“I’ve lived in Japan for X years and am still not fluent in Japanese!” –– 13 tips for language learning

By | September 10, 2018

I think we have all met someone who has lived in a foreign country for some time but hasn’t yet mastered the primary language of that country; maybe you are one of those people. In this post I’ll give some tips for language learning, targetting especially those immersing themselves in that language. While I will writing from a Japanese point of view, I think many of these suggestions will apply to other languages, and some will apply to people studying a foreign language in their own country.

Don’t beat yourself up

Becoming fluent in a language is a difficult task for almost everyone, even if you are immersing yourself in a country that speaks that language. How fast you learn depends on many factors including your age, inborn linguistic skills, other languages you speak fluently, and how you study/practice.

So regardless of whether it has been months or years, don’t beat yourself up for not being fluent. Just keep a positive attitude and focus more on the process than the end goal.

True immersion

Just because you are living in a country doesn’t mean you are truly immersing yourself in the primary language(s) of that country. I’ve known people who have lived in Japan but spoke English with their friends frequently at home.

While friendships are important for many reasons––and I am not suggesting to ignore your friends that don’t speak the language are trying to learn––be aware that those hours spent speaking another language will not help you much towards fluency in your language of choice.

Another example is watching TV, or reading books in your native language instead of the language you are trying to learn. While it may take time to transition, consider making it a long-term goal to move your hobbies over to using the language you are trying to learn. It will only help you gain fluency quicker.

Don’t forget the fundamentals

Depending on your linguistic abilities, you may be able to ramp up quickly so that you are speaking full sentences, with correct grammar, in a matter of months. But for many of us (especially as we get older), it becomes harder to pick up grammar just from listening.

So even if you are living in (for example) Japan to learn Japanese, odds are that an explicit focus on grammar will really help you in so many areas in the rest of your daily Japanese life: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Picking up hints via a blog like this one can be helpful, but I always recommend picking up a good textbook that covers the fundamentals in a well-structured way. Taking a Japanese class with a live teacher will help you learn even quicker.

Be aware of language domains

In many languages, the vocabulary you use can vary drastically depending on the situation. For example, if you are talking about spaceships you may use science words that you don’t use in everyday conversation. In Japanese, this is more extreme since there are different words (including verbs) for various politeness levels. This begins with basic desu/masu forms but there are many other things to learn beyond that.

This means that you may be very comfortable speaking with your roommate in Japanese (with casual language), but freeze up whenever you have to give a formal presentation at work.

Being aware of these different areas of language can make it less frustrating when you stumble. But also it can help you guide your activities (including what context you meet people in) to focus on areas you are weak in.

Get in the zone

You’ve probably heard how pro athletes can get in the “zone”, meaning they are in a special state of mind that facilitates extra high performance.

While perhaps not as extreme, I’ve noticed a similar thing when speaking a language. For the first few minutes I may stumble to say something, but once I get in the “zone” I can speak much better, sometimes to the extent that I surprise myself.

You can try to adjust your lifestyle and activities to promote this. For example, try to engage in longer conversations instead of cutting things short after 2-3 minutes when you run out of things to say.

This is related to the immersion point I made above; the more your mind is forced to focus on a language in question, the more likely you will be able to enter this zone of increased linguistic performance.

Emotion makes it matter

Another thing I’ve noticed is that emotion-laden experiences help words to get stuck more easily in your head and make it easier to get in the linguistic “zone”.

For example, if you compare watching an hour-long movie to listening to an hour-long meeting where your boss is talking about who will be promoted (or fired!), you’ll very likely focus more on the latter. This also can apply to things like friendships and romantic relationships, where actually understanding, and communicating effectively, is more important than during a random conversation with someone on the street.

Find appropriate supplemental study material

You might think that watching movies or reading books are idle pastimes that are much less important than live person-to-person activities. While I agree learning a language is generally easier face-to-face, choosing the right content for your hobby activities can help you communicate better in your personal and work life.

For example, if you work in a software development company, try and find a book about software development and read through it in your spare time. You’ll learn vocabulary that will help your listening and speaking, and if the book contains dialogue (like a fiction novel), you may able to learn entire phrases or sentences. The same thing goes for movies, dramas, comic books, or other media.

