Seeing as how it's the end of the year, I thought it would be a good chance to look at how, exactly, we can commit ourselves to studying Japanese, even when times get hard.
You made it.
Another year on this beautiful planet.
And maybe you didn’t achieve any of those goals you had last year. Those many resolutions and plans that, when you gave up on them, you convinced yourself were not worthwhile.
Or maybe you went above and beyond this year. And from a new high-point you’re looking for the next peak to climb.
I don’t know.
This time last year I was living in Tokyo with my amazing wife Rei.
And right around New Year's I got a message from my sister.
Now, my sister and I don’t message each other all that often. Me living in opposite time zones is one reason.
So she sent me a message, and I could only read the first line before unlocking my phone:
“Did you hear about Matt?”
And I knew. Something has happened.
It turned out one of my best friends from high school, along with a second friend I wasn’t quite as close to, were killed in a car crash.
With them, I’ve now lost five of my friends from high school. I’m 30 years old.
Whenever something like this happens, all of my study systems, schedules, and calendars are pretty much worthless.
I get emails from subscribers, from some of you, that are dealing with some unimaginably difficult situations.
Because life is unpredictable and, at times, tragic, and it can blindside you. It can knock you down so hard you think you’ll never get up again.
And in the midst of that, one can’t really be expected to be focused on some goal. Some resolution. Let alone something like language learning, which many will tell you is a trivial thing to focus on.
Some of it can be subtle. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re dealing with something. The words of our friends and family, for instance.
Some of them I’ve heard.
“Why are you even studying Japanese. What’s the point?”
“Is studying that gonna lead to a good career?”
“When are you gonna stop messing around with this Japanese stuff and get a real job?”
“Grow up. You can’t just study stuff the rest of your life.”
And those words seem small now. But they felt pretty big when I believed them.
I get emails from students sometimes, and their environments are toxic to studying.
“I have to hide my drawings from my mom because she’ll tear them up.”
“My dad makes fun of me for studying Japanese.”
“My friends make fun of me for studying Japanese.”
“I was told that studying this won’t get me a job.”
“My husband is in the hospital, and I can't focus on my studies.”
“I’m working 60 hours per week, and I have a family, and I just don’t see how this is possible.”
“I asked my parents to buy me some books about Japanese, and they said ‘No. You’ll just quit anyways.’
”In that kind of context, how can anyone be expected to accomplish something as monumental as learning a language?How can any of us hope to dedicate hundreds of hours to something when we can hardly get a moment of peace to focus on it?
The thing is, most people I talk to don't mention the context in which they're learning Japanese.
Usually people are complaining about kanji. Or grammar. Or vocabulary. Or any of the other plethora of items that make up language learning.
And I send those readers to articles, and I give them practical advice on learning kanji and making flashcards, on using mnemonics and building study habits.
But the truth is, none of that is the problem.
Kanji is not the problem.
Grammar is not the problem.
Listening comprehension, vocabulary, and fact that you can’t move to Japan are not the problem.
In 99.999% of cases, the problem is that you are not committed to your goals.
If you can reach a point where you are able to say “I am going to learn Japanese” with such conviction that no amount of self-doubt, circumstances--whatever--can shake your resolution, then I guarantee you will learn this language.
If you know the end-point of your journey, then it does not matter how you get there. Because you will get there if you never stop moving forward.
I’m not trying to get you to make some B.S. New Year’s resolution.
I’m not even asking you to learn Japanese. For some people, learning Japanese is not the right decision.
Instead, I'd like you to dive deep into the limitless universe inside your head and figure out what it is exactly that you want out of your fragile, fleeting life.
How to Commit to Learning Japanese
How can we deal with the ever-fluctuating circumstances of our life?
How can we stick to our goals long-term?
The simple answer is that we must commit to learning.
But the implementation of this commitment will be a bit more complicated.
Know What You Want
The following three activities have helped me tremendously when feeling a little overwhelmed by societal pressures, which in turn led me to question the practicality and value of my language-learning endeavors.
