Fear, The Language Killer


I stood in front of my almost graduated third year students today and let them in on a secret: I too once felt like language learning was impossible.

¿Dónde Está La Biblioteca?

I started learning foreign languages in 7th grade (the equivalent of Japan’s 1st year junior high school). At our middle school, every student was to take half the year in French and half the year in Spanish. In 8th grade we’d have to decide on one or the other. I choose Spanish because my friends were all taking it even though I’d enjoyed my half of the year in French more.

Spoilers: I didn’t end up really learning either. Without French class, there was no incentive to keep learning it, and Spanish didn’t interest me in the least. I’d learned enough phrases to squeak out decent grades. I took my last Spanish class in junior year of high school. Four and a half years of Spanish and all I have to show for it is being able to say “my name is Jōchō” and sing Me Voy. Good song, in any case.

At that time, I didn’t openly fear Spanish. If anything it was a joke. We learned within our comfort zone. I didn’t take any high level classes. There was no reason to delve deeper. But if I had delved, I think I would have come back shaking.

The environment of a language class is typically quite sterile. With grammar explained in our native English and examples coming in slowed speeds from our teacher and Muzzy, it was a safe place to learn. Safe, but without challenge or impact. Failure meant a slightly lower grade. Success meant a slightly higher grade. I’d never mentally connected Spanish to the world outside of those safe walls.

Temporary Success

In the world of Spanish, nothing had interested me much at the time. Japanese was the world I’d wanted to join. From my time in middle school, I’d been a fan of Japanese animation. Moreover, with a Japanese aunt and video games unreleased in America, I had some additional incentives to dive in. Going to college, I’d vowed to make sure my university-of-choice offered Japanese courses. After a first semester of courses semi-out-of-my-control, I got into Japanese.

The pace was faster, the stakes were higher, the teachers were better, and—the secret to success in any field—I wanted to become better at the language for personal reasons. A year and a half later, I went to Japan for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed my experience. Surrounded by a group of foreigners, yet with enough Japanese to fumble through daily life, I felt on top of the world. Japanese was both fun and easy. After that forty-one day trip, I’d vowed to go down the road of Japanese self-study.

I was ready.

Fear and Understanding in Las China

Or, so I’d thought. As I truly immersed myself in Japanese, I started to see it differently. Small victories, like understanding occasional sentences in anime, couldn’t do enough to stop the tide. I saw now the great beast that was Japanese baring its teeth before me. I was growing to fear Japanese. “My strength is reading,” I’d say. “Don’t make me speak it!” I’d shout in my head. “Two years of learning, and for what?” I wondered. “Now I can tutor it? Great,” I thought sarcastically.

Ironically, at this time, I began tutoring Japanese and teaching it for free to students. Some of those early appointments didn’t work out well. I wondered if my fear for the language showed through.

Thankfully, Japanese remained in my life. Friends I’d met through Japanese became major parts of my life, to the point that I couldn’t discount them. That said, my peers and tutees would compliment my Japanese, which often made me question myself. “Was I a lair?” I kept up something of a façade. “Two years, and I can speak Japanese!” I lied. Websites scared me. Anime scared me. After all this time, the vast majority of it didn’t make much sense.

Going to China changed all that. I’d gone there for an English teaching job speaking very little Mandarin. “My name is Jōchō. I’m from America.” It was the change of pace I needed. With Chinese kanji having only one or two pronunciations compared to Japanese’s numerous variations, I got into a habit of reading kanji I could read even when I didn’t understand the meaning or the other kanji in the sentence.

It taught me an important lesson: I didn’t need to understand it all.

Every bit I did understand helped. If something was too far above me though, I’d discount it. If I understood all but one word, or if I felt really invested in a sentence, I’d look it up. If it was too much, I’d move on.

A huge help came in the form of video games. My friend brought a Wii with Japanese games on it to play, including Xenoblade and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I bought a bootleg copy of The Last Story too. At that time, with the exception of Zelda, none of those games had been available in America. All three were pretty straightforward, and for once I could see my Japanese in action. That time hadn’t been a waste.

I continued self-study upon my return, but instead of a small trickle, it became a river. I’d consume as much Japanese as I could. Who cares if I didn’t understand? Once in a while I’d crack open my notebook when a meaning eluded me, but I would bypass it just as often. I was on the track to fluency.

My Graduating Third Years

For the past three or four months, the third years at my school have been studying. English class moved from being speaking-based to test-taking-based. It’s easy to see the effects of the past few months:

  • The students are better test-takers.
  • The students are worse English speakers.
  • The students fear English.

If they don’t understand something on the test, the teacher looks at them incredulously for a few seconds before giving the answer and then suggesting they commit the grammar to memory. The higher level students will keep going with their textbooks. The lower level students will keep failing with their textbooks. Even if they all pass the exams, few of them will succeed in becoming English speakers. As it is, none of them revel in the language.

When they see a video of English, they think instantly of translating every word in it. The first thought is not to enjoy it. They don’t want to read or listen: to do so requires putting all your effort into understanding it.

What I wish I could do was give them a video game that they could only play in English. A good one too, not just what I’m making for them. Have something they can enjoy to give them a reason to learn English.

I gave them a truncated version of my story today. I hope even one student understands the point: Enjoy the language! Don’t worry about the meaning. Exposure is more important than instant understanding. Besides, exposure naturally begets understanding. Fear turns people away.

There’s not much time left. In a week they’ll graduate. I hope they’ll see the light.

Oh, and that giant teeth-baring Japanese language monster from earlier? Turns out it was just a large puppy that wanted to play.

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