Most days I am happy I started learning Japanese. And sometimes I just want to throw all my books in the shower and never hear another Japanese word.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from learning Japanese. The vast majority of the time, I do not regret starting my journey to become fluent in Japanese. But I do want to acknowledge the potential downsides of this process.
Studying studying studying… I am never far from my Japanese flashcards.
I think acknowledging the downsides of any choice can be useful. As a culture, the United States tends to focus on the positive. Think about proverbs like, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” We are encouraged to look for the good in the bad. (And that is probably a good thing, since it can be easy to get stuck on negatives.)
But what about (sometimes) looking for the bad in the good?
The good in the bad – the bad in the good. Sounds very “yin yang” of me.
I know this might seem impossibly pessimistic of me. But I started thinking about this approach to life last year when someone gave me career advice. She said that any career choice has both positives and negatives, and that we shouldn’t consider only the positives. It is better to decide whether you are okay with accepting the negatives in order to gain the positives. Like asking yourself – Is extra prestige and responsibility at work worth losing time with family and friends? Is working with an ideal boss worth moving far away?
The Good of Learning Japanese
When I innocently walked into my first Japanese class, I definitely did not ponder any of the possible downsides of that decision. Looking back, I am certain that I would still have chosen to learn Japanese, even knowing the downsides. For me, the upsides of learning Japanese far outweigh the downsides.
This might sound dramatic but learning Japanese has changed the course of my life.
Clearly enjoying my time in Japan!
In a short list, learning Japanese has:
- made me a braver and more adventurous person.
- let me make new lifelong friends.
- completely altered my taste for different foods.
- allowed me to travel and see new parts of the world.
- changed my everyday habits. (See 7 Things Japan Taught Me About Sleeping.)
- helped me gain new understanding for people who are second language learners, especially my students when I was teaching as a graduate student.
- And even more, but I’ll save those for another day. 🙂
And The Bad…
Even so, there are still days when the downsides smack me in the face, and I get discouraged. Here are a few honest reasons why I (sometimes) wish I never started learning Japanese.
#1 – Japanese is extremely difficult.
This is probably not a popular opinion. But sometimes I am lazy and I wish I didn’t learn Japanese because it is just so very VERY hard.
Japan is a much taller mountain to climb than this.
Of course, learning any language is difficult. But some languages are harder than others. I say “harder” as a native speaker of English. Just like it is quicker to hop on a flight to Paris (just 6 hours from Boston) then it is to hop on a flight to China (close to 18 hours), some languages are more closely related making the jump to fluency shorter.
So, just how hard is Japanese?
Let’s consider the ranking of language difficulty created by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (again from the perspective of native English speakers).
“The List” is divided into 5 categories. Category 1 languages are the most closely related to English, and thus the easiest to learn. These languages include French, Italian, Spanish, and others. Category 5 are the least related to English and thus the most challenging to learn, including Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Category 5 languages are described, as “exceptionally difficult.”
Here’s a schematic guide of how to say “give” in Japanese. Make sense now?
(Credit: An introduction to Japanese by Michael “Pomax” Kamermans.)
The sad part is the estimated hours to fluency for each language category. Ready?
Category 1 languages? A mere 600 hours. Category 5 languages? 2200 hours to fluency. That’s 4x longer than Category 1.
In other words, a fourth year Japanese student can hope to speak at the level of a first year French student. Sigh.
Four years of Japanese later and I am still a baby language learner…
And it gets even worse. Japanese is in the hardest Category 5, plus it has a “*” next to it. The * means, “it is usually more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.” Japanese is the only starred language in Category 5.
In other words, according to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is the hardest language of any language to learn as a native English speaker. It is beyond all the existing categories.
(Credit: Atlas and Boots.)
Reality Check – Jessy, you aren’t that good at Japanese.
My peak of discouragement over the difficulty of Japanese came just after I graduated from college. I had completed my double major in Japanese and Biology, and was living in Kyoto on a Fulbright grant. I was feeling pretty confident about myself and my language ability.
Then I took the Kyoto University language placement exam.
When I walked into the exam, the previous group of students was finishing their exam and packing up. They looked… stressed. One guy turned to me and said, “Good luck. That exam kicked my butt.”
I flipped open the test booklet, thinking, “How hard can it be?” And at first it was easy. Each section – reading, grammar, vocabulary, writing – started out with simple exercises but the questions quickly increased in difficulty. By less than a couple pages through each section, I was struggling to even make sense of the question, let alone produce any kind of answer.
Feels like it would have been easier to conquer this castle than pass that exam.
I gave up and aimlessly flipped through my booklet until the exam ended. The other student wasn’t kidding. The exam was crazy hard.
A week later I got back my results. I was placed into the level just above absolute beginner. My textbook was called, “Japanese: The second step.”
FOUR YEARS and all I had achieved was the first step??
I bought an enormous chocolate bar, went home, ate it, and binged on movies. That smackdown put me in my place and made me realize that if I was going to learn Japanese, I had to commit for the long haul.
I want to say that there are definitely other opinions, including people who think that Japanese has earned a reputation for being harder than it really is.
Here are a few good reads on why Japanese might not be so hard after all!
