The Expanding Forest of Japanese
Learning Japanese is like being thrown into the middle of a forest and being told you have to escape to reach fluency. You trek through the forest learning the lay of the land and mastering the terrain. You start to see how far you have to go to reach the exit.
As your knowledge of the forest grows, you start to feel pretty good. You gain confidence. You want to help other people that were thrown into this forest after you and show them the way. Maybe you even get a little cocky; you could be king of this forest.
Then one day you make a big revelation. What you thought was the entire forest was only part of a larger forest. The scale of this forest was completely different than what you originally thought. You had spent several months trying to find your way out. You now see that you have a lot further to go before you truly reach the end.
You spend several more months to a year searching for the new exit in this expanded forest. When you finally make it there, ready to throw your fists in the air in victory, your face goes pale. The expanded forest was actually just part of an even larger forest, yet again. It can sometimes feel like one of those movies where the ending completely shocks the hero. Everything he had done to accomplish some grand mission to save the world was actually just a tiny part of what he actually needed to do.
The above image is your tunnel vision at your current level. The below image is the reality:
You don’t know this though. You can’t see the whole map from the inside of the forest.
This tricks people into thinking Japanese is easier than it actually is. Someone who is studying Japanese for 3 months can proclaim that it’s not so bad at all. They can see the end in sight. Of course. Their small portion of the forest isn’t that intimidating.
This forest produces one of two outcomes for you:
- You get stuck in one of these forest circles, and assume it is the last one.
- You always remember that your present location is just inside one circle, and you don’t know how many circles are left ahead of you. You’re only option is to keep moving forward.
This is what separates the “know-it-all” from the “learn-it-all.” Are you going to keep learning, and keep expanding outward? Or are you going to stop and assume that you’ve reached the edge of the forest?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I’m a native English speaker and I’m not even out of the English forest yet. In fact, the more I study foreign languages, the worse my English gets.
Heee….I was thinking the same thing about English! 英語が難しいな!
I think, though, that this is really true. Language allows for unlimited ways of expressing oneself. I do not think that there is really a point in which one completely masters even one’s native language. I still learn new things in English, and I still come across words I do not know. I still make silly mistakes when writing and speaking. I can not imagine that Japanese would be any different.
It’s not that your english gets worse, it’s that you learn of all the new concepts that you have no idea how to say in english or sometimes that just cant possibly be said. And so it feels like your english got worse but really it’s just that youre noticing the areas that were already lacking.
That’s very true. There’s definitely a lot of words and concepts that can’t be translated so you’re stuck feeling that you’re lacking something somewhere. I do believe your English does get worse if you live in another country and only speak the native language and don’t practice English.
The main thing is, sometimes I text a friend in English and make spelling and grammar mistakes because I’m typing fast and not caring. Most of the time I don’t even correct the mistakes and I’m still understood. I think as language learners we put too much emphasis on being 100% perfect which is stupid as our own native language is nowhere near 100% perfect. I’m not saying you don’t need to work on grammar, etc, but you don’t need to be ultra hard on yourself either.
“I do believe your English does get worse if you live in another country and only speak the native language and don’t practice English.”
I strongly agree with this comment. I used to have people comment on it all the time, and now they are used to it. Last time I visited home and had to speak a lot of English for an extended period of time, my nephew told me at the end, “Wow, your English is really improving quickly” I didn’t quite know how to respond to that..
This is interesting. My grandmother came to this country from Sweden, and she learned English through forced immersion. My grandfather would not let her speak Swedish in the house, in part, because he wanted the children to learn English. This was in the 50’s, when it was believed that if children kept their native language and heard their native language at home, they would not learn English well. As a result, my oldest uncle and my mother, who were born in Sweden, and while they were very young, had learned to talk, no longer speak or understand Swedish.
During her last several years of life, I was living downstairs from her and would visit every day. During that time, I was also beginning my Japanese studies. We would have a lot of conversations about language learning, and she talked a lot about her experience learning English. One of the things she told me was that before her and my grandfather called Sweden, they would talk Swedish for about a half an hour first in order to “get Swedish in their head.” But then she said, “sometimes they would call us, and then we would be stuck.”
When my Swedish relatives visited a few years ago, when my grandmother was still alive, they spent a lot of time speaking Swedish with her. When I was talking to them, they talked about my grandmother’s Swedish, and how it got better the more she was talking with them. She never lost her Swedish accent in English, but according to my relatives, her Swedish had an American accent, which would go away as she talked more Swedish with them.
This is a really interesting topic, and I think I may need to write future article here about it :)