Once upon a time, you had to two choices if you wanted to get fluent in Japanese: ① Take Japanese language classes. ② Move to Japan. I did both and had a (mostly) great time doing so. But while I think classes can be great for those who can afford the time and tuition and that living abroad can be a profoundly transformative experience, neither undertakings are a requirement for learning a language. Today, anyone with an internet connection, a little creativity, and sufficient discipline can reach a high level of fluency anywhere in the world if they design the proper environment. Read on to see exactly how to create a fun, effective Japanese language environment no matter where in the world you happen to live.
While at a Christmas dinner party recently, I was asked the standard American icebreaker: “So, what do you do?” “I’m a linguist and an author who writes about language learning.”
“Oh? What languages do you speak?” “I’ve dabbled in a few, but I mostly focus on Japanese.” “Wow, that’s a really hard language! You must be really smart.” I knew this exclamation was coming since it’s the same response I almost always get when talking about language learning, but it still makes me cringe every time. Many people, even those who have never studied the language, assume that ① Japanese is difficult, and ② you have to be really smart to learn it.
So is Japanese difficult? And does it require great intelligence? Read on to see my answer to both.
Lots of people want to learn a foreign language, but the desire often gets buried by distractions and procrastination. We think to ourselves, “I will start learning Japanese once I finish this busy project at work.” This is just like the promise many of us make to “start eating well after the holidays” or to “start giving to charity when we can afford it.” We feel a little better in the moment by outsourcing responsibility and sacrifice to the future, but when that future comes, the procrastinated action rarely comes with it. We finish that busy project at work, and fill our new-found free time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram instead of opening the Fluent Forever app. The holidays come and go, and we find our mouth full of pizza and beer instead of veggies and salmon. We get a bonus at work, but let lifestyle inflation use up the surplus instead of sending a check to Give Well. No, the future does not hold any magical power to make your dreams come true. But the now does—if you are willing to prioritize and take action.
Creating and sustaining motivation is one of the biggest challenges in language learning. And the single most powerful way I know to get and stay motivated is having a big, chewy, powerful “why” for learning the language―a driving purpose that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other no matter how steep the trail may get. Flimsy feelings like “It would kinda be cool to speak a foreign language” or “maybe this language will be useful in my career someday” won’t cut it. Why? Because when the going gets tough, you’ll quit. You won’t have the psychological fuel to keep going. To succeed in language learning, your “why” has to be: ① strong, ② emotional, ③ personal, and ④ immediate. Like Friedrich Nietzsche put it, you can bear almost any how if you have a strong enough why.
You can often spot a new language learner by the scale of their language learning goals and daily habits. When we first start out in a new language, the excitement makes it easy to commit to big, hairy, audacious language learning goals and herculean daily routines. Perhaps we commit to listening to three hours of foreign language audio a day, reading one foreign language novel a week, or speaking with a language tutor for an hour every single day. We might keep this up for a few days, or even a few weeks, but eventually, our motivation will run out and we’ll fall off the pace. Perhaps we have a bad day at work, and cancel our tutor session. Or we have a fight with our spouse and don’t feel like studying any flashcards. Or maybe we get sick and opt to binge watch Narcos instead of listening to language podcasts. One missed day turns into two, and then three, and then weeks or months of zero language study. Most people (especially perfectionists like me) will then think, “Well, since I can’t do it all, I guess I will do nothing.” Fortunately, we can avoid this all-or-nothing-perfectionist trap by committing instead to a “minimum effective dose” of daily language study: a tiny, tiny amount of time and effort that we will hit each and every day no matter what.