A lot of people from foreign countries — including people of Japanese descent — come to Japan without a lick of Japanese. And stay that way. For years. Here’s why. I just made this list up based on personal observations, so it’s not complete or definitive. If you have any ideas, feel free to add or whatever.
1. Bad Company
Foreigners who don’t know Japanese have a rough time meeting Japanese people. So they hang out with other foreigners. Result? They get great practice at everything but Japanese. They form their own communities, visit foreign-centric websites, watch movies from back home. Dude, you can even go to a karaoke bar and only play American or Chinese songs. They essentially do the reverse of all Japanese all the time — “anything but Japanese language and people wherever and whenever possible”. They ghetto-ize themselves, creating a foreign enclave in Japan, an enclave that comforts and accepts them for not knowing the language of the country in which they have chosen to live.
2. Getting By
You can get by in Japan without Japanese. Emphasis on the “get by”, as in “survive”, not “succeed” or “thrive”. You can make it. It’ll suck — you won’t know what most signs mean, you won’t be able to negotiate or search for cheaper housing, you won’t be able to search the Internet for the best deals on electronics, you won’t be able to have meaningful conversations with people. But you’ll muddle through. You can take trains, go shopping, point at pictures in restaurants, and learn basic survival phrases. And anything you really can’t do (like go to government offices), your bilingual Japanese girlfriend can help you with.
Sorry, school. But Japanese language school is about the worst thing that ever happened. Part of this is because a lot of the teachers are either..
4. Condescending Japanese People
A lot of Japanese people, I’m told, are basically taught nihonjinron (日本人論) in middle school (I don’t know whether this is true or not). And what that basically says is that Japan and Japanese are unlike anything else in the world, no foreigner could ever “get it”, and even you Japanese kids will barely get it without years of formal education. Anyway, where the belief comes from is irrelevant, the point is that people go into adulthood believing this. If you don’t know Japanese but have Japanese friends, coworkers or teachers, then a lot of these people may not believe that you can learn Japanese to a meaningful level.
Thanks to the suckiness of school, a lot of Japanese people have “learn” English — that is, if habitually spelling and saying “sorry” as “solly” can be constituted as learning English: they “failed” at learning English; they expect you to fail at learning Japanese. That’s a poisonous attitude to be exposed to. Having said that, there are many Japanese people who will encourage you and give you the benefit of the doubt, so you still have the responsibility to overcome this.
5. Well-Meaning, Do-Gooder Native Speakers
Now, you’d think that I’d be all for native speakers. And I am. But there’s a proviso — I focus on what native speakers do, and what native speakers say, but not on what native speakers say to do. Native speakers have no freaking clue…how they did it. They don’t remember being babies because they were babies. You and I get to be babies as adults, so it’s different. Anyway, so, these native speakers perhaps try to figure out how they did it, and they figure it must have been due to school, since, after all, they spent all this time there, right? Wrong. For one thing, they knew Japanese before they went to school — all “normal” toddlers can talk quite fluently. OK, but what about reading and writing? You can’t deny the effect of school on literacy, can you, Khatzumoto? I can. Two points. First, lots of Americans go to school, and look at what that did for their literacy, even with an allegedly “easier” writing system. Second, and more importantly, the way most Japanese kids learn to read is the very embodiment of inefficiency.
Apparently, after WW2, the day they were going to decide the new kanji policy, they locked all the smart people out of the Monbukagakusho/文部科學省 (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology=MEXT) building, and by coincidence the village idiot was left locked inside the ministry building — and so he wrote the kanji policy — and when the smart people finally got the spare keys for the building, they didn’t have time to change the policy because the US military occupation government had set a firm deadline, so they just handed in the document that was there (the one the village idiot wrote), with the result that kids in 5th grade (in Japanese public schools) learn “幹”, “版”, “導”, “刊” and “容” BUT HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 6TH GRADE to learn “干”, “片”, “寸” and “穴”.
Now, the initiated will have realized that kids in Japanese government schools are routinely learning structural-composite kanji before learning their structural components; like building a skyscraper and then building its foundations, or eating a banana and then attempting to peel it, or attempting to run a program before turning your computer on. It’s as if the village idiot wrote the school policy — oh, wait, he did! The village idiot was like “hmm…what is the most illogical, inconsistent, ridiculous way I can do this so that it makes kanji seem difficult?”; he was one malicious motherlover of a village idiot.
