Does Studying Hard Really Guarantee you Fluency?
Study really hard, put in the work over a number of years, and eventually you will become fluent… This is the optimistic way of thinking. It makes sense. Japanese is just a foreign language. Many have learned before you. Many will learn after you. Everyone acquired fluency through a mountain of effort. So as long as you put in that mountain of effort, you will eventually and unequivocally get there.
Except you might not?
These statements can be surprisingly problematic:
Study hard and you will become fluent.
As long as you keep studying, eventually you will become fluent.
There you are studying hard, and you’ve been studying hard for a long time. Yet you aren’t fluent. Are the above statements false? Am I going dark here again? Not quite. I want to show you again why realistic positivity is sometimes more powerful than anything else.
The first statement you need to focus on is the reverse of the above:
If you don’t study hard, you won’t become fluent.
This is a nearly undeniable fact. Please ignore the online unicorn saying “I just had fun and learned the language through watching anime without any effort,” This person is either consciously or unconsciously exaggerating, or just recalling the good moments while conveniently forgetting the bad ones. I’m not saying that you can’t have fun studying. You will. But there’s way more to it.
The next statement you need to focus on:
Studying hard will dramatically increase your chances of becoming fluent.
This is like everything in life you are trying to be successful in. You could be the hardest worker in the world. Doing everything right, putting in more hours than anyone else, sacrificing everything, and still not be successful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success. Hard work can only increase your probability of success.
For anyone who has worked hard and failed at something, you can attest it sucks. It’s not fair. It’s just not the way it is supposed to be. You can either complain and curse the world for not getting what you want despite feeling you deserved it, or do what is the only alternative:
You fight for the chance of success. You fight for the chance of fluency. Because if you don’t fight, you definitely won’t win. It’s the only option.
I once asked everyone what victory percentage would be enough for them to learn Japanese. The obvious positive response is “I’d do it regardless of the percentage, because I want it that bad.” This is a great place to start, but not a good place to continue. If your chance of success of fluency is 1%, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll win. You must raise this percentage.
When you begin learning Japanese, you start with a different initial success percentage. This varies greatly depending on your:
1. Friends, family and who you surround yourself with
2. Living situation (money, responsibilities, time, etc.)
3. Good or bad experience with other languages
4. Learning abilities or disabilities
5. Motivation and your why
6. Teachers/mentors/people you look up to
7. Chosen methods/tools to learn the language
This isn’t the place to start making excuses that you can’t succeed because of any combination of the above. That’s dangerous. However the above is going to absolutely contribute to your initial chance of fluency.
The ultimate trump card, which can drastically overcome any low chance of success, is studying hard over a long period of time. You may start with a 10% chance of success, but due to working your ass off, you raise it to 90%. Or the opposite. You may have everything perfect, and according to your circumstances you have an 80% chance of success. But you never put in the time or effort. You can watch that chance of success drop to 5%.
The big challenge comes in the fluctuations that occur as you continue to study. You might think that as a beginner, your chance of fluency is highest. You are filled with unparalleled enthusiasm, and that should equate to whether you will make it to the end. That energy is important, but there is a reason why that the amount of beginners in a language is probably several times the amount of intermediate, advanced, or fluent speakers. Beginners often study hard… until they don’t. Just because you once studied hard doesn’t mean you always will. That’s why there is no guarantee.
Your chance of reaching fluency slowly goes up over time. As you reach major hurdles that threaten to cause you to quit, your percentage dips. But as you overcome each of these, your percentage shoots up. Until it gets so high that you are almost guaranteed a win.
Probability more motivating than a guarantee
Thinking that studying hard only gives you a probability may not feel very uplifting. But I think it can be the opposite. You knew going into this there were no guarantees, so you didn’t expect to be able to control the outcome. However, knowing that you can control the probability can be just as empowering. It’s more realistic and you actually feel it.
Do you remember the point where you thought, “I’ve come this far. I can do so much. There is no way I am quitting. ” That’s you reaching the probability threshold where your chance of failure becomes slim.
A guaranteed game isn’t a game. Play it the right way.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Hopefully I will be one of those that ends up making it to fluency!
I’m here to make sure that probability goes as high as possible
A couple of thoughts:
First, trying hard doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a person will attain fluency (whatever that means), but in the vast majority of cases, trying hard will guarantee improvement. Whether the study method you use is the absolute best and most efficient study method for you, even if you are getting, say, 80% of the possible Japanese-learning value you could get out of a certain activity or block of time, most people who are making effort will be getting better, not worse, even if they might feel like they are not making progress or are getting worse. The only exceptions I can think of are if either 1) you are using some study methods that REALLY do not work for you and are getting barely any value from them at all or 2) at one time you reached a very high level but are currently not spending enough time with Japan to maintain that level.
There’s some advice given in the manga Aozora Yell that I think is very applicable to that idea of “if I try hard enough, I will eventually get there.” The main character in this manga is learning to play trumpet as a complete and utter beginner in a high school with an extremely competitive and famous wind band. The band is a “club,” but club activities take up so much time every day that every day the characters come home from their 部活 completely exhausted, and since they don’t even have the time or energy to do their homework they hastily copy it from some understanding classmates every morning.
The main character asks the 部活 teacher what she can do to improve, and the teacher gives her this advice: Everyone has the same amount of time to practice. You can’t increase the amount of time to practice, so what makes the difference is how much you concentrate on the instructions given to you by your senpai and carry those out while playing.
Well, Japanese learners (the people reading this website, for example) don’t all have the same school and club activity schedule, so based on life circumstances there is some real variation in how many hours in the day people are able to expose themselves to Japanese and how much time they can specifically devote to active study. However, we do all have the same 24 hours in the day.
