My Japanese sucks and always will

Not as good as this guy’s

Just want to get something off my chest. I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years, spent two of them studying abroad, lived in Tokyo for five years now, passed the JLPT 1 and the Securities Representative exam in Japanese, worked as a Japanese-English translator for around 7 years, and on and on. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would seemingly require near-native fluency, and yet…

My Japanese still sucks. I feel like no matter how much I study or live in the country I am always going to have a rough accent, a low working vocabulary, and generally limited fluency. My reading will always be much much slower than a native, and I will forever be looking up kanji on my iPhone even to write my own address half the time. My wife will be afraid to let me go to the doctor alone lest I misunderstand some important detail. I’ll never feel comfortable speaking in public or leading a group conversation among natives. If someone doesn’t feel like being patient with me there’s not a whole lot I can do to take control of the situation.

I feel like I have improved a lot and developed a pretty good working use of the language, but on an objective level it’s just terrible. I’d like to go around thinking I have really achieved something by learning another language and making a career of it, but I need to be honest.

In the US there is a very simple standard for English fluency – either native or foreign. You don’t get any prizes for having 50% fluent English or even 90%. But of course here, Japanese people tend to be overflowing with praise for a Westerner who speaks the language. They make it sound like it’s such an amazing achievement. But anyone who grows up here will learn Japanese – it’s just a way for people to communicate. I don’t think knowing it means you deserve any special credit. I guess I should be grateful that the bar is so low and so many people are willing to be patient with me.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the feeling that a good deal of the long-term Western residents are like me. They’ve developed a good working fluency but will probably never really reach native level. I think that’s great and worthy in its way, but for me I don’t want to lose sight of reality.

There are ways that I could improve, maybe, and I do want to get better. I want to just live a normal life without worrying about the language barrier. It’s demoralizing to stutter and fumble words at my job or even just trying to ask a store clerk something. Having better Japanese and the social skills to use it (a big one here) would make it much easier to disarm situations where people are uneasy about dealing with a foreigner. I have definitely not been in the habit of actively trying to improve my Japanese for quite a while now – at this point in my life (almost 30) my priorities are work and spending time with Mrs. Adamu. Spending extra free time writing kanji is not my idea of fun anymore.

People laughed Debito’s column about not having male Japanese friends, but I actually kind of identified with it to an extent. I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me. I instead put most of it down to the language/cultural barrier and my own social awkwardness. There are lots and lots of people with similar backgrounds who have successfully integrated, either going native or on some other terms, and they can just make it work in a way that I haven’t been able to.

Maybe what’s made things worse is that my Japanese has improved to a level where I know what it means to speak at a native level and the difference when someone falls short. At the risk of comparing myself to people with real problems, it’s like a disabled person who knows what it’s like to walk but just can’t make his body do what his brain is telling it.

Anyway that’s something I have been wanting to post on Mutant Frog for a while now because I don’t want to put out this image like my Japanese is so amazingly awesome when it’s not. That’s definitely not how I used to feel (I think I have written that I “get” Japan better than other people on more than one occasion) but I am way overdue for some humility.

53 thoughts on “My Japanese sucks and always will”

  1. Interesting. My Japanese sucks far more than yours does. I only have JLPT 3kyu (old one), hardly study because of a lack of time, have a Japanese wife and a daughter, which has helped a bit, and non-English speaking in-laws who I don’t see very often. But I do have male Japanese friends. Which reminds me, I really need to email one of them.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I’m in the midst of a demoralizing job search over here, and just can’t get over the feeling that if I were actually able to speak half-way fluent Japanese I’d be working by now. I get told that I communicate fine, but I feel nowhere close to a level I would find acceptable. It’s nice to know that someone else is grappling with the same linguistic self-doubt that I am.

  3. Proof that you’re Japanese enough — you find it impossible to compliment yourself.

    You’re being far too hard on yourself. Your Japanese is great, especially at the written level. My one observation on your particular situation is that you need more verbal interaction — you spend too much on your computer and at your desk, you need situations where you’re speaking with more Japanese people. I think a change of pace and change of environment might do you good too. I think things such as vocabulary, writing by hand, and other issues would be remedied very quickly if you were just in a different environment.

  4. Agreed that being thrown into new situations on a regular basis is the key to continuing to grow in the language. (Any language, probably, including your native tongue.) I bet if you got transferred to some 営業 sort of position a half-year of interfacing with clients would push your language skills up a few notches.

    Not that you should seek out this sort of transfer, of course, but the principle is sound.

  5. This is always going to be an issue with Japanese and European languages. I was editing a piece by a Japanese professor the other day. Excellent conversational English, lectures with confidence, translates difficult philosophy… but still makes the “classic” mistakes (Weber liked to read the book in his spare time).

