How Not To Learn Japanese

Efficacy is the enemy

A kanji character drawn with characters as a mnemonic device.
Kanji is objectively the stupidest writing system on the planet, but it's not the problem.

When I was in Vancouver, I had a girlfriend whose mother was from Hong Kong and didn't speak any English. At the time I thought, holy shit, how can you live in a country long enough to raise a teenager and not speak the local language?

Now I know.

I've lived in Japan for over two decades, more than half my life, and longer than my then girlfriend's mother had lived in Vancouver when I knew her. My Japanese is definitely better than her English was, and all indications from people around me is that my Japanese is pretty good. I can hold a conversation about almost anything, I can deal with the occasional letters the government sends about some national health insurance requirement or whatever, I can watch TV shows and even sometimes laugh at the intended joke.

And yet, at the same time, I know it would be lying to myself to let my ego float on all those measures of success. Sure, I can hold a conversation, but it's a lot like bobsledding where I'm moving along at the speed the conversation takes me more than I choose to go, sliding over bumps so fast that I don't get a chance to comprehend them before everyone has moved on. I get to an end that's predetermined by the walls of my limited vocabulary on either side. My thoughts get bent and twisted as they reach my mouth so that I'm not sure the person I am is the person my audience hears. I couldn't express in Japanese what I just did in this paragraph without it taking three times as long because I have to use the Japanese I have, not the Japanese that's best. A far cry from English where I can conscrabulate new words if I feel like it, with complete confidence that I won't even have to define them for you to understand me.

Yeah, I can deal with complicated scenarios, like talking to a doctor about a health issue or talking to some city bureaucrat about why my city taxes are higher this year than last even though my income was the same. But one time I went to a government office to settle up and confirm my national health payment records, and there I happened to bump into a friend of mine who goes to the same gym as me. He was at the desk beside me with some similar inquiry. He has lived in Japan a tenth the time as me and has no particular intention to stay or learn Japanese. He used more gestures, mixed in more English, might have used some finger painting and interpretive dance in there somewhere, and in the end, got his issue resolved in about as much time as me. Which raises doubts about using results as a measure of capability.

And of course, I have yet to pass the top level, known as "N1," of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which is the standard measure of ability. Standard, that is, in terms of applying for jobs or schools or whatever. In daily life, I hear people say they don't need it or I don't need it, and that it tests you on obscure Japanese that isn't really common. Which misses the point of the test entirely. There isn't an English test I couldn't pass, no matter how obscure the English was. If someone told me they couldn't pass an English test because it had rare grammatical phrasing like "he has to have had," I wouldn't think the test was too hard, I would think they suck at English. And so it goes with Japanese, and the N1 test. Of course it tests you on the less common stuff, how else are they supposed to evaluate your depth?

People have some valid complaints about the N1 test. For example, it's only twice a year, and takes fucking forever to deliver results, which is kind of inexcusable with modern technology. Also that it's all comprehension, reading and listening, no part of the test requires you to output Japanese. That's a fair critique, though I also think it's reasonable you understand people before you talk back to them, something a number of foreign friends around me don't seem to hold in high regard as a requirement for speaking their mind.

The test could be improved in certain pragmatic ways, but, it's a windmill I constantly tilt at, having taken it five times without passing so far, because it has one quality that makes up for its downsides. It's completely objective. The test does not take into consideration what kind of life you live, whether your lover or your friends understand you, whether you can do your job, or anything about you. It throws at you a selection of Japanese from articles and newspapers and other sources that might be nothing you've ever really cared about before. This is important, at least for me, because it cuts to the heart of why my Japanese still kind of sucks.

There are all sorts of causes for sucking at Japanese, and I have personally dabbled in each and every one of them. First, there's some objective reasons, the main one being that Japanese has unquestionably the stupidest, most pointlessly inefficient and needlessly opaque writing system of any language on Earth. That's just a fact. There are social reasons around you, like the low expectations Japanese people have of foreigners speaking Japanese, or how in the foreign community there can be some unhelpful one-upmanship about how Japanese ability reflects one's true immersion. And there are personal reasons inside you, like maybe you're insecure about coming across like you don't understand, or sinning with pride about knowing some slangy catch phrase that makes you think you look like you're more in the know, even though it's the only phrase you have. There probably isn't a language learner alive who hasn't at one time or another laughed along with everyone else in the room in spite of not having really caught the punchline.

