Being Told by a Native why you can’t Become Fluent in Japanese

You can’t do it. You can’t become fluent in Japanese.

Said by no one ever, right? Keep dreaming. While most people you meet will be nice and supportive, or at least neutral, you will run into one specific person, who will eagerly tell you something like the following:

“Learning Japanese as an adult is not possible, especially as a Gaijin (foreigner). Save your time and money. If you were Japanese, it would be different. But you can’t learn it for reasons you won’t be able to understand.”

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No way. Really?

This is the third time over the years I’ve received an e-mail from a Japanese learner telling me about their experience with this. I also experienced this myself. Since it’s so crushing, I thought I would weigh in on this inevitable scenario you will face.

When you hear this from a native Japanese speaker, a few emotions will arise.

● Anger
● Frustration
● Self-doubt
● Massive decrease in motivation

This is a major hit and you don’t see it coming. You thought being told 日本語は上手ですね was annoying? That’s nothing compared to this. When I first heard this, I was angry. Who the hell are you to judge whether I can learn the language or not? Who are you to judge that only Japanese people can speak Japanese? Who are you to judge that I’m too old?

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First, it’s important to remember that their are jerks in every form and walk of life. It’s not a Japanese thing. It’s a people thing. The good news? Most people are not jerks. But when you get an encounter like this, it stands out in your memory.

It’s good to calmly know why you’ll face this, and why it is something you should never spend more than a millisecond of thought on.

1. Racism

Yes, it happens.

2. Semi-racism

It’s not that your race can’t do it, it’s that the Japanese language is special, and you aren’t special.

3. Nasty

If you want to be nasty to someone, target something they work really hard on and put all their effort into. This gets someone where it hurts.

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4. Bitter English learner

All Japanese learn English in junior high school and high school. Many people take this on further by continuing study through university, through Eikaiwa, or on their own.

A bitter English learner may have had a terrible experience studying English, making him bitter towards language learning. Or even worse, this person may have received similar nasty words about his own language studying. “You’ll never learn English. Your English sounds terrible.”

When you have such negativity inflicted upon yourself, it is easy to then reflect that on others.

5. Small sample size

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This final type is the most troubling. In Japan, there is a large population of foreigners who don’t speak Japanese well or at all. Many members of this group comes from the tourists going to Japan barely able to say anything (which is expected, since Japanese is not a common language studied in schools abroad). Then you have the English teachers who are just in Japan for an adventure, and you have the people who are stubborn, lazy, and get by living in Japan just on English.

This means that a Japanese person who solely interacts with this group of foreigners has the wrong impression of foreigners able to master Japanese.

The problem is that this is a biased sample group. Talk to any foreigners who live normal lives in Japan working at Japanese companies and businesses, and you will see a completely different picture.

Move on

Get ready for the punch, but as soon as you can, forget it. If you are lucky, maybe you will never have this encounter. But if you do, just remember what’s really going on behind this.

Have you ever been told “you can’t learn Japanese” by a native Japanese speaker?



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

Being Told by a Native why you can’t Become Fluent in Japanese — 20 Comments

  1. You can’t learn language X… unless you really dedicate yourself to it.

    Learning languages is a lot harder than most people think, which is why so many people fail do to so. This site is all about beating those odds. The readers of this site can attest to the fact that it is definitely possible to learn Japanese to almost any desired level and at any age – IF you are willing to put the required time and effort into it (and that’s a lot).

    So in short: They are right that it is hard, but they are totally wrong about it being impossible.

  2. I’ve been told that too. I think part of it is that there is this idea perpetuated in the media in Japan that everything about Japan is special and nobody from outside could possibly understand it, which definitely extends to the language too (not that I’m saying this doesn’t exist in other countries, because it definitely does.) Japanese is also comparatively difficult to learn for most westerners and people know that. You just need to ignore people who say it because they are definitely wrong.

    One thing that I’ve had from native Japanese speakers is them telling me that I don’t need to/shouldn’t learn something, because it’s not used often enough (とんぼがえり) or is inappropriate (もらいゲロ、殺す), which was slightly infuriating too!

    • What’s wrong with とんぼ返り?!

      Yeah being told what you don’t need to know is also fairly annoying.

      • I think it was that it’s not common enough to bother with… I sort of understand telling a beginner that, but I was definitely not a beginner at the time! I haven’t got any comments like that for a few years though, in fact some of my Japanese friends delight in trying to use complicated Japanese they don’t think I’ll know when they talk to me, hehe.

