4 Things I’ve Realized After Learning a Language for 5 Years

I began studying Japanese about 5 years ago as a freshman in college. Today, I live and work in rural Japan and use the language every day of my life.

Having recently reached a personal milestone in my language learning journey (passing level N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test), I feel inspired to share some of the things I’ve realized along the way.

I should note: these lessons can apply to any language — not just the one I happened to study.

1. You Don’t Have to Understand Every Word of a Conversation to Be Able to Participate

I used to be deeply impressed with the foreigners I met who spoke English as a second language.

I could speak like normal and they understood everything I said! I imagined the Herculean effort they must have put into studying and practicing English, and for that I held them in high regard.

Now, having been that foreigner myself, I realize that it’s all a bit of a sham.

Don’t get me wrong — I still am genuinely impressed by people who can have conversations in more than one language, but I don’t quite have the same illusion about how absurdly intelligent they must be in order to have reached that point.

Why? Because I realize now that they probably didn’t, in fact, understand everything I said.

When conversing in a non-native language, it’s actually really easy to give others the impression that you understand way more than you actually do. Even if you understand, say, only 30% or so of what someone said, you can fill in the blanks with context.

Context clues can easily fill in the gaps of your understanding. Image credit.

Don’t believe me? Imagine you just sat down at a restaurant and your waiter comes up to you and says,

“Blah blah blah blah drink blah blah blah [question mark]

You’ve been to a restaurant before, right? In your experience, what is the first thing waiters ask?

Usually they ask what you want to drink, right? And you heard the word “drink” and recognized from the grammar that the waiter asked you a question. So take a wild guess — what do you think he just said?

If it were me, I would assume the waiter asked me what I want to drink, so I’d answer as if that’s what he said. And if the waiter nods and smiles and writes something in his notepad, I’ll assume I was right. And when he comes back a couple minutes later with the drink I ordered, I’ll know I was right.

Right there, you can see — I understood only a tiny fraction of what the other person said, but because I answered right away with confidence, I held my end of the conversation up.

In other words, I’ve learned to become comfortable with making educated guesses when I respond to people. Using whatever words I understood as clues, I quickly form a hypothesis in my head of what they said, and I respond as if that’s for sure what they said.

When you do this, you’ll find that usually you’re right… or at least close enough to being right that the conversation will continue.

Sure, occasionally you’ll be so off the mark that the other person will cock their head and shoot you a confused look, and at that point you can admit you didn’t understand and ask for clarification.

But the thing is, at this point in my journey as a language learner, it’s quite rare for me to say, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” even though the reality is that even now I still don’t understand a large amount of what I hear.

When I was a beginner with Japanese, I probably would have frozen up and panicked when faced with a barrage of incomprehensible “blah blah blah”s and I would have ignored the parts that I did understand.

What’s different today is that I’ve become comfortable latching on to what I can understand and letting context clues fill in the blanks, then giving confident responses to whatever I assume the other person said.

It almost always works out for me.

2. You Can Do a Lot With Very Few Words

I remember having to memorize a big list of animal words in one of my elementary school Spanish classes. Dog, cat, cow, goat, mouse, elephant, hippopotamus, etc.

How often do you think I use the word “hippopotamus” in my daily life?

The truth is, textbooks can be terrible at prioritizing the vocabulary you should learn. When you’re starting out, it makes far more sense to learn the words for general categories of things than to focus on learning specifics.

Before you learn how to differentiate between dogs, cats, cows, and hippos, just learn one word: “animal.” That’s good enough for now.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to shout, “Watch out, there’s an alligator coming this way!” rest assured all you need to be able to do is point and say, “Animal!” Either way, you’ll alert people to the snarling threat.

You can drill the phrase, “Excuse me, can you please show me where the bathroom is?” or you can put on a quizzical look and say, “Bathroom?” You’ll accomplish the same goal, trust me.

You can spend months learning how to read a foreign script just so that you can order off a menu, or you can learn to ask one word: “Recommendation?” (That’ll probably make the restaurant experience more fun, anyway.)

When I was starting out with Japanese, I felt for a long time that I wasn’t “ready” to speak to anyone. I had such a limited vocabulary — what could I possibly talk about? No, no, I needed another year or two of studying and a few hundred more words under my belt before I could have a conversation!

That’s bullshit. You can speak from day one. (That, by the way, is the core advice of one of my favorite language learning bloggers, Benny Lewis. He consistently reaches fluency in new languages after only a few months of practice.)

Start speaking right away. If you only know 10 words, then use those 10 words as much as possible. Fill in the gaps by pointing and grunting if you have to.

Soon you’ll find that you can “talk around” almost any word you don’t know. Knowing just a few keywords will take you a long way. For example, “do,” “use,” and “make” can substitute for nearly any other verb. “Take a shower” becomes “do shower.” “Ride the train” becomes “use train.” “Build a house” becomes “make house.”

Sure, you might not be grammatically correct, but you’ll be understood.

Maybe you don’t know how to “ride” a train, but you can “use” one — either way, you’ll be understood. Image credit.

