You Want To Become Fluent In Japanese? Go Live In Japan!
Not much annoys me more than this phrase. My recent jobs involve me using highly technical Japanese constantly every day. Yet every time I apply for a new short term Japanese project, regardless of my work history which should speak for itself, the first and only question regarding my Japanese ability is “how long did you live in Japan for?” Didn’t you know, living in Japan makes you fluent? If you have never lived in Japan, you are a liar calling yourself anything above novice level.
Unfortunately this is a strange line of thinking that exists. I’m sure you’ve heard this often familiar answer when someone asks what is the best way to learn Japanese. “Go live in Japan.” And then sometimes you might even get the further fun push of “get a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend.”
Now I don’t want to bring up the exceptional examples of the foreigners living in Japan for 20 + years, married and with Japanese children who speak minimal Japanese. These anecdotal stories (though more common than you think) don’t do well with statistics. But how many foreigners living in Japan for 3+ (which is ample enough time to get to level 50+) years speak great Japanese?
Now I could go into a full discussion of why living in Japan won’t make you fluent in Japanese. I’ve briefly touched on it in my Teaching English in Japan posts. But I’d rather summarize everything into one phrase, so that people who harbor this misconception won’t get confused with a massive analysis. It comes down to one major concept:
Just because you live in Japan doesn’t mean you have to learn Japanese.
No, not everyone speaks good English. Most people speak very bad and broken English. But that doesn’t matter. You can live just fine (whatever standard “fine” is) without learning Japanese. This leads to the common phrase “foreigner bubble,” where you hang around with other foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, creating even less of a need. And since you are mostly trying to enjoy the country, while battling with your daily stress, learning Japanese is usually second (or third) on your priority list.
So this leads to one important conclusion:
Regardless of whether you live in Japan, learning Japanese still takes the same ridiculous amount of motivation, time, and effort.
Those who seriously study Japanese know this. This creates a bit of a painful side effect for those who have/are living in Japan. You hear the following comment:
“Oh! You are good at Japanese because you lived there! I wish I could do that”
Years of hard work undermined in one second!
What to take away from all of this?
There is no point on dwelling on this unfortunate occurrence. Always stay positive, and keep this situation in mind if you are looking for a job using Japanese. If an employer is interviewing you and inquiring how you learned your Japanese, or whether you lived in Japan, make sure to “expand upon” and umm . . . “exaggerate” your time spent in Japan. The ends justify the means here for a job. If your Japanese is great, that is really all that matters.
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 no longer get upset when I go to a restaurant and they ask if I need the English menu or if I go to a Starbucks where there is one person who assumes I speak English therefore speaks to me in English. I know they just want to help but it definitely is a deterrent for when I want to try to use my Japanese or just listen and understand. At restaurants I politely refuse but at places like Starbucks, it’s so fast pace I kinda just ignore the English and quickly get more order. People who’ve never lived in Japan don’t know how often that occurs.
For those who lack motivation to learn and use the language, it sort of baffles me. So many times I’ve heard people in NY complain about some Spanish speaking person saying they should learn proper English if they going to live in the US. Well, it should be the same in Japan too. Too bad many Japanese baby English speaking foreigners. I appreciate the help but it doesn’t really make me happy to be helped lol. Luckily for me I found a group of Japanese friends I hangout with weekly. You could say I’m one of those foreigners in Japan that barely has any foreigner friends. Although, I don’t shun them I just don’t hang out with them as much.
I had a similar thing happen to me, but with a funny twist.
My husband (who is of Asian descent, but not Japanese, and speaks about five words of bad-accent Japanese he picked up off American TV just like anyone else) and I (white as they come) went to Japan for a few weeks earlier this year. We spent a few days in Tokyo, and at quite a lot of the places we went to eat, they’d automatically give us two different menus: one English, one Japanese. They would just assume he was Japanese, and that I couldn’t any of the language.
Waiters etc. would often start talking to him, and I’d have to step in and translate. I think they thought he wasn’t talking to let me practice my Japanese or something, not because he was clueless as to what they were saying. And quite a few would comment, “wow, your husband taught you Japanese really well!” which was meant nicely but became annoying after hearing it for the twentieth time.
I think the issue is not that you can’t learn Japanese or become fluent without living in Japan but rather that a lot of people who are fluent *have* lived over there at some point. Personally, (and this is admittedly anecdotal) I’ve never met anyone who has been fluent in Japanese and never lived there or been there for an extended period of time. I think this is because the majority of people who feel connected or interested enough to study the language at some point either study abroad or get a job in Japan. Of course this isn’t the case 100% of the time, but I can see why some people might make the assumption.
Also, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you live in a country where everyone speaks the language you are studying, you definitely have a big advantage. Of course it’s ridiculous to say that you can’t learn a language unless you go live somewhere where it’s the common language. And of course learning a language is a lot of hard work for most of us, regardless of where you live/have lived. That said, it is a lot easier to be motivated and passively learn when you are exposed to a language every day in a wide variety of contexts and settings; i.e. learning Japanese while living in Japan.
I agree with what you’re saying here, it is definitely not necessary to live in Japan to have good Japanese. But living in Japan does make it a LOT easier to improve your Japanese. You want to read something in Japanese? Go to any Japanese bookshop and you’ll have thousands of books to choose from. You want to listen to some Japanese? Turn on the radio. You want to watch something Japanese? Turn on the TV.