    We do what we can do to get by in the situations that we have to – something tells me that Segal doesn’t translate as well as you do (and isn’t his spoken Japanese pretty crap?). I can’t write Japanese worth a damn and not having had to use Japanese on a daily (or even weekly) basis for some time now I find myself using bizarre and either useless academic vocabulary (colloquial Japanese doesn’t come to mind so I end up speaking like what I read every day) or manga-isims with grade 3 grammar, which just sounds weird. Changes when I get back in Japan for a few weeks, but never gets as natural as I would like.

    All you can do is focus on the things that you find to be important. I’m happy with my reading and my ability to do translations of creative and academic writing. As long as I am mainly working in English, however, my overall fluency in Japanese is going to plateau and I have to accept that.

  6. I’ve experienced similar feelings myself since graduating from university and coming to live and work in Japan. Despite having JLPT1, I’m still not at a level where I can blend in seamlessly with native Japanese people in conversation and I still find my vocabulary and overall skill in expression rather lacking.

    Although I’ve done no serious analysis of my situation, I put it down to the same thing I experienced on my first gap year in Japan before going to university to study the language formally. I’d already completed a 2 year GCSE course in Japanese before my gap year, but when I went to Japan, I found myself struggling. After a year living there, my listening skills had improved somewhat and I’d picked up more vocabulary through carrying a pocket dictionary with me everywhere I went, but my overall practical skill in the language hadn’t improved much at all. The reason for this was because I was not actually studying the language while living in the country.

    My second year at university was spent living in Japan and studying Japanese. It was during this year, with several hours classes every day and plenty of interaction with Japanese students, that my language ability and confidence soared. It was rough at first, but by the end of the year it was so obvious how much better I was at using the language. My final 2 years at university also helped to improved and hone my skills, culminating in passing JLPT1.

    Which brings me back to the present. 2 1/2 years after graduating and working as a CIR in a city hall here in Japan. Perhaps I’ve learnt some new words and the odd expression or two, but there’s been no real jump in my language ability at all. My kanji (writing) is a poor as ever, and I struggle to keep up with native level conversations around me, particularly with young guys. I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that, in order to improve in the language, you really have to be actively studying it, reviewing and practising the learnt material. Immersion by simply being in the country and trying to absorb the language on its own does not work. That’s been my experience to date, anyway.

    I’m now in a similar position to you whereby I really want to take my Japanese up to the next level, but find the idea of investing lots more hours in study rather unappealing. Perhaps enrolling in an advanced language course would be an idea? 学問に王道なし, as they say…

  7. My husband is Japanese and he can’t understand the kuroneko website. Even native Japanese don’t understand Japanese sometimes.

  8. I’m pretty comfortable with my Japanese language ability – my (Japanese) wife is usually the one asking me how to write a kanji, not the other way around – but I think it’s because I read a lot in Japanese – newspapers, magazines, blogs etc.

    Watching Japanese TV can be a great tool as well – and thanks to programs now insisting that anything anyone says isn’t funny unless they put it in text in weird font at the bottom of the screen, you can now watch almost any variety show pretty much with complete sub-titles.

    But let’s face it, Japanese TV can be about as entertaining as watching traffic lights change. So do what I do and read more! If you have a hobby, find some Japanese blogs on that topic and read them. I’ve lived outside of Japan for most of the last 10 years, but think I’ve done a decent job of maintaining vocab etc mainly by doing a lot of reading.

  9. Adamu – The difference between you and Seagal is that he learned his Japanese in Osaka, and better yet, in Juso. Aside from scripted movies set in Tokyo, I’ve only seen him speak Kansai-ben on TV. When one has a distinct “native” accent that differs from received pronunciation, it does tend to sound more impressive to native speakers. I first noticed this when in another incarnation I taught a young Japanese girl who lived for a time in Bristol–shocking grammar, but a fantastic conversationalist. I’ve noticed it on my own with German (Northern Germans used to mistake me for a Bavarian, as I went to school in the South), and whenever I choose to turn on my Osaka (Shot-bar)-ben in Japanese.

    One false assumption that everybody seems to make, however, is that fluency equals perfection. We notice more than usual we make mistakes in foreign languages. We (or at least I) make mistakes in our native languages all the time and in some situations, we just don’t have the vocabulary so we have to improvise. Sure, we do this in foreign languages more, but it is no big deal. I’ve never met you, but given what you write here (and knowing who you hang out with) I’m sure your Japanese is excellent.

    On the related subject of reading, does anybody know if this means we are supposed to read Japanese more slowly than English. I’m sure this is interesting research, but I would have thought the last sentence of the first paragraph was self-evident to readers of Japanese.:

  10. “We notice more than usual we make mistakes in foreign languages”

    Hah! What a fantastically ungrammatical sentence. Rather proves my point.

  11. I think objective self-examination is difficult. I’ve friends with all sorts of fluency levels, yet there are certain people who are better at certain things regardless of their overall “level.” (don’t get me started on JLPT :p)

    Look at the other side of the coin: My wife has been living in the US for 5 years but has better pronunciation and reads better than some of the ladies at work who have been here for 20+. But when it comes to chewing someone out in English, the ladies at work are unparalleled!

