A Little Competition is Healthy
If you’ve been studying Japanese for a substantial amount of time like I have, or if you take your Japanese experience seriously like I do, then you have probably felt on occasion that the other gaijin around you who speak Japanese exist partly for the purpose of challenging your skills. When I say gaijin, I mean people who speak Japanese as a second language. When I encounter a gaijin for the first time, my thought process is always: “How good is this gaijin? Is he better than me?”
All of a sudden, your efforts at Japanese become about matching or even exceeding this new stranger. Now, conventional wisdom would have you believe that this thought pattern is unhealthy. It’s bad for the soul because it breeds animosity and discontent, and it doesn’t foster friendship. It also seems like a rather insecure and weak minded way to go about interacting with the people you meet. Besides, Japanese is a language, not a competition, right?
Well, not always. It’s good to look for people of greater skill than yours, to measure yourself against those people, to recognize a greater level of accomplishment than you’ve achieved, and then to aim higher as a result. If you don’t do that, you’re missing huge opportunities for improvement.
Let me explain. Japanese is hard. No one denies that. It’s ranked at most colleges as the most difficult language for American English speakers to learn. Naturally, once we’ve come a certain distance in our Japanese abilities (far enough to converse with native Japanese easily) we are going to feel proud. Japanese custom calls for self-humbling in situations like this, but, even though we say “Oh no, I’m not fluent, I’m just trying my best”, deep down we’re thinking: “I want you to recognize my progress in Japanese!” And this is OK. If we don’t allow ourselves pride in our work, why would we ever work hard? We should be proud when we do well, and it should motivate us to do better.
I met a guy this weekend who has a nearly perfect Japanese accent and has studied in Japan. When I heard how good his accent was, I immediately felt competitive. I tried harder to speak correct and fluent Japanese than I have in a while. I strained the muscles in my mouth to create a natural sounding accent. I tried to speak quickly. Basically I pushed myself. Now, I know that real fluency comes when you relax, stop trying and just enjoy yourself while you speak. But sometimes in order to improve you need to focus on things you wouldn’t normally focus on. The sense of competition made me push through certain difficult situations and fight through the exhaustion that comes from hours of such concentration. It was good for me.
I’m not saying that you should always walk around angry and glaring at every other gaijin as if you want to behead them with your perfect Japanese. That’s not nice, you won’t make any friends that way, and it won’t even make you fluent (don’t forget, a certain portion of fluency comes from just enjoying yourself). Besides, a lot of these gaijin make great friends; after all, they’re interested in the same things you are. So don’t take the notion of competition too literally. I just wanted to challenge myself to learn more and get better.
So feel free to compete with and learn from other people in the spirit of friendship. And know that other people will be doing the same thing with you, and you should feel good about it.