Take notes

If you are lucky you can just pick up phrases after hearing them once, but for many of us it can take a great deal of repetition before we manage to add a word to our own repertoire. One good technique is taking notes about new words you hear in daily life. When you get time later in the day, you can look those words up and practice saying them in sentences to help make them stick.

If it’s not appropriate to take notes in real time (it may be embarrassing to do this during a meeting where your note-taking can be seen by others), just try to remember a few words and write them down whenever the next opportunity presents itself. You can use the old trick of repeating the words to yourself a few times. The more you do this, the more you’ll find you can remember more words at a time. Eventually, you can get to the point where you don’t have to write them down at all.

Remember that you can take notes not only about what you heard, but about what you struggled to say yourself. When you find time, you can look up words online (or ask a friend) to try to find a more appropriate phrase.

Even if writing skills are not high on your priority list, using new words you have learned in something like a blog or essay will help you remember the words, and make it easier to use them in your own speech the next time there is an opportunity. You don’t have to make it public, but it helps (:

Don’t forget about kanji

If you are focused more on listening and speaking, you may de-prioritize learning kanji, especially because of the number of characters you have to learn to be fluent.

However, learning kanji opens many more doors to alternative study methods (like reading novels or magazines), and I’ve even found that sometimes when I hear a new word I can guess what kanji it is formed from, something that is very hard to do in English (though learning Latin and other European languages can probably help with that).

Slow down your speech

If you are the type of person who has strong reading and writing skills, but stumbles often when trying to speak, try to actively slow down when speaking. If you try to force yourself to use the same speed as your native language(s), odds are you’ll just get frustrated.

I remember once when I heard a voice interview of an award-winning translator: he spoke in slow, measured speech, but his grammar was perfect. Also, filler words (like “ano” in Japanese) have an important purpose: they allow you to keep the flow of the conversation (so you can think about what to say next) without creating an awkward silence. You also can pick up whole phrases which don’t actually say anything but allow you buy a little time (ex: “Sou desu ne”).

Find peers to learn from

I’ve read that linguistic research shows we learn more from our peers, and I’ve noticed the same thing in my own experiences.

Generally a peer refers to someone in roughly the same age and same social level (for example, number of years at a certain company), though there is no hard and fast rule. I think what’s more important is that you respect that person, value their opinion, and get along with them well. Once you have a relationship like that I think you’ll find yourself picking up things from their speech automatically.

Of course, interacting with people at a “lower” and “higher” social level is also important, especially in Japanese where the types of speech used can vary so much (as I said in the point above about language domains). Just know that you may not be as liable to pick up words and other linguistic patterns from them.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

One thing I have found myself doing is repeating phrases in a conversation, especially if I am not sure what to say next. For example, if someone sayskono keeki, oishii ne I might answer with something like “sou, kono keeki, oishii yo ne”. While overusing this pattern might give people a negative impression of me, using it in moderation is one way to practice pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar in real time. After doing this, you’ll be more likely to use the same phrase again in a different situation.

Even if you don’t repeat a whole sentence or phrase, simply using one of the words that you just heard will give you more experience with that word. You can think of how sometimes academic tests will say “answer in a complete sentence”; rather than saying a simple “yes” or “no”, try to make a full sentence whenever possible.

There’s another advantage of repeating words like this. If you happened to mishear something (or mispronounce it), someone speaking with you may be kind enough to correct you, or at least emphasize again what they said so you understand better.

Have faith in mother nature

Finally, even though modern science has a long way to go in terms of understanding the human brain, it’s pretty clear that us humans are wired for language at a very fundamental level.  While it’s true that some of these language-learning circuits may get rusty as we get older, I think it’s a safe bet to say that we never completely lose the ability to acquire a new language. This is another reason to not beat ourselves up if our performance doesn’t match up to our expectations.

I will say that it may be difficult for some of us to become “completely” fluent, even after years of immersion––and by “completely”, I mean something that approaches a native who has spoken that language since birth.

However, with enough immersion and situations where using language actually matters, I think our linguistic ability will reach a level that is good enough.

In other words, we still may retain an accent, or speak with an occasional grammar error, but we will eventually reach a point where we are functionally fluent, or, to quote The Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want 
You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometime you find 
You get what you need


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