    My boss is Chinese, and complains that he doesn’t get enough English practice because everyone speaks Japanese. But another Chinese friend at work has crappy Japanese pronunciation, but can rap in English like he was a native.

    I’m just saying that we all have our talents. Don’t concentrate on perceived shortcomings. No one man can do everything well. Congratulate yourself for what you are good at! 🙂

  12. Thanks for sharing this. It’s nice to feel like others are in the same boat, or are feeling the same way. I have yet to find myself living/working in Japan for any considerable length of time – I’ve been to Japan for language study three times, for a total of about 15 months, but I’ve never done JET, or lived in Japan for more than 10 months at a time.

    And I worry that with my language skills being as they are, how might I ever hope to get a job, and keep a job, in Japan? My reading skills are quite good, and I think I could do a good job as a translator / editor, or doing other work that draws upon my native English abilities, but since I know that my speaking/listening skills are severely rusty, I worry about my ability to ever properly function in an office environment. In a work environment, no one has the time or energy to hold your hand and walk you through what they need you to do or how they need you to do it because you don’t understand their purely worded explanation in Japanese. You’re a worker, an employee, not a student or something, and you’re supposed to be helping the office, not pulling it down.

    I’m sure that once I go back to Japan, just being in that immersion situation will help a lot, and my language skills will return, to some extent. I always feel a lot more confident about my language ability when I’m in Japan and actively using it. But maybe that’s just because of false confidence because of how fluent I am at really basic stuff, like asking directions and ordering food, and repeating the same conversations I’ve had countless times… 「トラビスといいます。ニューヨークから来ました。」 and 「どうもすみませんが、肉は食べられませんが。。。海老やカニもだめですけど。。。」 … My Japanese may improve once I’m in Japan, but I really feel like I’ve hit another plateau, another barrier, and in order to jump up to the next level, I need serious real work experience, so as to gain the experience in using language in that context, in that environment. But, of course, in order to get and keep a job, I first need to have that level of language ability….

    I guess, I hope, I hold out on the idea that I’ll one day be able to secure a job teaching in English at a university (that is, teaching history or something; teaching in English, not teaching English), or working as a translator, or otherwise working for a foreigner-run organization. These positions do exist, and might even be more attractive anyway, since I have zero interest in the excessive overtime and certain other aspects of the Japanese salaryman lifestyle. But, I guess we’ll just have to see. My Japanese friends, and my Japanese Studies friends, often express how impressed they are with my Japanese, or simply say outright “here’s my friend Travis, he speaks Japanese,” as if I’m totally fluent or something. But I’ve got a long way to go…

  13. One thing I just recently realize is that language ability is several abilities. I can read academic texts in English fluently, with as much ease (if not actually more ease) than in my native tongue. But my conversational skills are awful; I have to ask them to repeat everything, and I have to repeat everything, and rely on body language and other cues to get some semblance of mutual understanding (once I tried to book a taxi in Mountain View, by phone; it was a small kafkaesque nightmare).

    This might be a crazy theory, but I think this situation may possibly have something to do with the fact that I read a lot of books and almost never talk to people.

    Similarly, I figure that, at my current pace, and judging from things I spend time with, I’ll probably be able to read Classical Japanese in manuscript before I can read newspapers or understand a TV debate.

    (This is why JLPT is so awful—in my not-so-humble opinion, studying to pass the JLPT only makes you good at passing the JLPT.)

    Related essay— Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

  14. Japanese is strongly idiomatic. With your background, I’m sure you know that, but it can be frustrating to know the words, but still not understand the expression or be able to use it properly. Another aspect of Japanese that is really hard for westerners is the amount of the communication that is inferred. That caused me all sorts of problems early on because I wouldn’t understand the non-verbalized parts of the conversation.

  15. It’s not just modest, it’s also very reasonable to feel unsatisfied with the scope of your Japanese language ability. Someone who prefers to think “That’s it, I’m done. I’ve nailed it” seems like they might be lacking a facility for self-examination.

    However, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to do everything with Japanese which all native speakers do, because you probably can’t do everything all speakers of your first language can do.

    Not every native speaker of English can effectively use the language to joke, interview, inspire, bluff, teach, comfort, sell, etc. It comes naturally to certain individuals but there are more of us who need to learn through experience, and even taken specific instruction.

    Some of this is down to our personalities while much of it is a function of the life we find ourselves leading. As Durf says, if your job required more expicit sales responsibilities, you would find yourself adjusting the way you use Japanese. Likewise, an Indonesian caregiver, in Japan on the EPA scheme for four years, may well have developed better instincts about how to speak with the elderly than many of us here.

    I’ve mentioned Jack Seward’s language fluency test on this site before when the subject hs arisen. Here are the ten conditions again (in his words) if you don’t recall them:

    1. When using a Japanese name and speaking to a stranger on the telephone, he or she should be able to pass for a Japanese – or come close to it.