In my case, the only reason that I am fluent in spoken Japanese is that I spent a year abroad in Japan, and spent 90% of my time hanging around with Japanese people and other foreigners who either didn’t want to or couldn’t speak English. I did spend 2 years studying Japanese before then, but although I got a really solid foundation in grammar through the university course I was doing, I never really did anything outside lessons (other than what I was being made to do!) to improve my Japanese, and I wasn’t aware of stuff like anki or the idea of immersing yourself in Japanese, even when not in Japan. If I had done that, maybe I would have already been well on my way to fluency before arriving in Japan.
One thing, though, that I’ve realised about being in Japan, and knowing that you’re probably going to be living here for the rest of your life (my current situation!) is that it’s easy to get lazy. Like how you can live in a city and never go and visit any of the tourist attractions there, because you know they’ll always be there. I end up thinking, well, I’m going to be surrounded by Japanese for the rest of my life, so there’s no harm in sitting down and watching English shows I like for a few hours, then listening to some English music, writing emails to my friends back home in English, listening to some podcasts in English, and so on. Even when I go through a few months like this, my Japanese is still improving slightly, but probably only thanks to the fact that I have a Japanese husband, Japanese friends, enjoy reading in Japanese and have a few Japanese shows that I like. When I was back in England I made a LOT more effort to learn Japanese.
And on the subject of hard work being undermined, I get that doubly now – first, when I tell people that I’ve lived here for 4 years in total, and then again when I tell them that my husband is Japanese. Living in Japan has definitely helped me on the way to fluency, but I was already fluent in Japanese when I met my husband, so that one annoys me. A LOT.
..this comment ended up being much more rambly than intended, I apologise.
I also don’t think that you have to live in a country where they speak the language you are learning in order to become fluent, but as has been mentioned it probably accelerates the process because immersion is so much easier.
English is my second language (Swedish being my first) and I considered myself fluent before I lived in the US for two summers (worked at a summer camp). That fluency came from studying English in school about 2-3 a week for 9 years and playing video games, watching TV (which is subbed here, never dubbed) and the Internet. If I had made a conscious effort at learning English (other than occasionally doing my homework :P) I’m sure I would have been fluent much faster.
Before I worked at the summer camp I hadn’t spoken English very much, though my reading and writing were pretty decent. So the first weeks speaking was very aggravating because I couldn’t quite put my thoughts in to sentences as naturally as I could in my native language. But that problem disappeared after a few weeks of speaking English exclusively.
Now I’m pretty happy with my English but I still make an effort to improve my vocabulary. The thing I’m a bit dissatisfied with is my accent. I don’t have a really bad accent or anything, but it’s still apparent that English isn’t my first language when you hear me speak. It’s not really a big deal, but it annoyed me a bit when the first thing people always asked was “so what country are you from?”
I think the reason I developed an accent was that when I first started learning English in third grade I learned from teachers who were not native speakers themselves and also had accents.
So anyway enough rambling. My point is that if you want to sound as a native when learning a foreign language pay really close attention to pronunciation, especially when you first start learning the language. I think you need to hear natives speak a lot an imitate the sounds as exactly as possible or else you’ll start developing an accent.
This post is a bit confusing. The content is actually the opposite of the title: If you live in Japan, you must be good at Japanese! While that’s not true, the inverse: If you want to learn Japanese, it’ll be easier and faster if you go to Japan (providing you put in the effort), seems pretty sensible. Or are you saying that’s not the case?
The title “You Want To Become Fluent In Japanese? Go Live In Japan!” is the phrase that this article is trying to show disagreement with. Living in Japan is not the definitive answer to becoming fluent.
And I feel “If you want to learn Japanese, it’ll be easier and faster if you go to Japan” is not necessarily true.
There are many factors that go into the equation of what your Japan experience can do for your Japanese.
I see. Thanks for the clarification!
Ok so if you are studying Japanese and live in Japan you Will become fluent way faster than someone who is not living in Japan for the simple reason that you can practice your Japanese with native speakers just by walking outside your door. For me there are very few Japanese people living in my city so I have very very little opportunity to practice speak.
It is not given that you will become fluent faster. You definitely have the possibility to become fluent faster. But there are always ways out. Maybe you stay inside all day or maybe you only go out with people speaking English. If that is the case someone outside Japan might very well beat you to fluency :) even with limited speaking opportunities. With the internet it is always possible to find someone to speak to even if nobody lives near you.
In the end it all comes down to the amount of effort you put into reaching your goals. So don’t let anything discourage you from reaching your goals whatever they are.
Even if you did live in Japan, there’s no way it’s as simple as walking out your front door and getting unlimited practice with native speakers.
Here in the US, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve spoken with my neighbors in the last 4 years. I have brief interactions with cashiers and restaurant servers, but really the only people I talk to a lot are my family, co-workers, and people online. It’s not easy to just approach random strangers and strike up a conversation. Doubly so in a language you’re not as comfortable with. (YMMV based on your personality)
Of course there are going to be unique opportunities you can only get from living over there, but most of them won’t come to you automatically. You have to invest effort – to get out there and engage with people, to surround yourself with immersion opportunities, to take on new language challenges. It’s a lot of hard work whether you live there or not.