A history of language failure and why it’s going to change

2015 marks nine years since I moved to Japan. Nine years! That’s a hefty length of time to focus on a (no longer) new language.

Three years. That’s how long I lived in Japan. Three whole years! That’s a decent time to learn a language and in an immersion environment to boot.

Eight years. Eight years, I say! That’s how long I’ve been with my Japanese husband who also happens to be fluent in Japanese. That’s a lot of time spent with one fantastic person with ample opportunity, or so I would think, to become respectably skilled at Japanese.

No tattoo sign, Japan

The images are my Japanese knowledge. All that text is my big fat hurdle.

But I’m not. And it’s embarrassing.

In the last month of practicing and studying, I realized how little Japanese I know and how truly pathetic it is, given the opportunities that have been right there all along.

I feel like a fraud! Here I am, trumpeting Japan in my daily life and on this blog, yet always from a primarily English perspective.

Being on the English side of the fence peering over into a Japanese land of mystery has gotten stale.

Am I lazy? It appears yes.

Do I have plausible reasons for being partially committed and mildly interested in learning Japanese? I’ll get back to you.

So, what is it? What has held me back?

I have no idea! But it’s time to change this silliness.

seal in a pool

Time to get serious!
Napier, New Zealand

THE Goals

I learned to love goals years ago because they work.

I’m also a teacher and insist on goals in learning a language. That said, I have faulty wiring when it comes to following my advice.

Other than “learn Japanese”, I didn’t have specific goals. Perhaps this was one reason I barely tried beyond osmosis.

With great fanfare, I now present my Japanese language learning goals:

  1. I want to read Japanese books to and with my child.
  2. I want to read and write simple letters to my in-laws starting with one postcard a month using the words I know.
  3. I want to handle Skype calls with my in-laws without translation from hubby.
  4. And this is a new one. I want to tackle 2,000 basic kanji in six months. (More on this later!)
  5. And another new one. I want to write level 5 of the JLPT in December. This is the recognized standard of Japanese competency, although it only tests reading and listening. Level 5 is the lowest or basic level. Maybe I can handle level 4 by then but both levels require knowing kanji.
Wat Arun Complex, Bangkok

This journey might be tought but it’s not impossible… and there’s even an end.
Wat Arun Complex, Bangkok


Near the beginning of April, I quit reading news cold turkey during baby’s nap and started studying hiragana and katakana for at least 30 minutes every day.

While I lapsed when baby decided napping was a horrible idea, I didn’t fuss and made it up later or let it go and started over the next day. (Ooo and ahhh, please. This is out of character.)

All this practice has meant that I can read hiragana and katakana with the occasional error and at a reasonable pace. Writing is progressing more slowly.

Up until baby arrived, Hitoshi quizzed me regularly on Japanese vocabulary and we started that up again. That’s been a great motivator in the sense that words I used to pause on are automatic when I relax my brain and trust my instinct.

I found a Kanji practice site earlier this year and then forgot all about it. I’m back studying the first 80 kanji for grade 1.

Mount Takao, Japan

Ice cream. Check.
Flavor? No idea!
But I’ll know soon… I will! I will!

A History of Failure

All this progress has been beyond exciting. It’s a particularly big deal for me since I have tried to learn languages in the past but have not been successful at any.

The only redeeming and consistent achievement in every one has been above average pronunciation. A strong ear from years of piano lessons, singing and a permanent love of music are likely why.

Thinking back on the pre-Japanese linguistic adventures, six years of French left me with the ability to read a Canadian cereal box. This is no accomplishment; the English is right there, too.

Four years of German ended in confusion. The first three years had me communicating the basics, even though the dude in Berlin would only respond in English to my attempts in German during our high school trip.

My first year university German class was a disaster. I failed almost every single weekly quiz, the major paper, and mid-term exam. I only discovered the language lab and importance of regular study about one month before the final exam. I think my teacher was as stunned as me when I passed.

stop hand at crosswalk

Stop. Stop right now. Your German talents are no longer required…forever!

Partway through university, I moved to Finland for an exchange. My limited German came in handy since my roommate didn’t speak much English.

