Have you tried and failed to learn Japanese? Have you been slogging through years of study with little to show for it? Did you run out of motivation to keep going? In this guest post from Chad Thiele of Situational Japanese, he goes through the most common reasons people throw in the towel and provides tips on how to get back on the language learning horse.
1. You think learning Japanese is too hard
Mindset is a powerful thing. It can help world class runners set new world records (see Usain Bolt’s 9.58 100-meter dash record).
It can empower eating competitors to devour amounts of food so large we couldn’t believe possible just a decade ago (such as Kobayashi eating 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes).
But a poor mindset can stop you dead in your tracks. How so?
Before you started your study of the Japanese language you probably dug around on the web. What did you find? Someone claiming Japanese is one of the hardest (if not THE hardest) languages in the world to learn?
Boom! You’re done right there!
If you let yourself believe Japanese is too hard, then Japanese WILL BE too hard for you. You’ll find yourself intimidated any time you are challenged by the language.
How to fix this
Don’t believe it! Japanese is not as hard as you imagine, nor as hard as others might scare you into believing.
Choose your own adventure. Just how much Japanese do you want to learn? Make that your goal, not mastery. Don’t shoot for perfection.
Pick goals that are just enough to challenge you, without breaking off more than you can chew.
2. You think it can be easier
Wait! Didn’t I just say you thought it was too hard in #1?
Yes I did, but hear me out.
You know learning a new language isn’t going to be a cake walk. You also know you’ll have to challenge yourself. So what do you do?
Look for the silver bullet right? That ONE course, technique, book, hack, app, whatever — that will instantly give you everything you need in a format designed exactly how your brain works.
Except, it doesn’t exist.
[Maybe someday we’ll be able to jack-in Matrix-style to learn languages instantly, but unfortunately not yet.]
But you keep looking for that one thing, because you believe some day you will find it. All the time spent looking for it will suddenly be worth it (as if by some miracle the absolute perfect solution would magically appear in front of you).
You look, and look, and look, and look… until after considerable time wasted, you give up. So what happens next?
Maybe you convince yourself #1 is true. Or perhaps #3? What about #4? My guess is you experience a mix of all three.
How to fix this
Realize learning Japanese is a journey. You’ll face many hard times, but also good times too.
Put yourself in the right mindset. Knowingly challenge yourself with Japanese in context of situations you want to be in. Maybe: dining, shopping, nightlife, or exploring?
Research the Japanese you’ll need in those specific situations, learn just that. It’s easier, will give you a start, help you enjoy Japan, and be a great foundation toward learning even more.
3. You naturally quit
Tell me if this sounds like you (because this is totally me).
You start something new (like learning Japanese). You’re excited, you’re energized. You jump right in and start. Before you know it you’ve found some materials online and are off to the races.
Maybe you even got a good start. You’ve found some materials you like, don’t have too many distractions, and make some good progress. You’ve mastered kanpai, oishii, and sugoi!
Then things start to challenge you more. The language is taking more and more time to learn and your progress is slowing down.
You get way past that initial stage of excitement you had when you first started, and then disaster strikes: more exciting things come up.
Well, you convince yourself they’re more exciting anyway. Things like:
- The new season of your favorite TV series just started
- You’ve decided you want to lose weight and get more sleep
- You want to improve your bowling scores
- You’re trying to impress a new woman (or man)
All these are even more things to compete for your time and attention. Before long you’re not setting any time aside to study Japanese.
Not because you don’t want to. In fact, learning Japanese is still one of your conscious goals, but you just never seem to make any time for it. Before you know it you’ve essentially stopped studying.
Face it. You’ve quit, you just haven’t admitted it to yourself yet.
How to fix this
Oh boy this one is hard. I do this all the time!
How do you solve something you don’t consciously realize you did until it’s too late?
Here’s one idea: set a time challenge. Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 Months strongly believes in challenges like this, and for good reason: it kicks you in the butt.
So do this: set a 30 day challenge for yourself to learn some Japanese. Giving yourself a firm start and end date will help keep your attention on it… but there’s another huge benefit you might not have guessed:
You’ll keep going after the 30 days!
Because you’ll have formed a habit. Studying regularly for 30 days will help put you into a routine. Once you get used to the routine and it becomes a habit, you’ll keep doing it without quitting subconsciously.
4. You let yourself stress out
Okay, to some this point isn’t very shocking is it? It’s common sense stress isn’t normally a “good thing.” It should come as no surprise to you that studies show stress can increase forgetfulness.
If you let yourself stress out when you feel Japanese is getting too hard for you, chances are it will become even harder.
The act of learning a new language is a test of memory. You are studying to improve your ability to recall a new language at will. That’s not one of the easiest things you will do in your lifetime.
How to fix this
Don’t stress. I know, easier said than done right?
Look at it this way: are you going to be injured, or killed, if you do not learn Japanese in 3 months? 6 months? Ever?
Probably not. So why let yourself stress out about it?