    2. Know all or almost all of the Toyo Kanji with the on and kun readings and at least a couple of the compounds.

    3. Be able to read a letter written in gyosho. (I won’t hold out for sosho.)

    4. Be able to understand all or almost all of a newscast, if the subject matter is not impossibly technical.

    5. Be able to read a newspaper or magazine article with only very occasional reference to a kanji dictionary. (I confess that I probably have to resort to a lexicon five or ten times while struggling though an article of average length, although in the case of my beloved ero-manga, I can peruse the provocative print with fewer dictionary detours.)

    6. Write a decent letter in kaisho Japanese.

    7. Give a ten-minute impromptu talk in comprehensible and correct Japanese an every-day topic requested by your audience.

    8. Carry on a torrid love affair in words that will enable you to win the heart of your intended, who must speak no English.

    9. Identify (even if you cannot completely understand) three rural dialects.

    10. Stroll through your shopping district and read the first 20 signs you see in Japanese

    I would like to be able to do everything that Seward asks. However, his conditions require you to be a certain kind of person with defined abilities, rather than just fluent. Number 7, for instance calls for rhetorical skills and general knowledge which would be beyond some native speakers. Businesses all over the world complain that shool leavers and even graduates can’t be trusted to write a decent business letter without being shown how. If everyone was fluent in the language of love, dating services would be out of business.

  16. My problem is my forever comparing myself to others. I think it’s a horrible trait, but when I’m hanging out with old eikaiwa co-workers, I feel like my Japanese is near-fluent, but when I go to job seminars in this new-grad job hunting season, I feel like I can barely say five words.

    I’m at the level of “looking up” at the fellow foreigners (mainly from Asia) who have an excellent command of Japanese, but are far from fluent. I’d be happy to be able to lament to never be as good as an actual native Japanese person! So far it’s that guy from Norway who gave a five minute presentation about sales at the job seminar with little preparation.

  17. As Durf says, if you were thrown into the right environment, I’m sure your Japanese would improve dramatically. But putting yourself into such an environment would inevitably have consequences beyond improving your Japanese, many of which probably aren’t desirable.

    The benchmark you seem to be setting seems particularly high too. It’s no mystery that your English remains significantly better than your Japanese, right? Doesn’t seem reasonable to require equivalent ability in both. I’ve met many people who are great at both English and Japanese but I haven’t met many people, maybe only one, where I’d struggle to decide which language they are stronger in.

  18. Going by Seward’s 10 rules that Mulboyne listed, I think I can call myself fluent. (Number 6 is perhaps iffy; it would be a grammatically adult composition, but it would have a hell of a lot of hiragana in there unless I got to use a dictionary to remind me of kanji choices.) But in my job I still get thrown into new situations from time to time that make me stretch out in directions I haven’t gone in the past—extra-polite keigo to talk to some Diet member, rapidfire interpreting between Japanese and Europeans for whom English isn’t their first language, what have you.

    Interpreting in particular is a way to really work out your mind if you’re coming from a translation background. It’s a completely different mindset and approach to communication. You don’t get to browse Wikipedia in various languages looking for the best fitting phrase; you have to talk your way around the problem if the vocabulary term isn’t at the tip of your tongue already.

    I actually think “the ability to talk your way around the stuff you don’t know on the fly” is a good benchmark for functional fluency. I teach translation classes (J-E, to native Japanese speakers) and one trick I tell my students to use is to take a difficult Japanese text, pretend they’re explaining it in simple terms to a Japanese 12-year-old, and translate that explanation instead. It’s a similar approach to the written word.

  19. Great topic. Adam, I have never heard or seen your Japanese, but have doubts it “sucks”. Remember, what we umbrella under the word Japanese in English are two different words: The natives you are benchmarking learned their language as kokugo and you (and all other foreigners) as nihongo. I used to think this difference was trivial, but it’s not.

    In my opinion, language acquisition is a consistently plagiaristic pursuit. My best Japanese has always been the phrases/jokes/observations that I am mostly or entirely ripping off from someone else. Same with handwriting. In a sense, having more conversation with colleagues or male friends is helpful because you get a larger cache of material that is downloadable and ready-to-use.

    My most recent (and most expensive) stab at this was graduate school in Japanese. Sure, I can understand algebra, and I can read a book in Japanese on it. But how do you read the formulae when you talk about them? Greek letters don’t usually get furigana (FWIW: iPhone autocorrect is “fur iguana”), and so what the exercise taught me was that at a certain level we have both to know what we are fluent in, but also be fluent in what we know.

  20. As a tea ceremony student, I’m more or less convinced most Japanese can’t do extra-formal, proper ultra-prissy keigo either. I mean, just look at all the brouhaha over manyuaru keigo / baito keigo.

  21. (can’t do without explicit, conscious training, I mean—of course native Japanese speakers can and do learn to use keigo very well; my point is just that the time & effort they must put into learning it isn’t that different from what a non-native at your level would probably need.)