Finnish lessons were fun and it was easy to pick up the basics. By the end of the term, my social life took over for better or worse. Despite signing up for the second Finnish course, I gave up after seeing the famous 16 cases (as opposed to English’s 3) and remembering my silent slogan: social life or die!

Moving to Thailand to volunteer meant more language fun. The lessons in that first week of jet-lagged confusion were a mess. The teaching strategy was to hardball random words at us while we sat in a circle. We had one shot to memorize them before we were expected to toss them around like pros.

After a particularly bad morning, one of my peers informed me that I was having trouble because I was old. I was just past 30 but come on?! And what regular souls learn a language that way anyway?!

As for why I didn’t know much more three months later? Pure laziness.

Japanese and English language teaching materials

English grammar faces off with Kanji practice books for kids

And then along came Japan.

Keeping the ball rolling

I am most definitely a long-term partially committed and slightly interested language learner.

While I have not achieved my Japanese goals yet and it’s early in the process, I am excited to share the tips and tools I’ve been using. Perhaps they might help someone else get past the basics. I would also love to hear what others are doing.

The details along with the inspiration behind that big kanji goal are on their way so be sure to come on back.

Are you a language learning train wreck? What has got you past the pain? If you’re a wizard, what is your secret?!

21 thoughts on “A history of language failure and why it’s going to change

  1. Trying to learn a language with a different alphabet seems more difficult than a language with the same alphabet as our native language. I wouldn’t be ashamed if I was you 🙂

    My native language is French and I’m not too bad at English since my boyfriend is an English native speaker who doesn’t speak French. I’ve tried to learn Spanish and Flemish in the past, but with little to no motivation at all ;-). I think the secret to master a language quickly is the necessity of mastering it !! For me, it was a necessity to speak and write in English if I wanted to communicate with my boyfriend. So, i had the motivation.

    • Yes! Having an extra way of writing seems to add another level of challenge. But I’ve had so long to practice! That’s why I simply must be hard on myself. ;D

      Ha ha! Yes, motivation really does help. When I wanted to visit Hitoshi in Tokyo, he told me I had to figure out how to buy bus tickets on my own or no visit. I fumbled through many, many, many, many phone conversations! That was the only way to book tickets on the bus in the sort of ruralish community where I lived. Each phone call was a stressful mountain of sweat (literally) and prompts laid out on the floor in front of me along with gasps of anxiety when the other speaker swayed from the script. I felt a high afterwards along with more stress as I wasn’t sure I had actually bought a ticket. 😀

  2. Having worked and lived in Japan for 3+ years and been with my Japanese man for 11+ years, I’m also ashamed to say my Japanese skills are horrible. My husband has never lived in my country, yet he is very disciplined at his Dutch studies and he’s able to have conversations with my grandma who speaks no English. I’m proud of my husband but it puts me, not being able to do the same in Japanese, to shame. I need to set some goals soon as well. I’m allowing myself some time to get used to taking care of the baby and then I need to get with the program myself. What’s the kanji website you’re using?

    • Yay! Another partner in the land of language learning shame! I hereby formally welcome you. 😀 The two sites I’ve been getting a lot out of so far are… unckel.de/kanjirepeater. I’ve been using the website but they have an app too. The other is an app that I’ve been loving… Obenkyo. I’ve got it on my tablet but I think they have an iphone version?? I can’t recall how I found it but if you search for it, it should come up.

      • Haha thanks for the formal welcome. And the kanji learning tips, I’m going to find them now. I really need to learn Japanese, especially with our son being raised trilingually, I’ll be the only one at home who can’t follow along in all three. Babel will make fun of me someday ;).

        • Did you have a chance to try out those Kanji tips? I still have to write my follow up post to this one and I’ll include a few more. Ha ha! Yes, I agree with having to learn Japanese. I was chatting with my fil in yesterday and once again, I’m pitiful. I couldn’t even recognize his basic Kanji that he was holding up for me, even though I thought I knew it. Sad, so sad! 😦 Yes, my wee one will be talking circles around me and sharing secrets with daddy. ;D

          • I have checked the kanji website out and downloaded a kanji app. But I haven’t actually used it yet. But that’s no surprise, since my blog is still due a Babel-update and for days I have been trying to make and write thank-you notes in between diaper changes Nd clusterfeeds… Oh well.