You might find that the following activities are similarly beneficial...
First, please understand, in your bones, how short and fragile this life is.
Yeah, I know. I’ve been told that since I was a kid.
I know you know. But knowing is not understanding.
Knowing is growing up hearing the quote "You don't know what you've got until its gone."
Understanding is what happens when you lose someone you love, when you feel what is gone and wish you had it back. Understanding is when you see your body changing without your permission. Wrinkles. Stomach sensitivity. Fatigue. An injury that never heals right, irking you for the rest of your life. Understanding a universal truth is a physical experience.
Second, please find what inspires you.
Alan Watts says it much better than I do, but the essential idea that I want to get across to you is this:
Do not waste time doing something you do not want to do.
"What you want to do" might include learning Japanese, or it might not.
To figure that out, we'll need to spend some time with ourselves.
Specifically, I urge you to:
- Go to a place you can be alone. Somewhere people won't bother you. Somewhere you can sit and write in peace. Personally, I like cafes.
- Put on your headphones. Play some music. Something instrumental. Or something that stirs emotions in your chest.
- Take out a pen and write: “How I would really like to spend my time.”
- Make a list of all the things you’d really like to be doing. Not big-picture stuff. Instead, write about how you would like to spend an average day in your life. Imagine that you don't need to work, go to school, clean your house, any of that stuff. You can fill the hours of each day with whatever you want. In that situation, what would you like to do?
- Sit with each item on that list. For each item, ask yourself if you would ever get tired of it, if it could really fill your days and never grow old or stale.
- Make a second list titled: “What I would do if money were no object?” Now we switch to our big-picture stuff. This is not just what we'd do in our daily activities. Rather, what kind of things would you accomplish if you had no financial limitations? How would you add meaning to your life? How would you bring value to some of the other billions of living creatures on this planet?
- Fill that list to the brim. Write all of the exciting, adventurous, fascinating, and relaxing things you could do if you didn’t have to worry about money. Write the ways in which you would change the world--even if that means just changing the world of a few precious people.
Third, please decide what kind of person you'd like to be.
Repeating the process described above, make a list titled, “Who is my ideal self?
”Don't worry about who you are right now. Don't worry about practical reasons you can't be the person you want to be. Instead, imagine that there is nothing stopping you from instantly becoming the perfect version of yourself.
What kind of person are you, following a transformation like that?
- How do you act when you meet new people?
- Do you smile while you talk?
- Are you healthy and fit?
- Have you read a lot of books?
- Are you kind to strangers?
- Are you never late to meetings?
- Do you let the important people in your life know how much you love them?
- Do you know yourself?
- Is your image of yourself the image others have ascribed to you or is it your own creation?
- Do other people’s opinions bring you down?
- Do you have healthy relationships?
- Do you attract people who lift you up and bring joy to your life?
- Do you know and love yourself so deeply that you do not shy away from silent time spent alone?
- Do you make excuses when you fail?
- Do you get up when you fall?
Take your time writing about this ideal version of yourself. Have fun with it.
We want to make three lists:
- How would I really like to spend my time?
- What would I do if money were no object?
- Who is my ideal self?
Then go back to that café a second time, and make these lists:
- How would I really like to spend my time in five years?
- What would I do five years from now if money were no object?
- Who is my ideal self five years from now?
And go back a third time:
- How would I really like to spend my time in ten years?
- What would I do ten years from now if money were no object?
- Who is my ideal self ten years from now?
Write those lists again and again.
Again and again and again.
Write them until you can see, VIVIDLY, in your mind’s eye, what you want from this short, difficult, beautiful life of yours.
Once you can see it--that thing you want to achieve, that person you want to be, that life you want to live--then and only then can you fully commit to it.
Well, I can't say that I know for sure, but here are some things that help me...
Learn to Have Faith in Future Successes
I've said this before, and I'll say it again:
The primary reason that people fail to learn Japanese is that they do not get consistent, long-term, level-appropriate exposure to the language.