Fortunately, the Japanese kids who were and are victims of this policy were just that — kids. And as we all know, kids know how to be resilient even when presented with bad logic; they’re persistent like that. And so, the Japanese school system takes it’s sweet-as-poundcake time teaching 1-2 years’ worth of kanji in 10-12 years; all because of one village idiot. The system stays alive because most kids do make it through — they may not understand how the kanji system actually works, but they can read and write and function. Hey, it’s good enough for government work, right? Besides, neither the kids nor the teachers have anything better to do than, oh, take the longest, hardest, most confusing possible road to literacy, do they?
Now, take this idea and try it on an adult. Try to teach an adult an illogical method of reading a logical writing system; try to teach her to peel a banana, throw away the fruit and eat the peel. It will only work if you can get her to keep doing it for 10-12 years, which you won’t — the adult will break.
There is a big bright side: many Japanese people realize the way kanji-learning is being handled by state schools is bunk — I’ve seen private schools on TV that politely ignore the village idiot list. Smart people in the government are working even as we speak, trying to fix the village idiot’s mistakes in various ways. Plus, there’s the Heisig Method.
Anyway, where was I — yeah, so if a native speaker tries to help you with the method of learning Japanese, she’ll probably try to school you. This is NG. Do what she does — watch Japanese shows, spend time with Japanese people, read Japanese books, eat Japanese food. Talk like she does, or her brother does or mother does or her father does, as appropriate for age and gender. But, generally, do not do what she tells you to do; she knows what she’s saying, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
6. Well It’s Too Late Now Syndrome
So, let’s say you’re foreign. And you’ve been here 5, 10, 15 years. And you still only know survival Japanese. But you weren’t lazy, right? You tried. You bought all the books and tapes and hired a tutor and went to Japanese school and wrote out kanji. But it didn’t work, you think it’s too late now and it’s just “too hard”. A lot of people think that. They’re wrong, but they think that. Forget about the past, think about now — it’s always the right time to start.
7. Discouragement + Lack of Persistence
Good old negative thinking. Seeing what you can’t do instead of what you can do. People make fun of you, you feel bad, you give up. You three-day-monk it, your water doesn’t boil, you give up. Stop stopping and stop giving up — the hard parts, the days when you don’t feel like doing it, when you want to stop this Japanese act and just go back to being “you”, those are the days when you need to practice even more. You can learn to overcome those days — just see them as part of the legend “I wanted to give up, but by Jordan I kept going!”.
8. Bad Learning Methods…Lots of Bad Learning Methods
Money and resources will not do the work for you (unless you plan to make a neural implant a-la-Matrix, in which case, call me, because I’d be first in line to get a USB port in the back of my head…actually, not first, but as soon as they had a stable version) where was I? Oh, yeah — buying books and materials may feel good, and may give you the impression that you’re “putting your money where your mouth is”, but if you don’t also USE the books, then all you’ve done is spend money.
9. English-language Internet fora about Japanese
This affects people whether or not they’re in Japan. You see, folks, it’s a big Internet out there. And there are lots of cool fora, where you can argue your head off. A lot of people studying Japanese spend a lot of time in these fora, day in day out, petty feud to petty feud, pet theory against pet theory. Talking ABOUT Japanese but not doing it…as if their theories would somehow lead to a solution. These people have confused being obsessed with Japanese with obsessively doing Japanese. The latter gets you good, the former just gets you into heated arguments.
You’re not going to see a forum on this site until we can work out a way to make it truly useful, not just a flamewar arena.
10. Low-A$$ Expectations
“A little bit a day”. “10 minutes a day”. “One or two hours a day”. Forget it. That won’t get you anywhere. You’re trying to learn a language here, not…pick sock lint from between your toes. Don’t get me wrong — I urge, I DEMAND that people have fun and only fun doing Japanese. But, one does actually need to do it. Don’t fear Japanese, don’t be intimidated by it. But respect it enough to give it ample time on a daily basis.
Remember, friends: Japanese is a human language — a learned behavior. It is not carried by blood, it is carried by environment, behavior and lifestyle. Millions of people of Japanese descent — Japanese-Latin-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Japanese returnees abandoned as children in China after WW2 — have zero Japanese skills or awkward, heavily-accented Japanese. Conversely, millions of non-Japanese people have native-level written and spoken Japanese. Zainichis, foreigners on TV, and cetera. There is no magic to it. Change your environment, behavior and lifestyle, and you will change with them.