  3. I think another reason behind the statement is that people misunderstand what fluency is. People seem to think that fluency is the same as native level speaking ability, but there’s a pretty huge gap between the two. And even with native level speaking ability, people seem to think that having a completely understandable accent means that you can’t be native-level for some reason. There are definitely language learners who have an accent, but have a better vocabulary and better grasp of grammar than native speakers.

    • I think though that these type of people, even if you did have perfect Japnese with an amazing accent, would always find something to say is wrong.

      But agreed, accent doesn’t determine everything.

  4. It’s interesting because learning Japanese has been far easier and far harder than I thought it would be. Easy because anyone is capable, but hard because of all the effort and dedication it takes.

    What I wish people could know is that despite it being one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, it is also the most rewarding.

    • I think it comes down to that even though it is hard, if it is something you love doing, the rewards outweight the challenges.

  5. I haven’t had a you-can-never-learn-Japanese comment but I’ve had an even more out of left field type of comment.

    “You can’t like Japan.”

    … huh?

    This was one the most puzzling conversations I’ve ever had here in Japan. The guy just not would accept the fact that I chose to live in Japan because I wanted to. But this guy was just a macho Japanese man who hated everything about me. Scientist, woman, speaks four languages, plays sports: I’m everything he wouldn’t want in a woman as it showed how superior I was to him. A real sexist pig.

    I argued with him for a while (in probably the most fluent Japanese I’ve ever spoken) and then dismissed him.

    Some people are just jerks to be jerks and others just can’t accept people who voluntarily decide to keep learning even after graduating from school. They are at fault, not you. Keep with the Japanese!

    • What a weird and irritating thing he said. I wonder if it was he didn’t like his own country, or that his country was too deep for you to understand.

      • I’ve run into these types although not someone quite as aggressive about it. I think they are just dissatisfied with how their life turned out and they can’t understand why you would pick this country, a country that has been terrible for them and one they can’t escape from, over your own country which they assume cannot possibly be as bad as Japan.

        One of the traps of becoming really fluent and being able to converse with a wide range of people is that you are going to run into the kind of people who are very far outside of the image that Japan tries to project.

        One of the most surreal experiences, and certainly of those the only one safe to post here, is when some guy chatted me up wanting to run a scam. (It was the one about buying Apple gift cards at the conbini because of some emergency.) He did his entire spiel for me just like he would for anyone else and probably the most amusing thing about it was that he was the first person to chat me up but not the last.

        In fact now that I think about it the people who consider themselves of lower than average intelligence seem to have an easier time understanding that anyone can learn Japanese. I guess they don’t consider it something insurmountable.

  6. I haven´t had that experience. But instead, I got some discouraging words from my japanese boss at a restaurant. When I applied I put on my CV that I passed N2 exam and in the interview I said that I´m not fluent, especially at speaking. Sometimes I didn´t get all what my boss said, but other times I understood completely.

    But when I misheard something or asked him to repeat again, he always got angry and used to tell me “Your japanese is terrible” or “Have you been studying japanese? Really?” I felt discouraged and got somehow angry with all japanese people, but then I realised that it was just a bad experience and there´s no need to blame every japanese persona on earth.

    I´m still studying everyday and trying really hard to improve. I don´t want people to admire me but I neither want people to despise me

    • A comment like that from a boss would be discouraging. But just use it as fuel, not as something to slow you down.

    • There is a bit of social education that encourages this kind of condescending behavior from bosses. It’s not very welcomed by the current generation and they tend to post about the worst companies online so hopefully this will slowly go away, but its likely that he just felt he needed to belittle you occasionally so you would work harder.

      Also, the whole “your Japanese sucks” is a really easy and overused insult. If you piss off drunk Japanese guys you’ll hear it, if you go through a bad break-up you’ll hear it, and pretty much anytime someone can’t think of any better insult for you they’ll use it. Since it always comes from a place of inferiority its best to just ignore it.

  7. I don’t think language learning is that much different from many other skills. Try to compare fluency in a language with becoming a black belt in karate or some other martial art? I don’t think the effort is much different. Somehow learning a language is just not comparable to something like that for most people.

    • Agreed. It’s a skill you must refine just like anything else. But unfortunately people consider it something different.

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