Some people, no — a lot of people — have asked me, “18 months? WOW! But that’s a miracle! Isn’t that a bit short? Are you BSing us? You must be really smart”.
Well, let me tell you three secrets. First, I am not BSing you. Second, I am not preternaturally intelligent. I’m just normal, at best. Probably worse ;). The third secret is the most important. It’s the answer to the question: “Why did I achieve fluency in Japanese in such a short time?”.
Because I didn’t stop. I didn’t take a break from it. There was no time off; there was no holiday; there was no hiatus. From June 2004 up until the day I first had a job interview in Japanese (September 3, 2005), and up to the present day, there has not been a single day in my life when Japanese was not THE dominant activity or linguistic force in my life. I have not gone a day without hearing a native speaker of Japanese explain, argue or sing something to me. I have not gone a day without reading some amount of Japanese text. I have tried not to go a day without writing out some Japanese just for the practice.
For all of that crucial learning time, I wasn’t in Japan; I had never been to Japan; I was at a university in the United States, walking around campus in my purple sweatpants. But that was no excuse — so even though I was taking college classes in English, I took my notes on them in Japanese. Wherever possible, I bought Japanese editions of my computer science textbooks. If I were in a religion with a compulsory day of rest, I would have gotten Japanese translations of those religious texts. Total immersion. Overwhelming force. You know what I mean; we’ve been down this road before.
Stop stopping. Stopping is the worst thing. Stopping breaks your momentum. Stopping is the start of decay and regression. When you choose to stop, you set yourself the task not only of getting back up to the same speed as before but also to the same altitude — the same level of Japanese. Taking a break from Japanese will hurt your Japanese. A lot. Each time you stop, you lengthen the road to fluency. When you stop, you quite literally become like Sisyphus: forever pushing the rock of your Japanese ability up the hill, only to have it roll down each time you pause. And just like Sisyphus, you have to retread the same ground to get back up where you were. Always restoring, never progressing; it’s a huge freaking waste of time.
Sure, Japanese is quite different from English. Sure, it’s unique. Sure, it uses more unique symbols than English in writing. But none of that is the problem; none of that is holding you back. After all, millions of very normal human beings have become very good Japanese speakers. The problem lies with the act of and tendency toward, stopping.
I love singing my own praises. And I love casting stones, people, but unfortunately I am not without sin. I’ve been “studying” Chinese since late 1998 or so, but I’ve stopped more times and for longer periods than I care to freely admit in a public forum such as this. From 1999-2001, I didn’t do any Chinese at all (I would sit around feeling guilty about not doing it, but that doesn’t count). From 2001-2004, I took some Chinese classes off and on, but was distracted by my desperate search for tools and methods that would allow long-term memorization of large numbers of Chinese characters (thanks to Piotr Wozniak, Rick Harbaugh, Mary Noguchi, Chris Houser and James Heisig, that problem is now solved). And then since 2004, Chinese has been taking a big back seat to Japanese.
Does that mean it takes “years” or “a lifetime” to study Chinese? No, it means if you keep turning the oven off, the goose will never cook; it’ll barely even thaw. So turn the oven on, and keep it on, friends.
Now, if you have stopped, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world — just leave stopping behind you for good! No more binge-studying for you! I’m not one of those starry-eyed Japanophiles who’s always like “you know, the Japanese have a word for that”. But, you know what? The Japanese do have a word for that! It’s called being a 三日坊主(みっ・か・ぼう・ず） — a “three-day monk”: being intensely hardcore, committed and righteous in a cause, only to fall back into old patterns after a relatively short time.
You are not a 三日坊主. You are not a three-day monk.. No Japanese learning monsoons followed by Japanese droughts for you. You study (play) Japanese every day. You have a minimum fixed number of new kanji or sentences that you learn on a daily basis. You have a minimum fixed number of old kanji or sentences that you review on a daily basis. Maybe it’s 50 new and 100 reviews. Maybe 30 new and 100 reviews. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make daily, quantifiable progress. And of course, when you’re not actively playing (studying) Japanese, you have your environment backing you up.
Always remember, this is a race of tortoises and hares. It’s not intelligence or “talent”, but CONSISTENCY that will win the day for you.
OK, end of lecture :). I’m going to go take some of my own advice…