Going to an International School for ten years as a kid was an incredible experience. I met people from all over the world and had an eclectic group of friends. One day in high school, my best friends got together and I looked around the room at the eight of us, not one of us was from the same country as the other. Pretty amazing.
At International Schools kids have to learn a foreign language, so in third grade I was put in basic Spanish. Two years later, my teacher bumped me up into the advanced class. It was no cakewalk. I really struggled. In the end, I studied Spanish for a total of 10 long years and somehow, I managed to pass the IB Spanish test.
Most of my friends in school spoke two or three languages by the time they graduated. Not me. I only spoke English. I must admit I was jealous of their ability to learn languages. However, as my mother and father couldn’t speak any other languages, I figured languages just weren’t in my blood.
I headed off to college in California, thinking I’d live there for the rest of my life. Fate had other things in store for me though. I taught English as a part-time job at my college and as it happened, many of my students were Japanese. Talking to them made me curious to see what Japan was really like.
I came to Japan on a study abroad program in my second year at college. I took about a semester worth of college Japanese before arriving, but that still didn’t make the first month easy.
Japanese was even harder than Spanish. The grammar structure was completely different and the writing system complicated. However, unlike Spanish, there was one big difference – this time I wanted to learn the language.
Three months in, thanks in part to my homestay mother, something clicked. I realized that I could simply break long sentences up into small pieces and then reconstruct them. It was a game changer.
I wasn’t great, but I could make myself understood and communicate with people. My parents actually came to visit me at the time and my father’s jaw dropped when he saw me asking people for help in Japanese. To this day, he said it was the biggest shock of his life.
THE FIVE SECRETS
Fast forward to today and I’ve been in Japan for more than half my life. I can chat with Japanese people about every day topics, I can read an article on Yahoo, and have even read a book.
I’ve come a long way from the 19-year-old kid who stepped off the airplane back in 1994. I’ve studied a lot. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot from my own experiences and that of my students. So why is it some people succeed at learning languages, and others fail? There are five main secrets to learning any language.
– The compound effect
It’s no secret, the more you study anything, the faster you learn. This is especially true with languages. At first, learning is slow. You’ll learn a few basic things, but it won’t feel like you’re making progress. But if you keep studying, eventually, the compound effect will kick in and you’ll start making huge strides.
– Welcome the differences
English and Japanese are completely different. Their writing system is nothing alike. The grammar is reversed. English is about being detailed, while Japanese is about being nuanced. But here’s the thing, they’re both great in their own way. Instead of being frustrated by the differences, be fascinated.
– Find a good teacher
A good teacher is worth their weight in gold. For me, it was Shinagawa Sensei. She was very popular with the students, and for good reason. Her classes were fun, and she was able to explain things in a way that nearly everyone understood.
– Be like a kid
Kids are masters of learning. They have no fear. They drive their parents mad sometimes asking the same question over and over again. But that’s how they learn. At the age of two, most kids can’t say much, by the age of five, they have the basic grammar needed to understand their languages. Kids learn through doing. They do, make a mistake, then redo. That’s what any student must do, no matter what age they are.
– Anyone can do it
I studied Spanish for 10 years and never got it. I studied Japanese for three years and had reached the highest-level course in my college. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can.