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


“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

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…

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