Saeko in Rome: Understanding when your approach to language learning is just not working – 1/3

“If Mohammed will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed”

Have you heard this expression?

That’s exactly what I thought while standing on the platform waiting for my Japanese friend, Saeko.

Saeko? Mohammed? What do they have in common? What does any of this have to do with language learning?

Let’s take a step back in time.

More precisely, 2 years ago.

I had been learning Japanese on and off for a year by myself, and at some point was looking for a native speaker to talk to. That’s where Saeko comes into the picture. I got to know her through a friend we have in common.

She had been learning Italian for some time, so when I sent her a message asking if she wanted to practice Italian with me in exchange for some help with Japaense she was eager to begin.

I remember rubbing my hands together with a smirk on my face thinking “this is it”. Finding a native speaker to talk to regularly is one of the best things you can do to improve in any language.

So we started having an Italian-Japanese language exchange once a week. Thirty minutes for me in Japanese. Thirty minutes for her in Italian.

Nothing complicated.

Every time we met on Skype we both chose a topic and started talking about it. One of us spoke and the other interjected to help out with suggestions.

Positive feedback. Good vibes. All seemed great.

We recorded all the conversations and listened to them a few days later.

And yet, after some time, I realized that eventhough we were having sessions regularly, something was not quite clicking.

I can sum it in a few points:

  • I was struggling with long sentences.
  • My mind often went blank when I tried to speak.
  • I was often unable to complete sentences I started
  • I was making the same mistakes over and over again
  • I’m an experienced language learner and I’ve experienced a “click”  that comes after a certain amount of learning. I call this the epiphany point; it’s when everything becomes easier and language learning starts to snowball.

I always felt confident that I’d reach the epiphany point sooner or later in Japanese. In this case, it seemed like nothing was happening. In the beginning I was only slightlyconcerned and I kept telling myself “come on Luca, it will happen soon” But with time I started feeling frustrated. I even  considered setting Japanese aside for a bit to focus on something else. However, there was aother part of me which kept telling me not to give up. “Giving up now would mean giving up on 2 years of work. That’s just plain stupid”.

So I continued my language exchange, but I wasn’t enjoying them as I usually  do. I felt as though I was spining my wheels.

“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” I read that somewhere, and what I had to do became clearer to me.

I sat down and started to think about it.

5 Reasons I was Failing

After thinking about why I was failing with Japanese, I came up with the following reasons:

  1. I approached Japanese like a European language
  2. I didn’t practicing frequently enough
  3. I didn’t use the language enough
  4. I didn’t prepare for my Skype chats with Saeko
  5. I wasn’t motivated enough

Let’s take a look at each of these points.

1) Approaching Japanese like a European language

For a native Italian speaker, or a speaker of any European language, the main problem with speaking Japanese is the way they structure sentences. Italian (like English, etc) has a SVO structure. Japanese has a SOV structure.

For example, If you want to say “I want to go to Paris”

“I (subject) want to go (Verb) to Paris (Object)”

In Japanese you would say:

Watashi wa Pari NI ikitai desu

Which means: I (subject) Paris (object) go want to (verb).

For short sentences this is manageable, but the longer the sentence, the more energy is required to think “backwords”.

This is a language feature I had never faced before and it created a big challenge. Sometimes it can take me up to 10 seconds to think of a long sentence and I get tired very quickly in long conversations.

My initial approach was backwards: I was attempting to utter long sentences by relying on Italian, instead of taking a step back and starting to build basic sentences in Japanese first, and then building on that. I started like that and I kept doing it that way until very recently.

That said, the main problem is not merely the sentence structure, but the fact that the Japanese act and say things in a very different way to us Europeans. When learning  European languages we tend – at least in the beginning –  to rely on our native tongue to help us speak the language (assuming we have a European language as our native tongue) so if we want to say something in a certain situation, we tend to use our native tongue as a crutch and quite often there is a very similar expression in the target language as well, which makes being understood a lot easier. Taking this approach doesn’t work with Japanese most of the time, because they have another way of expressing feelings and reacting to different situations

For example, when you finish a conversation, you can’t say “have a good day”. You simply don’t say that in Japanese. Instead, you simply say: “mata ne” to friends, which means “bye”.

If you rely on your native language and translate literally into Japanese, you will probably be misunderstood, unless the Japanese knows how Westners think and act.

So… change your approach if it doesn’t work!

2)  Not Practicing Frequently Enough

Saeko and I were having sessions every week. Even though we reviewed the sessions,  it was still only 30 minutes of practice a week. That’s practically nothing. Getting exposed to a language frequently – on a daily basis, even if it is for a little bit – is what really counts. Imagine language learning like eating food. We eat every day to support ourselves. If you want a language to grow inside of you that’s exactly what you have to do: feed it every day, at least a little bit.