They don't fail because grammar is hard. They don't fail because there are too many kanji. They fail because they stop studying. I was one of these people.
The first time I gave up on Japanese, I said that it was because there were too many kanji, I didn't have enough free time, blah, blah, blah.
Actually, I failed because I didn't keep studying.
And I didn't keep studying because I had no faith that I could learn the language.
Have you ever thought about why all of the great adventure stories tug at our emotions so much?
We, as humans, are emotionally drawn to characters that have every reason to give up but don't.
Because all too often do we know the pain of giving up on the thing we wanted.
And all too rarely do we know the joy of sticking it out and achieving our goals, the hard-earned joy of living the life we dreamed of.
We see our heroes in movies achieving these impossible feats, making accomplishments the way all of us deserve to, and it moves us.
But blah blah blah! So, you know, realistically it can't be done... says person with no intention of even trying.
Become Aware of the Irrationality of Excuses
I’ve noticed something about making excuses. Something that I find to be extremely fascinating.
People like to delude themselves into thinking that excuses are based in logical reasoning.
“Excuse. Excuse. Excuse. That’s reality.”
No. Reality is that you are afraid that you cannot achieve what you want to achieve. So you think of a “logical” excuse that “excuses” you from doing the work you should be doing.
The second you that you started thinking of an excuse, you were already starting to give up.
You were actively looking for a reason to give up.
For example, I could say:
I want to learn Japanese. But I have to work 50 hours a week. And I'm trying to take care of my mom because she's sick. And I'm not that good at learning languages. And even if I did master Japanese, what then? Will it actually lead to a successful career? Will it put me in a better place to live my life? I read online that fluency in Japanese is not a highly marketable skill. I'd be be better of studying software engineering, medicine, law, etc. That is the logical path to follow.
When you are looking for an excuse to quit studying Japanese, an argument like this can sound extremely rational.
But is it rational if we look at it like this?
I want to learn Japanese. I have looked deep into my heart, and I don't know why, but it is longing for me to immerse myself in this language, maybe to live in Japan someday. I have tried to think of a practical, realistic approach to making this a reality. But I cannot see it. I suppose that I could do something more practical like studying medicine or law, but I am not fascinated by these things. I could spend years mastering widely marketable skills, achieve financial freedom, and... then what? Then I'd be in the same place I'm in today: not able to speak Japanese. I am just as likely to want to know Japanese when I'm older, so logically I should start studying it today, and keep studying it every day. Even if that's just a few minutes a day. I don't know how to achieve this. But other people have done it; so I can find a way to do it, too.
Which of these arguments is more rational?
Which is more practical?
It doesn't matter. Because there is rarely a rational path to happiness and fulfillment.
There is a nice quote from Les Brown:
"Whenever there is an argument between your heart and your mind, follow your heart. There are things that the heart can understand and feel, that the mind cannot relate to. There are things that you feel, that you know in your heart of hearts that it's not logical, it's not practical, it' s not realistic, but there is something in you that says, 'I can do this.' You do what is easy, your life will be hard, but if you do what is hard, your life will be easy." - Les Brown
The most successful people in the world do not make excuses. They attempt to achieve what they want regardless of their circumstances. When they fail, they try a new approach to achieve that same thing they want.
So please, I’m begging you, on that list of items under “The person I want to be,” write, “I never make excuses.”
Because if you go after your dreams with all of your heart, failing is so much better than never trying.
We learn Japanese here. So let’s say the thing you want to achieve is fluency in Japanese.
Let's go back to our example above. You're working 50 hours a week and taking care of a sick parent. And you've never been particularly intelligent.
Let’s say that’s you. And your dream is to learn Japanese. And you have no idea why. But that is what you want.
In this situation, you have two options:
Option #1. Look for a “practical” reason (you have many) that this is not a realistic goal. Choose that as your excuse. Give up on your dream. Cope with having stifled a beautiful part of yourself for the rest of your life.
