Three Reasons People don’t Make Japanese their Default Language

We have talked on this site about making Japanese one’s default language. Learning to think in Japanese, which is closely bound up with actually using Japanese rather than just practising it.

Most learners don’t do this. Let’s look at why:

1. They don’t want to. In my view this is the best reason not to. In fact, it is the only good reason not to.

I “know some French”, as people (wrongly in my view) say. But it is not my default language or one of my default languages. Why? Because I am not in love with French. To me it is a foreign language. It is not my language. Japanese is my language. English is just the language I happen to know well.

I can read books in French, slowly, if I have to, but I can’t hold much of a conversation. I wouldn’t say I “know French” at all. I only know about French. And that is where I am happy to be with French. If that is where you are happy to be with Japanese, that’s fine. You don’t need the rest of this article.

2. They feel uncomfortable in Japanese and want to return to “real language” as soon as they have stopped practising it. Mostly they don’t say, or even explicitly think this, but actually it is what is happening.

This is the second biggest reason after 1, and I strongly suspect that all the other reasons are largely rationalizations of this.

English (if you are a native English speaker) feels like “real language”. Anything else feels like a sort of game. That is why the internet is full of sites talking about Japanese in English. [Don’t we do this too? Yes, but we are (amazingly) the only one that is also trying to create a place for everyday interaction in Japanese].

There seem to be endless people who are genuinely fascinated by Japanese and sometimes quite advanced in it who still return, as a matter of course, to “real language” (English) in order to talk about their enthusiasm for Japanese.

Now if you already fall into category 1, this is quite natural and proper. I don’t talk about French in French either. But if you are serious about making Japanese your language, if you are serious about learning Japanese and not just learning about Japanese, you must overcome this first and most serious barrier.

This means you have to:

Step outside your English comfort zone and

Create a new comfort zone in Japanese

And, of course, at first the Japanese zone won’t feel comfortable at all. Making it comfortable — making Japanese the (or a) default language that you actually use, and not a foreign language that you “practise” — is largely a matter of changing your perspective and getting used to Japanese as a (or the) primary means of communication.

3. They are afraid of making and/or hearing mistakes.

As I said, I believe this is to a large extent a rationalization of 2. If you fall into category 1, you don’t need excuses. Embrace it, as I do with French. But if you really want to make Japanese your language, you need to be aware of the problems caused by 2. So let’s break 3 down into some of its sub-departments:

A) I am embarrassed about my poor Japanese

This can be a good reason for using it among non-native speakers. We are all learning and happy to learn together. Embarrassment has to do with seeing Japanese as “a language”. One can retreat back into the “safe haven” of English. But if one is establishing zones where Japanese is the only language, then you just have to manage it, mistakes and all.

Small children make mistakes all the time. What do they do? Cheat back into a language they know better? They can’t. They don’t have one. They just have to ganbaru. And if we are serious about this, so do we.

B) But won’t this cement my mistakes and make them permanent?

In one word, no. In five words, only if you let it.

If you are continually imbibing Japanese material, you will keep learning. All of us can look back on what we wrote in Japanese six months ago and squirm a bit at how awkward and unnatural it was. Just the way you might squirm at baby videos of yourself. We are all growing children. And gosh, we can be at that bashful age at times!

But we are growing. And let me add a very important thing:

You do learn by your mistakes. What? Even when no one is correcting them? Absolutely. You can hear a particular speech form a dozen times (in anime, manga, books etc) and still not get it right when you try to use it.

But when you have tried using it, you become aware of the problems surrounding it. Next time you encounter it, you will hear/read it much more clearly and be thinking “Ah, that’s how to say it properly”. In fact, you will be doing just what small children do.

Input alone will not teach you these things. You also need output experience, however flawed, to make you aware of the issues and teach you to listen for the right things. Now, every time you encounter this speech form it will be consolidating your knowledge and comfort with it in a way that would not have happened if you hadn’t tried to output it.

Input and output are inextricably intertwined in real language. One in isolation will not make language become natural. Textbooks and classes know this and try to compensate with book exercises and stilted “conversation practice” that is kept nice and sterile and mistake-free by following the book.

But if you want to make Japanese your language, you have to step outside these artificial arenas and start getting your hands dirty with real use.

Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are part of the learning process.

C) If I am interacting with non-Japanese people in Japanese won’t I be learning unnatural ways of speaking?

This is a small problem but nowhere near as big as the problem of not using your Japanese. If you have plenty of native input (whether people, anime, novels, games, television or what), you will learn. Having Japanese moving around in your head helps you to learn. Even incorrect things help you to learn. Learning loves to have something to “stick to”. That is how the mind works.

Part of the reason people can, and often do, study so much and never really become proficient in a language (even if they can pass exams) is that the language is locked away in the little “study” compartment of the mind rather than being a part of life.

This is far, far more dangerous to your Japanese than learning wrong things. A senpai who has passed JLPT1 and is fluent tells me that her breakthrough came largely because she talked only Japanese with her German roommate. Did she hear a lot of bad Japanese? Certainly. But her mind was working in Japanese a lot of the time.

Mistakes are not some fatal disease. They pass if you give them a chance to. They sound funny to you after a while, as you grow in Japanese.

But guess what? You don’t grow in Japanese unless you are in Japanese to start with.

Japanese is like swimming. You can read about it and take dry-land instruction and play in the shallow end with water wings till the cows come home; but you won’t really start to learn it till you dive right in and get wet.

If you are ready to take the plunge, a nice safe place to start is right here.

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