Feed the brain with the language food!

3)  I Didn’t Use Japanese Enough

If you think that you are “learning” only when you sit down and open a book, or talk to somebody on Skype, think again. Learning happens in your head, not in a physical space. Every moment is an opportunity  to learn something. So, even if you don’t have a macro-environment where you can use the language (say, native speakers or living where the language is spoken), you can still create a language bubble for yourself. Waiting for the bus, waiting in line at the bank, while walking or running. These are all chances in which you can learn bits and pieces of the language by making them part of your mental space. There are multiple useful ways to do this, and I will talk about it in one of my next articles.

This change of attitude brings incredible results. All things you do, even for 5 minutes each day are important. Think of them as small drops of language that fall into an initally empty bucket which fills up with time. The more consistent you are the better. Regardless of how small the drops, if you’re consistent, the bucket will fill up!

4)  Not preparing

It also dawned on me that the reason why I was constantly tired during the conversations and the reason I struggled so much was because I didn’t prepare for my sessions at all except for choosing a topic. I presumed  I would jump in a convesation on ANY topic and the conversation would flow because I would keep it simple. Instead, I realized that in order to make the conversations flow more smoothly, I need  to:

  • Imagine a possible conversation in my L1
  • Think about words and expressions I would use if I were having a conversation in my native tongue.
  • Jot them down on a piece of paper in my L1
  • Search in a dictionary for the meaning in my L2
  • Keep that piece of paper next to me during the conversation

Doing this makes conversations flow much more smoothly!

Prepare beforehand! It makes things easier!

5)  I Was Not Motivated Enough

The truth is, when you start doing something mechanically and don’t add much variety to it, you are indirectly telling your brain that what you are trying to learn is not that interesting or important. In both cases, your brain will probably discard it, or will refuse to learn as you expected. So, while having a session once a week was helping me maintain a feeble bond with Japanese, the way I was doing it was not enough. Starting to use the language on a daily basis and restructring the sessions was a great step to getting my motivation up again.


Language exchanges are a fantastic way to improve one’s language skills, especially if they are done with a person you know and like.

Before you start though, it’s important to have a few clear guidelines/rules of thumb  to follow

Here’s an example: How to change is like tug of war

You don’t necessarily have to follow these exact guidelines. You can create your own rules/guidelines, as long as they work for you.

An important lesson is that language learning is a trial-and-error process. You can start doing something and then refine it along the way.

The important thing is to always ask yourself is whether you like what you are doing, and whether it’s working for you or not.

I have my own way to conduct language exchanges that haveproven to be successful with difficult European languages such as Polish or Russian, but that turned out to be partly unfruitful with Japanese.

While I liked having language exchanges, they were not working for me the way I liked for Japanese.

This caused me to restructure the way I was working with my Japanese language partner.

Even after starting  to do things differently, I still had the impression that something was missing.

“We have to meet up! – I thought

That’s how my adventure with Saeko in Rome started…

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • Funny, I never saw order of words an obstacle. But I tend to think in new language from day one. Not much to think about really, but it is the seed the language grows from. Translation is bad. Translation via own language is terribly bad – you are right.

    The only way native language can (and initially has to be) used is to explain grammar. Grammar is important, not vocab – and that is basically similar to what you said in the article. You tried to speak Japanese without grammar structure anchored in your brain. That could not work.

    • Hi Cristobal,

      I have never said that translation is bad. It is what you make of it and how you use it that makes all the difference. It is an extremely important point.

      Grammar and vocabulary are both important. It is out of the discussion. Once again, it is how you absorb them that counts.

      Take care!


  • Hello Luca! This was a really great point. These reasons were why Hindi was so difficult to learn for me. However, Japanese was a language I learned almost instinctively. I admit that I’m an anime-geek. My best friend is Japanese and made me start watching at the age of 7. Since then, I’ve watched hundreds of episodes of anime, all with Japanese voices and English subtitles. Because of this, when I started trying to learn the language properly, I realized that the sentence structure and intonation all came naturally. Later on, I tried to practice two languages at once by switching to Spanish subtitles (so I could fill in the blanks using the other language) and it worked out great. If you’re searching for a way to practice Japanese, I recommend modern-themed anime with Tokyo dialects, such as Durarara or Your Lie in April. They aren’t as slow-paced as working through a book, plus there are visual cues and lots of exposure to written Japanese.
    I’m off to read your page about memorizing vocabulary, because that’s what always discourages me.

    • Thanks Michelle.

