surprised how much you can learn without being in Japan – with enough effort it can surpass the skill of some who have lived there. That’s really the main purpose of this blog – to provide help and information to all of us learning Japanese on our own.

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3 thoughts on “If I could only live in Japan…

  1. sonatano1

    I’ve had this experience in other countries. Living in a country where English isn’t the first language doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get as immersed as you’d like. When I lived in Beirut almost everyone who could spoke English to me, even when I tried speaking Arabic to them. It was irritating as hell. But when I left Beirut, the proportion of people with a working knowledge of English dropped off dramatically. I’m guessing it’s the same in Japan, that in a place like Tokyo more people know English than in smaller cities or the countryside.
    Interesting post; I’d love to visit Japan sometime.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks very much for the comment! I’m glad to hear you had a similar experience. Arabic sounds like an interesting language, maybe someday I’ll try it out (:


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