Why I Failed to Learn Japanese (and How You Can Avoid That)

When people ask me how many languages I speak, my reply is usually fourteen. 

But that's not the whole truth. Not really.

I've dedicated a year or more of my life to learning fourteen total languages, but to say that I can "speak" all of them isn't exactly right.

A couple of languages, unfortunately, have fallen out of my usual practice rotation. I haven't needed them socially, or when I travel. 

So my skills have gotten rusty, like a tool that's been neglected and left out in the rain.

My rustiest language of all is Japanese. After spending around 18 months learning it back in 2011, it's fallen completely into disuse. If I were asked to have a conversation in it today, I doubt I could string together more than a sentence or two. It's really that bad.

You might know the feeling. You may know what it's like to dedicate hours and hours across weeks and months to learn a certain language, only to have it waste away in a dark corner of your memory.

If this has happened to you, you probably feel like it's game over—like you'll never be able to recover and improve your language skills, even if you truly wanted to.

But, thinking of my Japanese, I want to let you know that that's not the case. Neither for me, nor for you. 

When I choose to revive my Japanese, I know that there are a handful of steps I can take to ensure success, and finally reach Japanese fluency.

Today, I want to teach these steps to you, too, so that you can use them in case you ever feel like you've "failed" with a language, like I have with Japanese.

Be Honest: How Did You Get to This Point?

The first step in the process of language recovery is taking time to reflect on how you arrived at this "language failure" in the first place.

To do this, you need to ask yourself questions like:

  • When did I officially stop learning this language?
  • What were the major factors that led to me giving up the language?
  • Were the above factors internal, or external? Could I have avoided them?

What you're doing here is admitting failure, and completing a "post-mortem" on the factors that led up to the failure.

This may be difficult for you, as it is for me. It's hard to admit failure, and to really reflect on the causes of that failure is harder still.

That's why you hear more language learning success stories than you do stories about failure. There are obviously more failures, but people usually don't want to talk about them.

But talking about your failures is the first necessary step you need to take; when you pick up your "failed" language again, you'll likely run into the same obstacles as you once did, so identifying those obstacles is the only way you can eventually defeat them, once and for all. 

Why I Failed to Learn Japanese to Fluency

Thinking back to my time learning Japanese, I was able to identify five major reasons which prevented me from reaching fluency in the language:

1. I Chose the Wrong Beginner Resources

For years, I've used Assimil coursebooks to start learning any new language. In my experience, works well for European languages, but not as much for East Asian ones. In the case of Japanese, the sentences were far too complicated, and I didn't find the content to be interesting enough to compel me to move forward with it.

2. I Chose the Wrong Method 

When I use Assimil to start a language, I do so in tandem with my own, personal Bidirectional Translation method. I'm very proud of the method, but at the time I had only tested it on European languages, which typically share the same Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) syntax. 

Japanese was the first Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) that I had used it on, so the translation part of the process became very difficult, and thinking directly in Japanese was almost impossible.

3. I Didn't Start with Simple Language 

As I mentioned earlier, Assimil's beginner Japanese sentences were actually quite complicated for someone with as little experience as I had. However, since I had dedicated myself to using Assimil, I committed myself to learning and emulating those difficult sentences. This, combined with my desire to "sound smart" in Japanese, made speaking an impossible chore—I would take forever to even formulate a single phrase!

4. I Didn't Start with a Powerful "Why" 

Nowadays, I always advocate that you know exactly why you are learning a language before you get started with it. When I typically begin a language, my "why" is built around communicating with and befriending natives. I didn't really do this with Japanese at all, so once I started having difficulties learning, it was very easy for me to give it up.

5. I Didn't Seek Out Japanese People to Connect With

As stated above, my principal goal in language learning is typically to converse and connect with native speakers. With Japanese, I struggled so mightily with my beginner materials that I never made the effort to seek out real, live Japanese people to talk to, which ultimately killed my motivation.

Brainstorm: If You Could Do It All Over Again, What Would You Do?

Once you've admitted failure, and listed all the things that led to you giving up the language, it's time to forge an action plan.

This action plan must outline the "dos" and "don'ts" that will help you avoid repeating your mistakes, should you ever pick up that dropped language once more. 

After examining why I failed in my Japanese learning, here are the steps that would help me pick it up again, and stick with it.