  22. Simultaneous interpretation is REALLY hard. I’ve only done it for my parents and parents-in-law, but it made me have mad respect for people who do this for a living.

    #9 is either the hardest on the list or contains a (ironic given the subject) translation problem (地方 for rural?). Understanding a rural dialect would be like being able to tell between Miyazaki and Kumamoto or Akita and Yamagata. Virtually no native Tokyo-ites would be able to do this for three regions. Kansai-ben, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Fukuoka/Kokura, are not “rural” dialects – all have been historically shaped by major centers (or try telling someone from Osaka that they live in the inaka). I suspect that Seward meant the big regional dialects, however.

  23. Somewhat related question: In Japan is there or was there any individual foreigner or perhaps non-ethnic-Japanese immigrant, who is so well known for being good at Japanese that most foreigners in Japan would often be compared to him/her? Perhaps in such a way “oh your Japanese is very good, but not quite as good as so and so.”

  24. @James – I’ve never heard those sorts of comparisons from Japanese people, who are typically more apt to over-praise the Japanese of foreigners, but Dave Spector would probably be the most common example of a foreigner who speaks Japanese well.

    This is also a bit of a tricky question because “gaijin” / foreigner wouldn’t necessarily bring to mind, say, the Mongolian sumo champs, Agnes Chan, or BoA for many Japanese so people like Spector get a boost in the public eye.

  25. What about Barakan?

    I can fill most of the ten criteria above, but it is all about practice. When I attended graduate school in Japan, I did an intensive language course where I was made to hand write compositions every day for homework. So could (and did) write letters in gosho back then. I doubt I could off the bat without a dictionary now.

    Similarly, I could and *ahem* did manage fairly well with number 8, but these days I’m out of practice and have a good reason not to test myself. I also knew many Japanese who would have difficulty with that particular criterion.

  26. Every native-level, non-ethnic Japanese speaker I know got there with two tricks:

    1) Working for an extended period of time in a (mostly) non-translation related position at a Japanese company

    2) Hanging out near exclusively with Japanese friends

    And a third that really helps with #2:

    3) Having some shared hobby with said Japanese friends — whether it be mountain climbing or sitting on a couch playing video games, something that gives them something to discuss other than gaijin-ness.

  27. I think MattAlt is absolutely right:
    Every native-level, non-ethnic Japanese speaker I know got there with two tricks:

    1) Working for an extended period of time in a (mostly) non-translation related position at a Japanese company

    2) Hanging out near exclusively with Japanese friends

    And a third that really helps with #2:

    3) Having some shared hobby with said Japanese friends—whether it be mountain climbing or sitting on a couch playing video games, something that gives them something to discuss other than gaijin-ness.

    A 4th thing that helps is a goal to accomplish. That goal may be passing 日本語能力試験1級 or writing a winning entry in a poetry contest, or scripting your own comic book.
    Impossible goals with definite deadlines are great motivators.

  28. I agree with Jake – sharing a hobby is a great way to make friends in Japan. For me it was playing handball and going hiking.

  29. Western expats, and I’m including myself in that category, lack the urgency of immigrants coming to Japan from other countries. We may want to want to speak the language, but when it comes to everyday situations, we don’t really want to speak the language all the time– for example, reading a news report in Japanese is a chore compared to English before a certain level of fluency, and writing a copy of this essay in Japanese would be a pain in the ass when English is just fine for this situation. So this kind of self-flagellation is entirely understandable, and I think most English speaking expats can sympathize totally. ガンガレ。

  30. Actually, you agree with me, whom Jake was quoting. Jake’s idea of giving oneself a goal is a great idea insofar as one doesn’t use it as an excuse to stay inside studying/working rather than going out and interacting with real people. A couple of months hanging with a group of like-minded drinking buddies will do way, way more for your ability to communicate in colloquial Japanese than sitting for the JLPT. Plus, it’s more fun.

  31. For Matt’s 1,2,3 suggestion there is a decent alternative for people who are researching and translating all of the time or who have trouble meeting Japanese (guy) friends “naturally” or are general homebodies: see if you can set up a conversation exchange with a Japanese grad student. Sitting down and talking for 45 minutes about politics and economics or the literary scene is something that can really improve one’s conversational flexibility as it puts you in a mindset where you start using terms and expressions from TV news, newspapers, etc. instead of just understanding them passively. It can also lead to the group drinking and the hobby talk.

    Manga also helps – virtually every Japanese guy in his 20s or 30s that I have met is a fan of several long manga series so this can be an icebreaker.

    While I have not done anything like this since my university club days, group activities (like at city centers) are also a good idea.

  32. “Manga also helps – virtually every Japanese guy in his 20s or 30s that I have met is a fan of several long manga series so this can be an icebreaker.”

