Reader question: “What’s the hardest part of learning Japanese?”

By | May 20, 2019

Statistics about the number of people reading this blog are a good confidence booster, but readers who interact directly with me are really the lifeblood of Self Taught Japanese. That’s why I do my best to answer all questions that I receive via comments or email, sometimes in the form of long articles.

Earlier this year I got a question from a reader by the name of NiHonGoToKi (@NiHonGoToKi1), who seems to be a software developer working on a Japanese language game. As a software developer myself, I always enjoy talking with other developers.

His question was simple, and to the point:

What do you feel was the hardest part of learning Japanese for you?

When I received this question I was pretty busy with a trip to Japan approaching (which I ended up blogging about here), so I didn’t answer right away. But this question stayed simmering in the back of my mind.

This is actually something I have asked myself on multiple occasions, to the point of writing a portion of a post about it. But for various reasons I never ended up finishing that post. Now, I think I am finally ready to answer it.

Initially, I felt that acquiring perfect Japanese pronunciation is the hardest thing about learning Japanese, a topic which I wrote about here. But after some consideration, I don’t think that is the best answer. The reason is that perfect pronunciation isn’t really necessary in a functional sense; that’s abundantly clear when I think about how many people I interact normally with on a daily basis that have accents (sometimes thick). For example, it’s not uncommon for CEOs of tech companies to have accents, and that’s in a job where communication is paramount.

That’s why my answer is about something completely different: acquiring fluent conversation skills.

For a majority of subjects in school that involve memorization of facts or some type of calculation or other thought process, everything can be done on your own, without another person. And, deadlines aside, you can take your time and rethink things until they are correct. Even for writing in a language, while often there is another person who will eventually read the content, there is generally some time to think things over (in Japanese, we call this yoyuu).

Conversation, on the other hand, is fundamentally different because it is a real-time activity that involves a real person with real feelings. In a way it is like an acting or musical performance involving two or more people. There are also some similarities to martial arts (like Aikido, my favorite), where actually executing techniques requires another living person.

In musical performances, for example, one can (and generally must) practice much ahead of time. The hours practicing, assuming a proper method, generally result in a better quality performance.

In contrast, conversation in a language is closer to a performance that involves improvisation––in fact many conversations could be considered mostly improvisation. As a result, practicing conversation on your own doesn’t really help that much. I’ve tried to practice speaking to myself in front of a mirror, but it seems to have little purpose.

Conversation ties together a bunch of skills which are challenging on their own: listening comprehension, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, reading emotions, following social conventions, memory, logical reasoning, and more.

Studying each of these on their own can help you have more effective (and less embarrassing) conversations, but it only gets you so far. The only way to really get better is to practice, and practice with as many people as you can from varying backgrounds.

When you get to larger groups there are additional challenges, like trying to follow several people speaking at once, and finding the right timing when to interject your opinion. I have such conversations often while at work, but I rarely have had an opportunity to try this in Japanese. I’m sure it would take a lot of practice to master.

One of the reasons I have hesitated to write an article like this is that is a weakness of my own. I speak with my wife and son in Japanese most of the time, and so have gotten pretty good at daily live conversations. But as soon as the conversation changes to a topic I am less familiar with, while I am confident enough to keep a conversation going (partially through good use of aizuchi), it’s nothing like a conversation I would hold in my native language––where I generally talk super fast, stream-of-consciousness style. My Japanese conversations require a lot of more thought and consideration, and I’m very careful about what I say to avoid saying something stupid. (Actually, perhaps taking more risks would lead me to faster growth over the long term)

The funny thing is that spending a large amount of time on your own trying to become fluent in conversation really doesn’t make sense, since either you never end up using it (and your time was wasted), or you do end up using it, which requires actually talking to people. If you look at this way, then your time would be better spent on real conversation, where you actually got to interact with people (and hopefully enjoy it), instead of practicing endlessly on your own.

The only difference is that in the latter case (less practice, more actual talk) you end up in more embarrassing situations. But I’ve found that emotions (negative or positive) actually help you remember words better.

In summary, it’s a good idea to study the peripheral skills that conversation depends on (vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, etc.), but don’t stress yourself out too much over your conversation skills to the point where you are practicing alone. Instead, try to put yourself in situations where you are forced to interact with native or fluent speakers, though classroom exercise with a partner or teacher can be productive too. Talking using a phone or other mobile device is better than nothing, but there are a lot of things you miss out on––facial expressions, gestures, clear pronunciation, and the context of the world around you. So face to face is best.

If you find yourself frustrated with your lack of conversation ability in Japanese (or any other foreign language), it’s more likely caused by a lack of real-world practice rather than anything else.

After all, children generally learn conversation skills primarily by just participating in real conversations. Adults, like children, can learn to pick up things like grammar and vocabulary just by talking to other people, though that gradually becomes more challenging with age. Vocabulary shouldn’t be that hard since even in our native language we learn new expressions now and then. But grammar is particularly tricky since it requires figuring out patterns in what other people are saying.

Happy conversations!

(Featured image of two women chatting taken from Pexels.com)

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