All these things and more, and the way they interact, create an infinite variety in ways for each individual to not progress with Japanese. But they're all solvable problems. Kanji is fucking stupid, and takes more time and effort than other languages, but ultimately it's a finite amount of time and effort. Japanese people may do weird things like answer in English when spoken to in Japanese, but how you respond to that stimulus will ultimately say more about you than them. And your own personal issues are inner demons that we are obligated to battle throughout our lives, regardless of what we do, so, you just need to get on with that.

All of these problems would seem to be helped by more time and therefor more exposure to the language. Generally speaking, the more you interact with something, the better you get at it. Even if you never practise a sport by doing drills or honing your skills off the playing field, the simple act of playing it will improve you. So, you'd think, I thought, that after two decades of living in a Japan, all that exposure to Japanese would make me awesome at it.


What I got good at was living in Japan. And the degree to which I'm effective at living here means that I get results in spite of the deficiencies of my language. And because I get those results, it feels like I must be doing well in the language.

The problem is efficacy, and it's insidious because it leads to delusion. You see this kind of thing a lot with people who have Japanese spouses or relationships or partners or whatever the current PC term is for someone they're fucking regularly. Because they have a successful relationship with that person, and communicate and talk with them, they have a higher self assessment of their Japanese ability. They become oblivious to how their Japanese partner makes up for gaps either by getting used to their quirks or sometimes speaking in English or whatever. And then that person, the foreigner in that partnership, can get stone walled when they interact with a different Japanese person who is not as accommodating.

Does that person walk away from the time they didn't understand Japanese one time thinking that it might be evidence that their Japanese isn't as good as they thought? No, and not only because of the very real reason that they want to reduce cognitive dissonance and preserve their pride. It's also on the surface an illogical assessment. If you have ten interactions where things go one way, then one interaction where things go another way, it's usually rational to assume that it's the one time that is the exceptional weird thing. The person in the relationship with their Japanese partner leaves the uncomfortable reality of dealing with someone they didn't understand and returns to their own life where they're understood just fine and thinks there must have been wrong with that difficult situation, not with themselves.

I'm kind of like that, except my relationship is to my particular life and not a specific Japanese person. Just like everyone else, I go to usual places, talk with my usual friends, have all my usual challenges and habits, and after two decades of settling in, my Japanese is finely attuned to what I need to do. This is why the logic of ten good interactions to one bad one breaks down. The ten interactions that went well weren't random, they're really all just aspects of the same interaction, the one I've built for myself over twenty years. The one interaction that goes bad is actually indicative of a problem, because it's a truly random test of my Japanese, the kind of test I'd never have a problem with in English.

Like anyone else, I'm an emotional being, and so it's easy to get upset and fight back when confronted with my deficiencies, because cognitive dissonance kicks in. I was so happy, cruising along feeling like I'm a decent Japanese speaker, a mild form of pride in my achievement of having studied and tried. Then I slam into a wall of not understanding what's currently happening, so my Japanese can't be that good. Pride clashes with reality and it's a fight inside me where whichever side wins, I lose. I'm either delusional or wrong.

It would be great to be so enlightened as to be unaffected by times when my Japanese is lying there, shattered on the floor. But, I think there's a downside to holding yourself in a state of always thinking you could be wrong, keeping your pride completely locked in a cage. Part of learning a language is to step out into the unknown, to experiment by volunteering your own ideas and ways of expressing yourself, or sometimes to not worry so much about a specific word at one moment because hopefully a little more context down the line will reveal all. It's hard to do that if you don't allow yourself to identify on some level as a Japanese speaker. Ask anyone who has had to teach English to Japanese people about how a complete lack of assertion hinders progress.

The best way to strike a healthy balance, so far as I can tell, is to expose yourself to failure often enough to keep expectations, and pride, down. If you have ten interactions where people say, "wow, your Japanese is so good!" then in the eleventh interaction you have no idea what the fuck anyone is saying, it's normal to have those ten times shape your expectations of what should happen next. But if the previous ten interactions were a mix of ups and downs, then it's just as normal for the eleventh time to not stand out as anything to be unusually concerned about.

I've taken the N1 test a few times now, I think five, and I fail every time because by the time I started taking them, I had already built a lot of inertia. Of the people I know who speak Japanese as a second language, the ones who do it the best are the ones who studied hard at the beginning, and then living life in Japan was a way of building on that, as we all expect language to do. People like me, though, without that base, the longer we go without that base, the better you get at everything around the language, the more energy it takes to proactively overcome that deficiency.

I hope I'll eventually pass the damn thing, but even though I relentlessly fail at it, it's been a healthy process for me. It smashes through the lens of using my life as the measure of my Japanese. It reminds me that there's more to life than just my life.