1. Try a different resource

The problem with Assimil Japanese was that it was too complicated and too boring for me. Before I start Japanese again, I will need to research a variety of materials to see if I can find content that is simple and interesting to me personally. Some possible resources include JapanesePod101 or Genki.

2. Try a different method

I'm not quite sure if my Bidirectional Translation was truly at fault for my failure in Japanese, but I do know that the emphasis on translation made it difficult to think in Japanese and get used to the unfamiliar syntax

To fix this problem, I will probably avoid Bidirectional Translation, and instead stick to exposing myself to simple sentences over and over (listening and reading), until I really get comfortable with how Japanese is structured.

3. Start speaking earlier, with simpler language

As much as I wanted to "sound smart" in Japanese, even from the beginning, it was a very unrealistic expectation. The syntax was much too foreign, so any sentences more than a few words would leave me speechless. 

The solution, then, will be to familiarize myself with Japanese syntax by speaking using very, very short sentences—I can even rely on three-word Subject-Object-Verb sentences to start, then grow my skills from there.

4. Visualize my End Goal

Language learning doesn't really have an end, but it is a journey with multiple destinations. When I first learned Japanese, I never really envisioned where that journey would take me.

Before beginning Japanese again, I'll need to really sit down and imagine where I'd like to be one, five, or even ten years down the road in my Japanese journey.

5. Make Friends Early, and Often

Human beings are often the greatest of motivators when learning a language. If I am to learn Japanese again, I need to focus on connecting with Japanese people, even at the stages where I don't know Japanese very well.

If I'm able to befriend real Japanese people early on, then I'll have strong motivation to continue onward until I can use their native language with them.

It's Never Too Late to Start Learning a Language Again

Many people who have stopped learning languages often feel an intense regret for losing the skills they once had. I never was very good at Japanese, but I don't feel very different. I know that if I had never given up, I'd be much further in the language than I am today.

But that's okay, because my journey with Japanese is not over. It's been a few years since I've stopped learning it daily, but I know that if I'm willing to pick Japanese up again, I'll eventually be able to get everything back, and even improve beyond where I once was.

However, that can only happen if I know why I stopped Japanese in the first place. I need to determine what went wrong, and have a plan to fix it.

​And although I haven't picked up Japanese again just yet, I'm certain that these changes will help me succeed. In fact, I've already tried them out with a few of my coaching clients who are learning Japanese, and they've all seen positive results with these same changes.

If you have a similar story of dropping a language, and you want to pick it up again, you need to do the same. You need to devise a strategy that can help you avoid or overcome the obstacles that were once in your path.

Failure is never permanent, unless you let it be. Any language, even one that's been dormant or decaying for years and years can be recovered and improved upon, as long as you have the drive and determination to get it done.

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • My progress with Japanese has been very slow, mostly because every time I take a break, I have to relearn the kanji and vocabulary (though I relearn it quickly). If I had limited myself to just Japanese and French all these years, I would be at a very high level in both right now (instead of intermediate).

    With both Japanese and Korean, the technique of making my own sentences aloud over a period of days until I master a grammatical form (the same method used in Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Jumpstart by Language Boost) has worked really well for me for these languages–much better than for European languages. In fact, I never have to relearn a grammatical form once I’ve learned it with this method, and I remember it when I practice conversation or talk to myself in Japanese. You probably have enough Japanese grammar books to try the method with. First, skim through textbooks and/or grammar books for the constructions you want to use in conversation and write brief (not detailed) notes in a notebook. Don’t feel obligated to learn all of the grammar in the books! Then use the notebook as a springboard to try making your own sentences aloud.

    As for reading, “Reading Japanese” by Jorden and Chaplin (though too dry for most people) has given me a strong foundation and will probably suit you well. (The first 4 chapters are katakana reading practice, then 4 chapters of hiragana, then 425 kanji–one at a time in enough phrases and sentences to get comfortable reading them.) I’m now reading novels (with difficulty, but they’ll get easier).

    • On second thought, “Reading Japanese” might not suit you well. I tend to study for short periods of time, multiple times a day, and this book is good for that. You tend to sit down and study for a set period (if I understand correctly), so you would find it boring and it requires a lot of mental energy. So maybe “Genki” or another standard textbook would suit you better.

      • Hi Andy – I haven’t tried “Reading Japanese” myself. I remember, maybe about 2 years ago that I’d reached the point where I’d learned just over 1,000 kanji and you (or it might have been someone else in the same thread) suggested that I started reading books as soon as possible.