You may not know how to say “improve” but you do know how to say “make more good.” Maybe you don’t know all the words for “My goal for the future is to become a published author,” but you do know how to say, “I want to make book.”

At first you might sound like a caveman, but you will, in fact, communicate. And that’s all that truly matters at the end of the day.

3. You Have No Choice but to Develop a Thick Skin

The speed at which you learn a new language is directly proportional to how willing you are to put up with embarrassment.

Okay, maybe if literacy is your primary goal, you might be able to get away with quietly burying your head in books and hiding your struggle from anyone else. But when it comes to speaking, learning a language is learning to live with embarrassment.

You will experience so many embarrassing situations that you’ll lose track of them all.

And none of them will matter in the long run.

Whenever I make some particularly mortifying slip-up, this is what I tell myself: If the situation had been reversed, and the people I was talking to had been forced to speak English, they wouldn’t have done as well as I did.

Maybe that’s cocky, but it works for me.

(And given your situation, it might not be as true as it is for me living in rural Japan. But I digress…)

Here’s the thing — people will always much rather listen to a broken, barely coherent version of their native language instead of English.

I mean, think of yourself — would you rather deal with someone who approaches you and starts chatting in flawless Icelandic or someone who speaks a few words of imperfect English?

Even if your language ability is far from perfect, your conversation parter will cut you some slack simply because you took on the burden of difficulty from the conversation. You took the initiative to struggle with a foreign language, and they’ll be thankful that you didn’t force that struggle onto them.

(And honestly, the most immediately effective way to learn any word is to have it etched into your mind from embarrassment. I will never forget what zubon means after that time I asked a dry cleaner to clean my pantsu, only to later find out that I was asking her to clean not my pants, but my panties.)

There’s nothing like embarrassment to help you remember a word forever. Image source.

If you’re afraid of the embarrassment that will inevitably come from talking to people, for now you can simply try translating sentences in your head. Countless times I’ve stopped and examined a thought that just zipped through my mind to ask, “How would I say that in Japanese?”

Doing that is, in fact, producing the language, which is the same challenge you’d face if you were in a conversation. And it can be just as tiring if you do it for long enough!

Which brings me to my last point…

4. If You’re Not Feeling Mentally Strained, You’re Not Getting Any Better

I remember becoming physically exhausted during the three-hour Japanese classes I took in my junior year of college.

I would eye the clock, wondering if I could make it until the end. I was afraid that at any second my brain would give out and I’d suddenly stop being able to comprehend my teacher.

Needless to say, I don’t feel that way anymore. I live in Japan, conduct my daily life in Japanese, and work in environments where not a single coworker can hold a conversation in English, but I never feel exhausted by the challenge.

Language ability is like a muscle — a muscle that will strengthen over time if you keep pushing it beyond its limit.

(Preferably just slightly beyond its limit each time. This is where there’s a real benefit to working with a skilled teacher who understands exactly what level you’re at and never overwhelms you with too much new information at once.)

Naturally, people look for “shortcuts” to learning a language — some secret technique they can employ (usually gleaned from a book or paid course) that will minimize how much mental strain they’ll have to put up with before they reach proficiency.

And these “shortcuts” do, in a sense, exist — at least in the fact that some methods of practicing and studying are way more efficient than others.

For example, immediately diving headfirst into broken conversations full of awkwardness and embarrassment will get you to fluency faster than spending a year or two “getting ready,” only to find that even after all that supposed preparation, your first real conversations are still awkward and embarrassing.

Some people seem to think the toughest part of learning a language is out of the way once they’ve booked a plane ticket or purchased some specific textbook.

Nope! Even though I agree that immersion in your target language is key and that some textbooks are more effective than others, these things are merely tools. They’re not going to do the hard work for you.

Consistent mental strain and embarrassing moments are unavoidable if you’re ever going to reach proficiency.

Buying a plane ticket is not a shortcut to learning a language. Image credit.

And by the way — literacy and speaking/listening are completely separate skills. You can be proficient at one while being utterly inept at the other. Some people will focus all their study efforts on what they’re good at — let’s say, speaking — only to be surprised that after 10 years of living in the country they’re still effectively illiterate.

Of course they are! Reading is hard, but you’re not going to get any better at reading unless you… you know, read.

I cringe every time I encounter advice like, “Listen to Japanese passively for 10,000 hours!” That’s idiotic. Unless you’re a very young child, you’re not going to learn a language by osmosis. You just aren’t.

A two-hour session of Japanese-only conversation that leaves you mentally drained will do much more for improving your ability than 200 hours of watching anime with subtitles.

Let me clearly state it now: I don’t believe you need to possess any unusual degree of intelligence in order to learn a new language.

You just have to consistently put yourself out there and try.

Proficiency in a new language is absolutely within reach for anyone willing (or forced) to struggle!

I don’t know if you’ll take that as inspiring advice or not, but there it is — that’s what I’ve realized after nearly half a decade of learning Japanese.

Leave your thoughts in the comments. If there’s enough interest, I might make another list of things I’ve learned during this time specifically about Japanese.

Thank you for reading!