    Definitely. This goes for films, anime, music, even the silly tarento who show up on variety shows. Comfortable though it may be to hide out in one’s mancave watching downloaded American cable series, it’s important to “plug in” if you want to be able to carry a conversation with people in your demographic. Pop culture is the golf of our generation. (Does ANYONE play golf anymore?)

  33. Adamu blames himself – in perhaps over-critical reflexive mode. This is good, I think. It can be a motivator. I’ve heard many other foreigners in Japan blame “the Japanese” for not having anything interesting to talk about. Meanwhile, if all you have to talk about is “The Good Wife” and the contraception controversy, you’re the problem. Imagine a Japanese in the US trying to make conversation on “Vagabond” and whether Japan should raise the consumption tax. Now that pop culture consumption is globalized, at least illegally, you don’t have to deprive yourself of “Game of Thrones” or “Mad Men” in a month, but if you take this to an extreme, there is a linguistic and more importantly a social cost to be paid.

    Of course, much of what has been written above is about compromise. If you are happy with where you are, do what you feel. I’ve met more than a few foreigners who seem to have this desire to improve in Japanese without actually wanting to talk to Japanese people about the things that Japanese people talk about, however. Something like manga can be the hammer that breaks the cycle of “Yes, we have rain and doughnuts in my country” conversations.

  34. Great to see the site back in action, with an honest and stimulating post!

    I’m convinced now that the degree to which one can close in on native fluency is a direct function of the variety of situations/fields one has experience with – both social and academic/professional, with one caveat being that you’ve got to have a solid base of vocabularly/kanji, right on par with any adult native (kanji-wise, I’d say enough that you could pass 漢検2級 just like a Japanese person would, which is by using a good kanken textbook for a few weeks).

    Beyond that, it’s getting exposure to all sorts of different fields. I felt quite confident with my accounting/finance/economics vocab when I entered a Japanese U as an undergrad, but when I took a calculus course (mainly for the language review) I was blown away, and had an extremely difficult time keeping up at first. Words like 級数, 公比, 代数, 固有値, etc. are not the least bit intuitive and there’s simply no way to get around struggling with them the first time, but there’s got to be a “first time.”

    In other more ordinary situations, even if I can speak fluently about things I’m doing now as an adult, things I’ve done since coming here, what about talking about childhood memories and such? In my elementary school (in Canada) we had a subject called “art,” and even if I’m sure there’s an equivalent there’s no way anyone’s going to naturally pull 図工 out of their vocab bag unless they’ve had or heard such a conversation before. Same goes for talking about any form of media. I can blather on and on about the geinin I like and hate, but throw a manga conversation my way and I wouldn’t know what to talk about.

  35. Durf is absolutely right about changing the environment to improve the language; I feel like my communication ability has skyrocketed since I changed to a domestic client-facing job a few months ago. It’s mainly a matter of exercise, I think — and keeping yourself mixed into a variety of situations that call for a variety of linguistic skills.

    Another point of consolation is that many people are really bad at communicating, even in their own language. Some of the recent Japanese graduates I work with can’t hold a coherent conversation, write a decent email or use correct keigo. Heck, some 40 and 50-year-old bankers can’t do any of these things, and they still have jobs (hooray for lifetime employment).

  36. Consider the beginning of this song: 毎日毎日僕らは鉄板の・・・

    Not only does this require the vocabulary to read it, but also a cultural experience of what a teppan is… Was the word looked up in a dictionary, or did it almost burn your finger off when you asked your friend what it was for the first time…

    Next comes: 上で焼かれて 嫌になっちゃうよ・・・

    And again we are thrust into that familiar situation, where simply understanding the words and grammar alone would still fail us…

    This is a childrens song, so what is my point here… My point is, Japanese is an inherently CULTURAL language, and many people don’t want to accept that.

    You have obviously taken your technical Japanese to a very high level, perhaps it’s time to put it to use in a more cultural way. Speak less, communicate more. Have more fun. Act out more lines from movies, sing more songs and read more manga. , Incorporate that culture in your communication. I’m not going to make any assumptions about yourself or how you see yourself, but culture would seem to be the only thing holding you back and it’s not something you can study, it’s something that must be lived… living has always taken time.

    American’s have a hard time with this because their own culture and accent is very sticky. Business people have a hard time with this because it takes them out of their comfort zone and into more community based settings, where money means less than the calibre of your wit… But where many people have failed, you have excelled… Why would this next and final step be any different.

    Japanese requires 110% of you. While that is ultimately up to you, consider this. As it is a choice every Japanese second language student must ultimately make.

  37. For those in the audience that don’t get the included picture joke: Steven Seagal’s Japanese — despite his claims of being fluent in it (and three other languages, marksmanship, antique samurai swords, riding, fighting yakuza, CIA agent, etc) — is atrociously bad.

    I watched him do a television interview many years ago. He sounded like a man with JLPT 4 grammar and vocabulary ability intentionally imitating a school girl. It was funny for about five minutes. The remaining 25 minutes was like watching a train wreck … watching the Japanese interviewer try to maintain composure and a straight face while asking him about his recognition as a Tibetan lama without insulting the interviewee by switching to English or an easier (to comprehend) subject for his, her, and the audiences’ sake.