        I kind of did, but then kind of didn’t … or at least, I started reading books with furigana, but still had too much difficulty reading books without.

        I’m now in pretty good shape, I finished wanikani, but of course, many kanji evaporate if you don’t see em that often. I was using LingQ to read articles, but I’ve also recently been reading a series of books from The Japan Shop. It says in the forward that they’re designed for beginners through to intermediate learners. Of course, it’s been about 8 years since I started my relationship with Japanese, so when you read “beginners” in the forward, there’s a little bit of horror when you still can’t read the books for “beginners”.

        However, when I got past the “beginner” ego barrier and started reading and listening with them, they were pretty easy for me, yet still not so easy that I didn’t have to focus.

        I don’t know if you’ve ever used them, but I found them a good bridge between reading stuff that was too boring … and stuff that I’m able to read now. I still read Star Wars by the way – never fails to entertain me, so that’s the compelling side of it sorted 🙂

  • Ottimo articolo, Luca – come sempre! Sto godendo tutti i tuoi articoli quest’anno, ma questo “hits home” per me – perché concentrandosi su il mio italiano peggiora il mio giapponese. In gennaio ho bisogno di pianificare come posso mantenere tre lingue E cominciare il russo! buon capodanno e a presto – Marc

  • I have been teaching Japanese for 2years on italki. I mainly use Genki and Japanese from zero for beginners. Both are great books as long as you have a skillful tutor.
    What I mean skillful is the tutor can imagine what specific stage the student is on and what to teach for the next small step.

    I know English grammar very well and have some experiences to learn French, Italian, and Portuguese. So, I can tell you if you use
    the same approaches you took when you learned European languages You will probably fail.

    Now I am not looking for new students on italki. So, my profile doesn’t appear in Japanese teachers. But if you are interested in my lesson please search HAMANO on user profile and send message.

  • Ciao Luca.

    Hai provato ad usare il corso di Michel Thomas per imparare il giapponese? Non avevo mai studiato una lingua asiatica, tuttavia sto imparando a formulare frasi in giapponese senza alcuna difficoltà pur seguendo il corso da poco. Il corso A1+A2 ha 8 dischi (“foundation Japanese”), ognuno dalla durata di un’ora. Sono arrivato soltanto all’inizio del quinto disco e riesco a formulare frasi da solo. Mi sento come se fossi arrivato a questo punto senza aver fatto sforzi.

    Beh, ho anche usato il corso di Michel Thomas un po’ più di dieci anni fa per imparare la lingua italiana…

    Buon proseguimento!

  • Ciao Luca.

    Dovresti assolutamente provare ad usare il corso di Michel Thomas per imparare il giapponese.

    Non avevo mai studiato una lingua asiatica, tuttavia sto imparando a formulare frasi in giapponese senza alcuna difficoltà pur seguendo il corso soltanto da qualche settimana.

    Il corso A1+A2 ha 8 dischi (“foundation Japanese”), ognuno dalla durata di un’ora. Poi c’è il corso per il livello B1. Entrambi hanno lo scopo di insegnare esclusivamente la grammatica.

    Sono arrivato all’inizio del sesto disco del foundation e adesso riesco a formulare frasi da solo del tipo:
    “Ieri a Tokyo ho bevuto del sake squisito con un amico ma oggi sono stanco quindi voglio leggere un libro a casa”.

    I miei progressi continuano a sbalordirmi.

    Qualche settimana fa non sapevo nemmeno una parola di questa lingua e non ho fatto altro a parte ascoltare le lezioni e formulare le frasi che l’insegnante mi ha detto di formulare. Non ho mai preso appunti. Infatti gli insegnanti dei corsi di Michel Thomas ti impediscono di farlo, e ad un certo punto scopri che in effetti non serve prenderli. Quindi è proprio strano che io ricordi praticamente tutto e che sappia usare con sicurezza tutto quello che ho imparato.

    Con questo corso sono convinto che il giapponese è alla portata di tutti.

    Sappi che ho anche usato il corso di Michel Thomas un po’ più di dieci anni fa per imparare la lingua italiana…

    Buon proseguimento!

  • FIRST, i LIKE TO CONGRATULATE FOR YOUR AWARD yOU ARE REALLY DESERVED, AND tHAT IS THE BEGGING GOOD LUCK FOR GREAT FUTURE.

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