Option #2. Learn Japanese. No matter the situation, the “reality,” the barriers. You will do what you can with what you have. You will put pieces of the Japanese language in your brain whenever you have a chance.
And let’s say you do go with Option #2. And let’s fast forward five years. Maybe you only managed to study a few minutes per day, if that. You’re nowhere close to the level you want to be in this language. Still, in those five years you have never let your commitment to learning Japanese subside. So you do know a good deal more than you did five years ago.
Even without having achieved some idealistic notion of “success,” you will be a better human being. You will know more of this language that fascinates you than you knew before. And though there is no logical reason for it, that alone will bring you joy. The knowledge that you are the type of person who does not give up on your dreams will make you a full, inspiring human being.
“I wish I had never gone after my dreams. I wish I had never put my entire heart and soul into making them a reality. Year after year. Despite all of the hardships. Just because they are important to me” ...is something I've never heard someone say.
It is better to fail at what you love than to succeed at what you do not love. Because otherwise, what is the point to all of this?
While we're talking about practicality, though, I have to mention something about the widely perceived lack of career opportunities that come from high-level Japanese fluency...
Consider the Breadth of Real-World Opportunity
It is common to see people say that, while fluency in Japanese can lead to a lot of jobs in Japan, there is a limit to what you can do, and most of these jobs have unfavorable working conditions in Japanese companies. And if you'd like to become a translator, the only way to make money is by specializing in something like finance, law, or medicine.
Please consider the following:
The most amazing careers in the world do not fall into simple categories. They require imagination.
Right now I work translating and writing English-language materials for a publisher in Tokyo. They mostly publish books for Japanese students of English. I have no boss, and I never send work proposals. Rather, I just get emails from the company every time a new job comes in. I can do this job from anywhere in the world, and in the last two years I've worked from Bangkok, Saigon, Sapporo, Tokyo, San Diego, and Chiang Mai.
I can't say that you'll find this type of job because it's a unique situation. The editor I work with used to be a student of mine when I taught English in Tokyo. He was impressed with my knowledge of Japanese and interest in language-learning. The rest is history.
But this is just a single path I have chosen. I can see others lain out before me, which I have not pursued.
For example, consider the potential of starting your own business in Japan. I have another website called EigoBoost.com (Update: I have since taken the site down), which I hardly ever update. The site has around 70 articles as of now. From that, it gets over 100,000 page views per month. Why? Because search engine optimization (SEO) is not nearly as competitive in Japanese as it is in English. I can write a high-quality article and more or less guarantee that it will show up on Page 1 of the Google results for a given search query.
Imagine if this gaping opportunity were applied to a business venture. Imagine if you were to open a certain type of café or English school in Tokyo, and you used this untapped marketing resource to bring in customers. Or just imagine the fact that you have a completely different perspective than most people in Japan, and this is a huge advantage.
These examples do not even scratch the surface of the breadth of opportunity available to those with high-level Japanese fluency and native-level skill in another language.
If you want to be a cog in a machine, learning Japanese is not the best way to help your career.
If you want to creatively apply your unique skills and amazing brain to bring other people in this world value, then dogged pursuit of mastery in a field that inspires you is the most valuable and practical activity available to you.
Find Your Own Path
I talk a lot about practical systems for learning Japanese on this site.
How to learn kanji and vocab. How to organize your daily study schedules. All that stuff.
The practical systems will need to be tweaked to match your personal situation, but there is one bit of advice that applies to all of us:
If learning Japanese is your dream, commit to it.
Commit to lifelong learning.
Commit to studying consistently for the rest of your life.
Because once you commit, the rest will stop being stressful. Figuring out how to learn Japanese no longer becomes a problem. It becomes an exploration. It is a chance to learn how your mind works, what types of schedules and study methods mesh well with you as an individual.
Each failure is not evidence that you will ultimately fail. Rather, each failure is a step to success.