Okay, maybe it’s for your career? You want that awesome new bilingual position that opened at a huge name international corporation in downtime Tokyo.
Unfortunately, they’re probably looking for a nearly native speaker. If your nearly native, you’re probably not the type to have stressed out to the point of failure when trying to learn Japanese.
My guess is you are putting undue stress on yourself, probably for no good reason, aren’t you? You could be over-thinking every little thing you’re learning, causing burnout.
So just stop! Relax. Take a few deep breaths when you are feeling that urge to quit because you’re stressing out. Put some thought towards it: why are you stressing out right now?
Breathe. Relax. Rewind a bit, and try again.
5. You believe you lack the talent
Talent is overrated.
Yup, I said it (and I’m not the only one). Do you honestly, deep-down, believe you simply do not have the talent to learn a new language like Japanese?
What if I told you that almost every successful person in the world didn’t start life talented? Instead, good old fashioned hard work and perseverance wins.
That’s a good thing right? It means you can do it, even without the talent.
Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, ran a memory experiment: to see if it were possible to train someone to hear, and then recall, random numbers.
First, before any training, the average number of random digits a subject could hear (and then recall) was a mere 7.
But, after just 20 hours of training, the number of random digits these very same subjects were able to recall had risen from 7 to 20!
It didn’t stop there either. After 200 hours of training the same subjects were able to recall up to 80 random numbers.
So what’s the take-away? Put in the work, talent is overrated.
How to fix this
Okay this one doesn’t have a neat fix. Just stop believing you’re missing some magical, non-existent talent. Hard work, perseverance, and a bit of dedication are all you need.
What are you waiting for? Get to it!
6. You didn’t schedule your time
Or maybe this should be enough time?
I don’t mean set a perfect schedule where everyday you sit down at 7:30PM on the dot and study for 2+ hours solid. Unless you’re one of the lucky types who can set, and keep, a strict schedule — that’s a recipe for failure.
Instead, did you actually, knowingly set aside even just a tiny amount of time, everyday, to study and practice Japanese?
Did you tell yourself it was okay if you missed a day, but make sure one day didn’t turn into two, three, or more days?
If you don’t consciously set up time in your day to study and practice Japanese, you will likely fail without getting too far. Does point #3 sound familiar to you in this case?
How to fix this
You could try the challenge trick I discussed in point #3. Or just actually set up a calendar with reminders. Google Calendar, the calendar on your smartphone… whatever you want.
Just set it up, and then follow it. Follow it like every reminder was from your doctor who is trying to save your life.
You can’t skip on a reminder if it’s an order from your life-saving doctor right?
7. You gave up too soon
I’m guilty of this myself. I start something and before I get to a point where I’d really start to enjoy it, I quit. Have you done that?
Japanese is very similar. When you’re just starting out it will take you a while to find a rhythm — to “get in the groove.” Without a coach, a friend, or someone to guide you along, you might give up before you develop a good study routine.
If you can relate to point #2, then perhaps this is your real reason for failing to learn Japanese?
How to fix this
“Never give up, never surrender” — Galaxy Quest
“Grin and bear it” — English Idiom
What? There’s not much else to say is there? If you want to succeed, you’ll have to put in the work. Don’t give up, you will eventually overcome your challenge. It will merely take time.
8. You didn’t actually use it
If you’re living in Japan, on the economy, on a visa… you’ll probably be using Japanese daily (unless you’re living in an expat bubble, avoiding the language).
But what if you’re not in Japan? Maybe you’re a military member who lives on a military base in Japan. Maybe you’re just visiting family who are in Japan. Or, perhaps you’re a tourist in Japan for a nice long visit?
I very strongly believe you don’t need to master Japanese in order to enjoy Japan — but you do need to learn enough Japanese to more fully enjoy it.
This means you’ll need to study, and then practice what you studied, and then use what you practiced you studied… and repeat.
If you’re not in Japan already, then this is clearly a big challenge for you (though it is becoming much easier).
How to fix this
This one is easy to fix if you’re in Japan. Go forth, adventure, experience the culture, and interact. Practice your Japanese fearlessly and don’t let embarrassment be a reason you don’t — it will slow you down.
If you’re not in Japan, you can try to immerse yourself as much as possible:
- Watch Japanese TV and movies online
- Read Japanese manga (comics)
- Use italki.com to find a native Japanese teacher you can video Skype with
I know a couple of my friends who moved back to America had found some local Japanese language meetups, give that a shot too.
9. You didn’t dedicate yourself to learning
Is this you? Perhaps you got excited by the idea of learning Japanese. Maybe you’re in Japan and want to check out all the cool stuff it has to offer. Except the language barrier is in the way.
You know learning Japanese isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to do. Did you not prepare yourself thoroughly for the challenge?
Did you think a little time here and there, without any focused study time and conscious effort would suffice?
Knowing learning Japanese is a challenge, without properly mentally preparing yourself, AND consciously dedicating yourself to learning (even just a little) Japanese will result in failure.