  3. I am hopeless at languages. I managed to pass French O-level at age 15 and haven’t progressed since, despite living in Tunisia for a short while and having various holidays in France.
    While I would have liked to be able to communicate with my daughter-in-law’s family, I have decided that Japanese is much too difficult for me to learn, beyond a few words. Thankfully my grandchildren speak English probably better than Japanese at the moment, as they speak it in the home. My son can get by in Japanese, but has not had time to study it properly.
    So I admire you, throwing yourself into this language that is so different from ours. Good luck with it, but don’t be too hard on yourself if your progress slows down. You will have more time and energy when your little one grow up a bit.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your language experiences! I really enjoy hearing about them. Thanks as well for your kind words. I admit that while I’m now comfortable with the first 80 kanji, when I looked at the next 160 for level 2 yesterday, I gulped. Then I reminded myself of a tip from another learner to simply take it slow, bit by bit. 😀

  4. Oh, I am sorry about that German guy in Berlin! I am sure it didn’t have a lot to do with your German skills however. Germans always do that. They think it is polite. Lot’s of my international colleagues in Germany had trouble to learn the language because they never got a chance to practice!

    • Ha ha! Yes, my teenage self of many, many, well, many years ago was more than miffed but it’s okay for me now. I get it. 😀 That’s a good point about having a tough time learning a language when others switch back to the language they know you know. (Or sometimes assume you know!) The same thing has happened to me in other countries and in other cases, I’ve wanted my listener to switch desperately! Do you speak German or other languages? And it’s entirely possible I missed this on your blog, which I’m long overdue for a visit! 😀

      • German is my native language. I studied in Spain for a year and speak the language reasonably well. But I also lived and worked in Italy for almost a year and yet only mastered the language to a very very basic level. I understand quite a bit but I can only answer in an italianized version of Spanish… kind of works to get along there but a bit embarrassing too.

        And you should definitely visit my blog now, I’ve got pictures from the cherry blossom this year in South Korea up in the latest post and would love to know how it compares to your experience in Japan!

        • I love it! It’s such a treat to hear the experiences of others with languages, especially when English is not the first language on the list.

          And I’m looking forward to spending some time on your blog! By the way… I wonder if they have a plum blossom festival in South Korea. I actually prefer them over sakura.

  5. Which university you were at in Finland ?
    I am similar when it comes to foreign languages…it’s my fifth year with Chinese studies and it won’t really work however I also live far away from China so this is my excuse :p
    For several years I am doing everything based on self studies through character cards and watching some tv shows with my wife..

    • Jyvaskyla! It was such a great experience. I also was part of AIESEC so I had the chance to visit unis in a few other places.
      Ha ha! Well, I get that about having an excuse. And you’re busy with a wee one! Self study is a great option. Have you seen the fluent in three months series with Benny? I saw this ages ago and dismissed it as fluff but I read through many of the articles on the site, agreed with what was said, and I’ve been looking through some of the suggestions. Maybe there’s something there that might help??

      • I’ve been few times in Jyväskylä but only for swimming competitions 🙂
        I didn’t join AIESEC myself but I know many others who are part of it and a fiend had some leading position in Singapore for the past year (he is fromgermamy ).
        Never heard about this Benny thing, probably should check it out

        • JKL was great! I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Where did you grow up in Finland? Perhaps you already said but I forgot. I was lucky to get around to quite a few spots in Finland and would love to go back for more exploring. The country is so naturally beautiful.

          I didn’t get too involved in AIESEC beyond the local level but knew others who went quite far. It really is a remarkable organization if you want to build skills and connections.

          Let me know if you check out that site! I’d be curious to hear what you think.

          • I actually grew up in Germany but spend much time every year in Finland especially towards Seinäjoki in the west and Tampere. The past eight years I lived in Helsinki and Vantaa 🙂

            • Oooo! Tampere is a great city from what I remember. Seinajoki… that sounds so familiar. I looked it up just now and recognized Ylistaro but I can’t remember why. I must have known someone who lived there or visited myself. Doesn’t everyone end up (or want to) in Helsinki at some point? 😀

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