So if someone is thinking, “As long as I try really hard, I can succeed in becoming fluent,” that 頑張り is certainly very important, but how well the methods they choose work for them, how efficiently they are studying and using their time, is going to also make a difference in how quickly they achieve their goals.
The second thing I’d like to suggest is that depending on personality, not everyone necessarily needs to, or would benefit from, making “become fluent” a binary thing, as if you either you succeed or your fail and there is nothing in between. Actually, learning a language is pretty much the complete opposite of that, it’s a spectrum. So whether or not you ever “succeed” in becoming “fluent,” there are all sorts of moments when you achieve something very real and valuable, even from very early stages in the learning process. For example,
When you arrive in Japan and can impress people by saying not just 暑いです but 蒸し暑いです。
When you walk into a store in the countryside and you see the shopkeepers’ worried expressions change to massive relief when you open your mouth and speak Japanese.
When you develop a friendship with someone that you wouldn’t have been able to talk with if you didn’t speak Japanese.
I think that if you have made any kind of connection with someone that either you couldn’t have had without Japanese (because they don’t speak English) or you’re able to connect with someone on a deeper level than you could have if they were speaking to you in English, you have succeeded.
Or alternately, I guess, if you are able to enjoy that feeling of pleasure from being able to understand something from a book/anime/show/game/manga that you like in the original language, even if you still don’t understand everything, hopefully you should be able to get some feelings of reward and feel that the time you spent studying Japanese had a payoff.
(I’m kind of stressing connections with people because personally, despite my enjoyment of manga/anime/games, no matter what I cannot motivate myself to study a language if I don’t have opportunities to talk to people in it; but I understand that for other people, what makes studying Japanese all worth it is going to be different, and that’s totally fine, too.)
Obviously the attitude of “I want to be fluent no matter what!!” had great results for Adam. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily.
But I think depending on personality, there might be some people out there who would actually be discouraged more than anything if from the beginning they have a goal of wanting to become “fluent” and feel like they have “failed” if they achieve any level less than that, and those people would probably benefit a lot more from focusing on short-term, achievable goals so they can see their progress. Or there might be people who are そもそも、ペラペラになるかどうかを全く気にしていない and work their way up to a high level without being hung up on the idea of “fluency.” It all depends on the individual.
That’s a good point. Trying hard will always improve you (at least to some extent).
Great example story from that manga as well. It fits perfectly with what I’m trying to say. Thanks for sharing it!
“Fluency” just is often the goal that is set at the beginning, and isn’t easily quantifiable. Most people who make it far reach varying levels of fluency according to their needs or wants.
The most common individual definition of fluency I’ve heard is being able to do everything that you set out to do by studying Japanese. For Example, reading manga, watching anime, or playing video games as though it was in your own native language. Sure, people can and should enjoy them way before they can do that at full understanding. But the initial goal and determination come from the desire to reach it that final goal. While you may not reach that ultimate fluent goal you originally set, you may find yourself in a place you are fully happy with.
People’s goals change, what they feel they are getting from the language, and how far they want to go changes. So I’m really fully on board with your opinions on this.
Yeah, that manga has a few pieces of advice that, while in the manga are about playing trumpet, are really great metaphors highly applicable to learning Japanese (or other long-term life goals, I suppose).
Now that you put it that way about being able to enjoy anime/manga/games as though it were one’s own native language, I can see how a lot of people with that as their main goal for learning Japanese would have complete fluency (at least, complete reading/listening comprehension) as their goal. In the opposite case, for someone, for example, living in Japan and just wanting to use Japanese in their daily life, there’s likely to be a lot of sense of reward and of being able to connect with people even at beginning and intermediate ability levels, like I mentioned earlier. But if you have enjoyment of media as your main goal, there might be some little sense of reward here and there when you start being able to pick out words, or when you can read a few pages of manga or understand a few minutes of dialogue in a show easily without looking at a dictionary, but invariably you are going to want to be able to just sit down and relax with a manga/book/anime/game/whatever without feeling like you have to work at it to enjoy it, and in that case anything less than complete comprehension is going to be frustrating. So probably the reward:frustration ratio for that person is going to be a lot less than the person who is learning Japanese to exchange pleasantries with the obasan next door in Japanese or to understand the written Japanese in the train stations, streets, and stores all around them. But on the other hand, it keeps the bar high.
For example, I’m working as a full-time Japanese interpreter/translator, but not so long ago I was trying to play a game in Japanese and the combination of it being in Japanese with a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary + having an unfamiliar battle system + being a game that doesn’t tell you what to do next but just dumps you into the world to figure things out yourself drove my frustration level too high to be able to enjoy it, so I quit (temporarily). （笑） The moral of the story being that it’s easier to make a living as an interpreter/translator than to enjoy Japanese video games as if Japanese is your native language, so that is a really high goal.
Really interesting article!! I’ve ‘quit’ a few times but always came back. It’s like Japanese is calling to me…. :)
I feel like I now have a much higher chance than I uses to. I have lots of shows that I love to watch with way too much content, so even if I don’t feel like studying I can just coast until I do. Before, if I didn’t feel like studying (due to stress, burnout, etc) I would ‘quit’ as I didn’t have much I could enjoy without pulling out a dictionary.
Now I’m definitely not fluent, but I don’t live in fear of giving up anymore. And I think that alone stacks the odds in your favor.
Japanese shows that you can watch and enjoy definitely increase your chance. Connecting with real native material has a lot of power to it (both in terms of motivation and actual learning).
And that’s great that you have overcome that fear. Your winning percentage is definitely growing daily.
How would you study Japanese in Japanese? I recently bought 3 textbooks and watched a Japanese language video from Nobita in Japan that suggested practicing Japanese in Japanese, and just use images to project a phrase. I think it’s a useful method, but I don’t know what resources to use besides Japanese media.