      What I’d LOVE to read in Japanese is “Hokuto no ken”. Ever heard of it? Found only one episode in a Japanese library in Paris. The problem is that it is full of slang and still kind of difficult to read. If it had a bilingual version that would be absolutely epic 🙂

      My twin sister and I watched every single episode of the two series. We were literally hooked 🙂

      As for words, don’t get discouraged. It is not as difficult as you think. I am preparing something special for this topic 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

      Hugs from Rome


  • This posting talks to me! I am learning Turkish which is also an SOV language and being very different from english causes a huge amount of interference. Thanks for the advice. And in response to CRISTOBAL, it must be amazing being perfect! 😉

    • Thanks for the comment John!

      Yes indeed, Turkish and Japanese have a very similar sentence structure. I have heard that it is relatively “easy” for Turks to speak Japanese. At least easier than the rest of us poor Europeans 🙂


  • I appreciate your willingness to explore the matter, rather than offer a recipe based on you past success. Perhaps I might offer a comment, as well ask a question that I have tried to enter quite deeply. I was raised by a Chinese father, but an American mother. As a consequence, a language that is “alien’ to Europeans, is not entirely unfamiliar to me in sound, gesture and other matters concerning culture and language. Moreover, I went to music school and, I expect, the intense listening required is of benefit when it came to pronunciation and thinking in terms of abstract grammatical units (I am unsure how to express this those not is classical music.)

    On the other hand, i completed my PhD in English for which I had to learn reading languages. So my French is completely passive. I have put a lot of thought into this and the point seems to be that though everyone know that language learning is highly individual, it is particularly so when grasping what you refer to creating a “core” from which to work I believe you have done us a great service by identifying this phenomena (I have not come across this from any other source) and getting us away from things such as vocabulary lists, but how one discovers this core is not necessarily clear. This is a long-winded way of saying, I am unsure if your new steps will help, but, as I said, i appreciate you discussing the experience, rather than offering yet another method that may or, often, may not work (placing one in even greater despair). How humans internalize language is worth serious consideration.

    Since I was a pianist (before hurting my hands), then a writer, I suspect my interest in language is more focused on aesthetics, the well expressed thought, and the uniqueness of different language for understanding experience and opening aspect of one’s spirit, beyond general conversational ability. However, finding the right method, so as to create strong foundation, has proved difficult and i have yielded a lot of research and trial and eror, since I feel the wrong approach at the beginning will send someone off at the inappropriate trajectory. Then my relationship to the two languages I mention–and i wish to learn them at the same time–are extremel different. So, finally, my specific question simply as follows: might you go into more practical detail about the daily method by which to translate and then retranslate and how this changes as you move from the beginning stage into the intermediate? i know you have explained some of this, but if you would share some of you may have not said elsewhere, I would be extremely grateful. When it comes to “brass tacks,” a phrase American use to mean concrete matter, I am probably still unclear, yet feel establishing this conduit in our language centers is probably essential. I have purchased Assimill in both Chinese and French, and will save actual grammar books in French until i have an somewhat more intuitive sense of the tortuous French sentence. Should it help, in French my daily practice at the moment is Pimsleur almost everyday, Translating and retranslating Assail a couple times a week, then every now and then I try to read (I am already fairly well along here, but cannot write al all). Still, I find contemporary dual language books or really anything contemporary at me level difficult by which to come..

    i am searching for a daily practice, much as learning a musical instrument, that will move me to this creating the ‘”core” about which to you speak. i, too, don’t know how to find daily conversational practice. A half an hour once a week is indeed nothing.

    Much thanks for indulging my harangue! It has been frustrating. I look forward to your book.


  • I’ve been studying Japanese for 13 years and still find it difficult to construct longer sentences. It’s very discouraging. But you’re right, it does help greatly to prepare for Skype lessons in advance and have a plan. Conversation doesn’t just naturally flow in a second or third language.

  • Very nice blog post. One of the main reasons why you fail in language learning is that your approach does not seem to be working for you. Being more aware of how you tackle language learning make you realize certain points that are making it hard for you to learn, and what areas need to be improved. There’s no harm in modifying your system, as long as it’s working for you and helps you achieve your goal in language learning.

    • Hi

      Very good point. A lot of people (myself included) tend to stick to a certain schedule even when it is evident that they don’t bear fruit.

      Flexibility is key to efficient learning, as well as a sign of intelligence.

      If something doesn’t work or click, don’t hesitate to ponder, rethink, restructure your schedule and your approach.

      “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning”.

      Albert Einstein


  • Luca, what a great post. You’ve done a fantastic job of summarising so many of the same difficulties that I’ve had learning Japanese over the years. Even though I lived in Japan for over 3 years and spoke so much, the learning process was so much slower than any other language I’d ever learnt. Your “have a nice day” example sums it up perfectly. It’s not just a linguistic issue but a socio-cultural one. Really looking forward to the rest of the series, and I can already guess what happened when you started to put in some proper “face time” with Saeko!

    • Hi Olly.

      Thanks for the great words 🙂

      I remember that I wrote this article without even thinking about it. It came naturally.

