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