The Nature of Fluency in Japanese: My Huge Breakthrough
I had a major breakthrough in my Japanese abilities this past weekend. It happened on Christmas Eve.
I went to a bar in downtown Chicago with a rather large group of friends. All but JLPTCafe and I were Japanese. Now, JLPTCafe and I are good buddies, and neither of us is Japanese, so when we spend time together we usually just speak English.
On the other hand, when I see any one or two of these Japanese friends at a time, we tend to speak an odd medley of Japanese and English (I like to call it Japanglish) in which sentences tend to start in Engish, follow English sentence structure, but feature mostly Japanese vocabulary. Also, these sentences almost always end in 「ですよ」. Is this good for my Language skills? Not really, but these people are my friends, not language learning tools, so I’m happy to just spend time with them nonetheless.
This Christmas Eve was different though. There were probably eight Japanese people, and every single one of us (including JLPTCafe and I) speak Japanese, so being outnumbered, the natural ebb and flow of the conversation tended towards Japanese. Obviously, my Japanese friends who speak English as a second language are not going to speak English to each other when there are no English speakers participating in the conversation, right? Well, the entire conversation of the night, with the exception of maybe a few minutes here or there, was spoken in Japanese.
Let me take you back in time for a moment, 2 years approximately. When I met my first primarily non-English-speaking Japanese friend, my spoken Japanese was… not so good. If you asked this friend (let’s call him NK) he would say that my Japanese was amazing. But then again, I’m sure it sounded that way to NK, considering that he had just moved to the US and he didn’t know any Americans who speak Japanese at all. So, my broken Japanese was probably a relief to him. He and I became really good pals, and I spoke Japanese almost exclusively with him. For one year until NK went home to Japan, my skills gradually improved. And then I hit a wall. A big brick wall with graffiti on it that says:
In English: “You shall not become more fluent than this!”
I’ve been staring at this wall for almost two years now. I speak with friends regularly. I watch Japanese TV all the time. I read in Japanese. I study constantly. My academic skills have definitely improved, and I understand much more spoken Japanese, but my ability to speak would not really improve at all.
Until Christmas Eve. I’m not sure what happened, but all of a sudden, the wall was gone. I don’t recall destroying it with brute force, and I don’t recall climbing over it. But somehow, it was gone.
And I stepped into the space beyond.
I spoke quickly, clearly, with correct grammar, and with advanced vocab. I didn’t have to ask anyone to repeat anything. I was even thinking in Japanese. It was almost as if I flushed all the English out of my system.
JLPTCafe asked me a question in English at one point during the night when there were no Japanese people around, and I instinctively and accidentally responded to him in Japanese. My mind was just working in Japanese, like the language gears in my brain were turning counter clockwise for Japanese but would need to be reset to turn clockwise for English.
I had a breakthrough this weekend and I had an epiphany to boot. I think this wall exists for everyone who learns Japanese (and possibly any other language out there too, but this is the only language I know so this is all I can talk about), and I don’t think there is a way to knock it down. I have been hammering away at this wall for two years, and it wouldn’t break, wouldn’t chip, wouldn’t even crack. I’ve tried climbing over it but it’s infinitely tall. You can’t even see the top. Why did it disappear? My best guess is this: time, consistency, and acceptance of an inability to force fluency.
You cannot force yourself to be fluent. I always thought I could, and to a certain extent, that’s what I’ve been doing for five years by studying like I do. But, there is a certain amount of fluency that you cannot control, and that is the element of time. No matter how much time and effort you put in to learning Japanese, you cannot cancel out a lack of experience and exposure. Let’s assume you study five hours a day, like I try to do. That’s nice, but your brain needs to rest to reap the benefits. And when you’re resting, your exposure to Japanese is sinking into the deepest nooks and crannies of your brain, where it can never get out, and where you’ll never lose it because you know it’s there even without looking for it. You can’t rush this rest period. It takes years.
Well, I now understand why they say it takes seven years to become fluent in Japanese. I never believed it before, but now I do.
When will you have your breakthrough? When you’re relaxed and when you have finally accepted the fact that you cannot force fluency. Only when you accept that no matter how much you study you can’t make yourself fluent, will you start to feel fluent. I’m not telling you to stop studying. You have to study. Japanese won’t learn itself, as I always say. What I mean is, just relax. Learn Japanese, but let fluency come at its own pace. It will know when you are ready, and it knows you better than you know it.
Santa gave me a pretty awesome Christmas present this year.
Thank you, the view is breathtaking without that hideous wall.