  38. Eido. Wow, you are right! He’s able to express himself, and understands fine, but there are problems with his diction.

    The only time I’d ever seen him speak Japanese unscripted before this was before I could really speak I suppose, so I always thought he was fairly proficient. It was some gig on local TV in Osaka where he was eating and drinking on a beach and talking about food with Osakan ruffian talento. I guess just about anyone can do that though.

    Wikipedia seems to be easily impressed:

  39. Here’s a dangerous tangent: Does dating or marrying a native really help? I almost want to think that when I was single I had a greater ability to experience different environments and the conversations that they bring, and that’s why I made greater strides with my Japanese (or had the illusion of doing so).

    Definitely not a controlled experiment, as nine years ago I was on a different spot on the learning curve, but I wanted to see if anyone had an opinion to *counter* the age-old advice that dating/marrying a native is the fast track to learning a language.

  40. Depends on what you do when you’re single, and also on what language you use at home with your partner.

    When I was single in Japan, I spent a lot of time either going out drinking with other English speakers, or watching downloaded English media at home, so my Japanese immersion time was somewhat limited. Now that I have a wife practically clamped down to the house, most of those evenings are spent watching NHK news and bad variety shows every night. So in my case the immersion level has gone up. OTOH, if you had a lot of Japanese buddies and/or a native preference for local entertainment, and you married a spouse who wanted to speak English all the time and watch downloaded HBO shows every night, you would probably regress.

  41. “Here’s a dangerous tangent: Does dating or marrying a native really help?”

    A challenging and interesting question that brings us to a root problem in this discussion – the give and take.

    If you are married, you will likely speak daily Japanese more fluently but in my case I have relied on my wife for dealing with real estate agents, city hall, etc. and thus don’t feel nearly as comfortable in those areas.

    In a similar way, if you are bookish your kanji and vocabulary are likely to be better and if you are outgoing your conversational fluency and adaptability in different situations are bound to be better. There isn’t one language MASTER. There are things that you can do to progress in specific areas that will take time away from others.

    Consider this – the consensus great prose master of postwar English letters is Nabokov. He couldn’t come close to passing the “sound like a native speaker on the phone” part of Seward’s test –

    Maybe the moral of this story is to forget about “perfect fluency” and think about how to achieve what is going to make you the most happy, even if whatever that is takes away from other aspects of your “fluency”, as it inevitably will.

  42. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I find it interesting that your attitude towards mastering a language, which is in a way perfectionist and self-critical, is very Japanese.

    I am Japanese and I have very similar feelings towards English.
    I had most of my education in English so the language has certainly become a part of my identity. But I still don’t consider my English to be at a native level and sometimes it makes me sad.

    Japan is still not truly accepting of foreignness. The reality is that if you look Caucasian, then you’d be treated as one no matter how well you speak Japanese. The barrier does not only exist only in your linguistic skills but also in the Japanese people’s unfamiliarity to deal with foreignness.

    I understand how you feel but I wouldn’t want you to be frustrated. Having an English accent in Japanese seems a much bigger deal than having a Japanese accent in English. In some ways, you probably have even better understanding of Japanese than many people if you’ve passed JLPT 1. For instance. I write better than many “native” English speakers. I think you have to have a clear idea
    of what “native level” means yo you in order to measure where you are in terms of you abilities.

  43. Though I work in an international school, I use Japanese every day to communicate with the office staff. One day I had a problem where I got very upset and frustrated with how much a foreign language cannot convey excited emotions, and so switched to English to teach the office staff a lesson about communicating the right way or something silly. Anyways, I usually feel fluent, but after giving them the English treatment for a month, I feel my verbal skills slipping! Practice, read, and speak every day or it starts to go!

  44. I feel the same way. Lived in Japan for 2 years, studied abroad for a semester. Would say I’ve studied for about 3 years, most recently passed N2.

    I hung out with a few Japanese friends recently and sure it’s easy to understand them to be form coherent sentences and actually add to the conversation in a timely manner, I find it difficult if not impossible.

    Now how is it that if I can pass N2, I can barely keep up with a conversation? So I definitely feel your pain. I think you and I, and many others who feel the same way should just take this feeling and turn it into motivation as best as we can. Just keep trying, and don’t doubt yourself. I’m already convinced I’ll spend my whole life study Japanese, and never feel native, but I’m going to continue my study anyways because I enjoy it.

  45. “I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me”

    OK,when can I have your certificate of “Japanese guy who is sophisticated enough to understand American dude”and count me as the only Japanese man whom you hung around with? I’ve been waiting for this for about five years now….