– The thorough and insightful “Is Japanese hard? Why Japanese is easier than you think” by John Fotheringham on “Fluentin3months.”
– A thoughtful post titled “The Difficulty of Japanese” by Steve Dodson on “languagehat” with commentary and excerpts and commentary from an article by Roger Pulvers that originally appeared in the Japan Times.
– Andy Coffaro’s reflections on the “5 Myths About Learning Japanese” on the blog “thelanguagewrangler.”
#2 Learning Japanese will never end.
Japanese is hard (see reason #1), which means the learning process never ends. But actually, I think that all languages are like that. Even as a native English speaker, I am constantly learning new words, improving my grammar, and correcting my mispronunciations.
(Credit to Malachi Rempen, the genius comic artist behind ItchyFeet.)
In the past few years, I have learned that in English:
- “ancient” is pronounced “ein-shint” not “eink-shint.”
- “further” and “farther” don’t mean the same thing. “Farther” refers to physical distance, while “further” refers to metaphorical distance.
- “winnow” is pronounced “wee-know” not “wih-know.”
I still make lots of mistakes in English. I leave dangling participles lying around. I end sentences with prepositions. I still use a dictionary when reading. And I have been learning and living with English for decades!
So I guess it is no surprise that learning Japanese is going to be a long process too. Not even long, probably never ending.
#3 Japanese is not that useful.
It deeply pains me to say this (because I love learning and speaking Japanese) but in my experience, Japanese is not that useful.
I majored in Japanese, and in terms of building my career, Japanese has not contributed much. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Japan was becoming a powerhouse abroad, learning Japanese was great for business. Now most companies don’t care if you speak Japanese. In the ranking of useful foreign languages for business, Japanese has been overtaken by Chinese, French, and Arabic, and it now ranks about seventh.
The few companies I have met that were looking for Japanese speakers were mostly Japanese companies who wanted a native Japanese speaker. For American companies, speaking Japanese has sometimes given me a “cool” factor bump. Someone told me in an interview that the fact that I spoke Japanese was “pretty badass.” Even then, it felt more like my Japanese ability was a shiny accessory, rather than an actual useful skill.
Of course, career advancement is not the only measure of usefulness. Also, in terms of using the language in everyday settings, there are fewer opportunities in the US because the population of Japanese is smaller than many other Asian groups. Even when traveling in Japan, you don’t necessarily need Japanese. I have known lots of people who traveled and lived in Japan with very little (to no) Japanese ability!
You can enjoy Japan’s beautiful spots and yummy food without speaking any Japanese!
I wouldn’t discourage anyone from majoring in Japanese! (Although some Japan bloggers might…)
By being creative, I have found interesting opportunities to utilize my Japanese. I frequently travel to Japan. I am studying for the “vegetable sommelier” exam in Japan. I work for a Japanese company, where most people in the office speak Japanese, and I partner with another Japanese company.
So in my experience, it is definitely not impossible to use your Japanese, but it requires some effort.
#4 Learning Japanese has caused some annoying questions
(I left this reason for last because it is kind of personal to me.)
Learning Japanese has created a lot of confusion over my background.
I am half-Japanese but very very very far removed from Japan. My mom was born in the United States. My grandparents were born in the United States. My great-grandparents immigrated when they were young adults, and did not return to Japan. My mom does not speak Japanese. My grandparents do not speak Japanese. My mom had never even visited Japan until she came to see me during my year in Kyoto.
Do I look Asian? Some people seem to think so… Some don’t.
Growing up, I did not think of myself as Japanese. In fact, I did not even recognize myself as “mixed.” I spent part of my childhood on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. Other kids were mixed race. I saw “hapa” kids when my family visited Hawaii. I never felt isolated or singled out. Sometimes we joked about my siblings and me having “hybrid vigor” but that’s about it.
The atoll where I spent part of my childhood.
Before studying Japanese, I never thought much about being mixed race, or Japanese. It was not a big part of my identity. Now I feel like the topic comes up all the time (sometimes accompanied by questions that I would rather not answer).
– Oh, you must speak Japanese because you learned it at home, right?
No. I learned in college.
– Are you visiting Japan to see your grandparents?
No, my grandparents live in the United States.
– Does your mom cook only Japanese food?
Actually she does not cook it much. But she makes an amazing Indian vindaloo.
– You must be comfortable with your boyfriend (he grew up in Japan) because he shares your motherland culture.
Um… >_< Just nope.
– Oh you don’t like sweets? That’s right, in your culture you don’t really eat desserts.
Pretty sure dessert culture is going strong in the United States.
I received a fantastic poem capturing my predicament. The poem was a gift, written for me on the topic of “a mixed Japanese girl living with a family from the French-speaking part of Canada.”
(Credit: The brilliant poet behind “Lewis Lewis.”)
Before I started learning Japanese, I never got asked a lot of these kinds of questions. I am not sure that avoiding the conversation is necessarily better, but sometimes it does feel like it would have been easier to never start the confusion in the first place.
At the same time, I know that I definitely make assumptions about other people. I hope that getting asked these kinds of questions about myself helps make me more gracious and understanding to others.
Thanks for reading! Have you studied languages aside from your native one? What have been the upsides and downsides for you? Leave any comments and questions below!