John Fotheringham, of Language Mastery, talks about this frequently. His article 5 Reasons You’re Not Improving as Fast as You Want, delves into this problem nicely (point #1 in his article).
How to fix this
You simply must dedicate yourself to learning Japanese.
Well, in concept it’s easy. In practice you know there are other things in life that will steal your attention. Here’s one way you can deal with that:
Focus on why you want to learn Japanese. Do you love Japanese food and want to find all the cool mom ‘n pop shops with no English menus? That’s a great reason to learn Japanese. Focus on that, dedicate yourself to learning enough Japanese to reach your goal.
Then move on from there.
10. You underestimated how long it will take
This point is similar to points #1 and #7. You believed you were giving yourself everything you needed to succeed, except you didn’t.
Then when you discovered just how long it was going to take you to learn Japanese, you quit.
How to fix this
Before you begin studying Japanese, figure out what you want to get out of it.
As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t need to master the language. Besides, “mastery” is something of a moving goal. For you, right now, mastery might mean ordering what you want in restaurants (yakigyouza wo hitotsu kudasai! 焼き餃子をひとつください！).
Draw a line in the sand, set your goal. Be very specific, not something like: “I want to speak Japanese in 3 months!” While it’s possible for some, it might not be for you.
It depends on your situation in life. Set your own goals, be realistic, and you’ll learn enough Japanese on your schedule — and that’s okay!
11. You failed to experiment
Here’s a problem some might not think of: lack of experimentation.
Growing up, at least in America, we’re taught through rigorous coursework. You get textbooks, listen to lectures, take notes, and form study groups. There’s not much else to it.
Did you try that? Only that?
There are a plethora of ways to learn, and many more language “hacks” that have been discovered. Benny Lewis, found that he learned best using travel phrasebooks, focused study, and Skype conversations with native speakers.
Which is the hip, new-age way to learn languages, and is highly effective.
How to fix this
Experiment! Try new ways of learning. Here are a few:
- Small, contextual phrasebooks for situations you enjoy
- Skype calls with native Japanese teachers
- Spaced repetition systems such as Anki or Memrise
- Teach others what you’ve learned
- Online courses which help you step-by-step, give you what you need, and hide away distractions
- Record yourself reading aloud, and then listen to it
12. Life got in your way
It happens. Things come up which interrupt us. Maybe that’s not strong enough. How about hijack us?
Maybe you got a promotion at work, have more responsibilities, need to re-certify, finish college, had a child, got deployed, etc… there are any number of things that can abruptly halt your Japanese learning.
You know what. That’s okay. There certainly are things in life more important than learning Japanese, don’t sweat it. You did the right thing.
How to fix this
Start again when you can. No rush. When learning Japanese can be a priority for you again, restart then.
The truth is, Japanese will still be around waiting for you to learn it. There’s no reason to quit forever. There’s nobody to “fall behind,” you’re not in a race.
13. You got lost in all the resources
This is so easy to do. There are SO MANY resources to learn Japanese online, or through apps, books, cheat sheets, courses, teachers, etc…
A search for “learn Japanese” on Google returns 43,000,000 results!
That’s a lot to dig through to find the gems. To make it worse, there’s usually not one single source that will give you — and I mean YOU — exactly what YOU need.
Everyone learns in different ways and so the materials you find are all tailored for different styles. Then you’ll need different types of materials: reading, written practice, pronunciation, native/non-native, romaji, etc… Finding materials that work for you can be tough.
Maybe this is a lot like point #2. You keep looking, and looking, and looking but never quite find that perfect “thing” to make Japanese click for you — and then you quit.
How to fix this
This is actually tough to answer.
On one hand I would suggest picking something about the language you want to learn, and then focusing on it. Grab materials dedicated to this aspect you’re focusing on.
On the other hand I would suggest finding someone, or something, that can guide you. A service like italki.com can help you connect with native Japanese teachers.
I’d also like to believe that sites like this one help you. I hope this very article you’re reading now has been an excellent resource for you… and I plan to write many, many more.
What do you think? Did I miss something? Do any of these describe you? Leave a comment below, let’s connect. I’d love to hear your story.
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I am grateful for this wonderful article and I have a question I am Arabic from Algeria,my English is not very good but I am using it to learn other languages especially Japanese what is your opinion about that?
because of the lack of Japanese language resources in Arabic i tend to look for English resources and i think that it helped me improving my English a little bit.
how you can devote 100% for languages learning?
I hope you can give some advice.
So sorry for this very late reply to your questions.
I have never devoted 100% to language learning. That is so hard to do. Personally, I believe learning a language, especially when starting out, should be done situationally.
Learn the language around things you enjoy doing. If that is dining, learn the words and phrases you’d need during your dining experience.
Then “glue” them together with more of the language mastery concepts John discusses in his book.
And, as usual, take your time — learn at your own pace.
Wow, thank you very much for these interesting tips for learning Japanese. I will definitely use them. For a long time I have been dreaming of learning Japanese, and I am sure that after reading this article I will be able to take the first steps.