  46. Adamu, you are not alone!

    I think this post will strike a chord with huge numbers of people trying ( / struggling) to learn Japanese. It’s not that the language is inherently difficult, but I think that the later you start learning, the less flexible and the less receptive your brain has become. Having said that, some people have an aptitude for learning languages and some (of us) don’t. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind what skills you’re good at and giving yourself a pat on the back when you do something well – I’m also stronger when it comes to reading, studying kanji etc. and try not to feel bad about the fact I am often happier reading a newspaper than I am chatting to a real live Japanese person.

    I agree with pretty much everything everyone else has said in this thread – the one thing I would add is that the more I study Japanese and the more time I spend in the country, the more I believe that immersion is the key, and I often find myself coming back to AJATT (, who is evangelical about the method, and whose posts often give me that extra bit of inspiration and motivation that I need when my confidence is down (something that happens on an extremely regular basis…).

    I don’t want to turn this into a thinly-veiled plug for my own blog, but I wrote an almost identical post myself last year ( and no doubt there are others out there as well, so thanks for being both honest and modest, and good luck!

  47. I’m sorry if it’s inappropriate for me to comment, as I’ve only started learning japanese intensely for two weeks but…

    I just find this discussion so fascinating, and here’s why: Over the 2012 New Years I was unbelievably fortunate enough to take a trip to NYC for a week with some friends. Now, before we left, my friend Holden had just encountered a slang term neither of us had heard. The slang term was, “a grip.” Holden couldn’t help but laugh, and declared that there is no way this slang term is in actual use… but while having this debate he learned that apparently it has it’s roots in a longer phrase, “a grip of cash.” So the term, “a grip,” refers to having a large sum of money. He set out to New York with one goal, and that was to prove that no one knew what “a grip” was.

    So began the journey. We asked about 5 native new yorkers, different age ranges and demographics, all of whom had never heard the term; however on new years, looking over time square through the hotel lobby window, I randomly met two kids from California, both of which were VERY familiar with the term. They emphatically told me, “how have you never heard, ‘a grip,’ used before!” In their cultural experience, the term is used daily.

    I know that was a long senseless story, but here’s the point – I’ve been living in the USA for my entire life, but there are still SOOOOO many sub-cultures and people groups I just can’t relate to or understand without immersing myself into their groups more. I grew up in the midwest, but now live in the south. I have no idea what it “means,” to be southern. I can’t pull of a southern accent, and I certainly don’t know when it’s appropriate to use the term “y’all;” but I have picked up on the ability to always make eye contact to strangers and smile… which did NOT serve me well in New York.

    I have a few “inner city” friends. When we hang out with a mostly “white” group, I have no problem relating to my … gawd I’m avoiding saying the word “black” which has got to be less offensive than “inner city…” which proves another point of not knowing how to deal with racial boundaries in the overly race conscious south despite my native-born fluency in English… but screw it, when my black friends hang out with us white folk, they act “white.” I have no problems relating to them, finding them funny, them finding me funny, exc. But when I hang out with them and their predominantly black friends, their language changes, their jokes change, and their conversation topics change. I find it much harder to understand certain humor, words, expressions… exc.

    I’m not sure really how this is any different from what is being described above. On a fundamental level, the point of language is to build relationships. If you have the language skill to be able to build a kind of lasting relationship that makes someone integral to your life, than isn’t that fluency enough? The rest of the boundaries surrounding colloquialisms and finding the right “Way” to describe an idea; doesn’t all of that disappear with practice? Furthermore, don’t we all, regardless of language, have to figure out how to communicate with each individual we meet from the ground up, and how to find commonality?

    I know this is long, and possibly babbling; I just feel like maybe the bar is set to high if the standard is to be perfectly comfortable with all aspects of japanese language at all times… Lord knows I’m not there with English.

  48. Oh God, I can relate to this so much..I feel the same about Mandarin Chinese, a language I have been studying for almost 7 years. Believe me, the pronunciation is next to impossible to master, esp. if one lacks that special gift to absorb and reproduce new sounds..I too feel, at times,lately increasingly so, that I have been wasting my time and, by extension, my life.. especially because I’ve mainly been doing only that.
    I think it’s natural to feel like this, especially if you have high expectations from yourself. Maybe you should just try to see the positive side of it; You have gained insight into a different culture and however imperfect your skills may be they can and will improve; Even if they don’t, you will probably never lose what you have learned so far; Try to see things in perspective.
    English is not my native language either and I thought my level was decent till recently , when a native speaker tactlessly (but honestly, i guess..) told me I had a heavy accent. It can feel really devastating when you know that in spite of all the efforts and the time invested you still suck, according to native standards. The point is that in language learning it’s easier too see the shortcomings than in anything else you might do. You only have to open up your mouth or NOT! and it shows! I realize that learning a language is an extremely complex process , more than i thought, and that there are many psychological factors involved which should be taken into account. I ‘m trying to see the positive aspects and I keep looking into ways that could help me improve my Chinese, English and the next language i will start studying soon. I have to keep on this track, otherwise I WILL GO crazy and not come back!…haha

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