      Japanese is indeed a challenging language because it is different from most European languages on so many different levels. While many people point to kanji and grammar, I think that its syntax and the socio-cultural issue are the most challenging parts, at least for me.

      It is refreshing to hear that an accomplished language learner went through the same struggle.

      One day you me and Luca Toma should go to Japan together and record the experience 🙂


  • Hi luca , thanks for sharing your experience and for all your posts. Like you I’m a language enthousiast but I only speak 4 languages for now. Kabyl my native tongue (you’ve probably never heard about. It’s spoken in some regions of algeria, maybe some others in north africa), arabic, french, and english. English is the only language I studied though, I’ve never made any effort to learn the other languages. Of course I studied them at school, but what helped me taking them to a high level was using them and being surrounded by them. Reading, watching TV, listening to music. All this to say that I agree with you when you say that you don’t have to be a genious to learn a language though I really admire your language skills and you made me realize many things I used to do unconsciously. You’re really inspiring luca. Keep up the good work.
    Je me donne jusqu’à la fin de l’année pour perfectionner mon anglais et l’amener au niveau que je souhaite, et j’attaque l’espagnol avec la methode assimil suivant tes recommandations.
    Encore une fois merci infiniment pour tous tes conseils.

    • Hi Sonia,

      thanks for the glowing words 🙂

      Language learning is a matter of time, passion and attitude. Those who have these 3 can learn any language. The bottom line is: anybody can speak multiple languages, and you need to have no sort of special and privileged “condition” to learn languages well as someone often suggests. It is not a mantra that I repeat for the sake it, it is just simple and plain reality.

      That said, this post is also about showing my best and passionate effort to do what I believe is great work. I am a human being, I make mistakes, I have doubts, exactly like everybody else. But I believe that I’ll reach the peak of the mountain. This journey is a great chance to look inside myself and grow. I am happy if people find it inspiring.

      Merci encore une fois pour ton commentaire 🙂

      Je te souhaite une très belle journée!


  • Can you just talk to yourself instead of connecting to others? I have very bad anxiety and I want to learn a language all by myself but I don’t want to talk with others….

    • Hi Heyla,

      I think that although you can talk to yourself and it can be beneficial, interacting with other human beings is what makes us grow in general, and if you want to make a language really yours, you have to get out there and talk to people.


  • Fantastic article. Even though I’m studying German and not Japanese, however, your first 3 points listed (struggling with long sentences, mind often went blank when trying to speak, unable to complete sentences I started) really got to me, since this is exactly how I feel on a skype exchange most times.

    I will definitely start implementing your tip about preparing beforehand, even to look up words that you are sure are going to come up. Such a simple, but not always obvious, tip!

    Just one question: For the first point listed about long sentences, would you reccommend sticking to shorter sentences, or really pushing the boundaries and still attempt these long ones? (In another video you speak of going outside the comfort zone).

    Many thanks Luca!

    • Hi Rom.

      First of all, thanks for the nice words.

      Well, getting out of comfort zone doesn’t necessarily imply that you need to know use longer sentences.

      What I would do is:

      1) Use simple sentences by using words that you know
      2) Choose a more specific topic, stick to short sentences but start using words you don’t know (so that you get feedback)
      3) Only after a bit you gradually start using longer sentences

      Hope this helps!


  • I went to Japan in 2000 to teach English and stayed for two years. I remember getting on the plain and cracking open my first self-study Japanese book for the very first time.

    There many things about Japan that I thought I would have a harder time with, such as forms of social courtesy that some might call ubiquitous omissions and ‘white lies’ whenever there might be anything negative or awkward to discuss. I guess I appreciate more direct approaches for those things. However, I adapted and was surprised that I soon discovered things such as a form of honesty that ran through it all (1. the expectation that people aren’t going to say everything they mean in many situations, and 2. that almost everyone I met would give some sort of hint or sign when they felt compelled to avoid saying something).

    All in all, I fell in love with the country and still miss it to this day! Great people, fascinating culture…!

    As for the language, after failing to make much progress with German in university I remember being impressed with the elegant straightforward grammatical structure of Japanese. At a very early point, I remember starting to just form sentences without thinking in English first. I’m not sure why. For some reason the word order just started to click for me.

    However, after very rapid progress initially I plateaued at a high beginner level. So my sentences were never that complex. 🙂 I let kanji discourage me from attaining functional literacy, when there was no good reason to. And then I just coasted for a while letting work and other things act as excuses. So, I experienced challenges and failures as well.

    Good luck with your Japanese learning!

  • English might be your second language, or even tenth, but that is no excuse to write such a sloppy comment. What is “scteenne”? Even my dog has a spell checker. Use it. And look up the word “paragraph” in your dictionary. It’s really tiresome trying to read a huge block of text with no breaks. This is not the 18th century.

    No excuses.

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