Anger Helped Me Realize the Progress I Had Made in Japanese

Embrace the feelings you have in a new language to stay motivated.

Mathias Barra
May 3 · 6 min read
Photo by Arnaud Mariat on Unsplash

A language-learning journey is full of realizations. Some small, some massive.

You first realize the language isn’t as crazy as it sounds. You notice the writing system makes more sense than you originally thought. You then come to appreciate the instances where you’re able to introduce yourself for the first time, the first 5-minute conversation, the first time you naturally used a word you struggled to remember, the first time you watch a movie without subtitles and understand it, the first book you read, etc.

The longer you study, the more such realizations you’ll experience. Each will feel unique and you’ll treasure them whenever they surprise you out of nowhere. Because, yes, these realizations will all surprise you.

The most impactful realizations, however, all come from strong feelings.

The first time you feel something while hearing “I love you” in a foreign language. The first time you genuinely laugh at a joke in the language. The first time you feel truly hurt by something you heard in another language. And even the first time you become truly angry.

By 2016, the strongest feeling I had ever felt in Japanese was frustration and mild anger. Some friends had messed with me, and I didn’t like it, but my response language instantly became English, out of habit.

But it was nothing compared to when I looked for an apartment to do a houseshare with a friend of mine.

Looking For a New Place to Live

Looking for a flat in Japan is a mess. Doing it as a foreigner is even worse. Despite the number of foreigners increasing every year, there’s still a lot of racism towards foreigners, often expressed through distrust and fear.

When you’re a foreigner, owners fear you’ll be loud and destroy the apartment. While this has decreased within Tokyo itself and maybe other large cities, this fear is still very much present when you get off the beaten track.

Add to this the idea of doing a houseshare with a friend and you’re in for some strong barriers. My friend and I found dozens of flats with a realtor and he called the owners one by one in front of us. The conversation always followed the same development.

They answered questions from the realtor about availability until the realtor mentioned the person whose name would be on the contract would be a foreigner. From that point, 99% of them said they refused foreigners. Among the rest, 60% refused a houseshare, especially if between two men. And, still, we were “good” candidates since we both spoke Japanese and I worked in an Embassy at the time.

We knew what we were getting into so we kept reducing our expectations until one owner accepted us. We were happy and began the procedure.

Like in many other countries, you need a guarantor but, for foreigners, you’re often forced to use what they call a “guarantor company” that’ll cost you up to two months’ worth of rent. The one we had found was 30% of the rent.

We signed the contract.

The Day I Became Enraged in Japanese

I still remember clearly the day I got a phone call from the realtor to talk about the contract. I was at work and went into a closet to take the call without being disrupted.

He told me the guarantor company didn’t accept foreigners and we’d need to use another one that’d cost us a month worth of rent. That meant $1,000 more than what we had planned. We were on a tight budget and couldn't afford this extra price.

I felt scammed and all the frustration this 4-month process had been building up just exploded. My interlocutor not speaking English, I had no choice but to keep using Japanese.

I had done enough research to know this wasn’t some kind of bad luck. This was just our realtor doing an awful job. I knew there were tons of guarantor companies and the one for my previous apartment gladly accepted me.

I told him we’d never pay that much more since we had already signed the contract with a specific price. That would be the price we’d pay and that was it. He pushed back saying the contract didn’t matter if we didn’t have a guarantor company.

I then began negotiating and saying it was his fault for not checking this beforehand — since he was the one in charge of setting up that part. 20 minutes later, he had agreed to only increase the amount by $150 and paying the rest from his own commission.

When I put down my phone, I was still shaking with anger but was proud to have brought it down by that much. It took me the rest of the day to notice I had done it all in Japanese without a single word of English.

Extreme Feelings Bring the Best of Your Language

This might seem like some standard negotiation to some of you but it wasn’t to me. Pent up feelings had burst out but not in English — nor my native French — , and I had stayed polite even within my anger.

I had gained enough control over the Japanese language to politely negotiate while having strong feelings. I didn’t have to stop to consider how to build sentences. I just built them and focused on the goal: reducing that crazy increase in price.

Since then, I’ve lived similar experiences in different feelings. When I truly fell in love with a Japanese girl, I expressed my feelings in Japanese. When I broke up with her much later while still loving her, I did it in Japanese. When a friend broke another friend’s heart while drunk, I expressed my disappointment and anger for his actions in Japanese.

Expressing feelings in a different language isn’t that hard when it’s common feelings like being rather happy, kinda sad, or somehow bothered. It’s when you’re overwhelmed by feelings that it gets complicated. Especially the first time.

Love, anger, happiness, sadness, fear, and other strong feelings are the hardest to express and actually mean.

My first Asian girlfriend was Korean. In our relationship, we quickly started saying “사랑해”, the Korean equivalent of “I love you”, but it never felt anything close to its English or French equivalent, which I never became able to say to her. It just felt like some “I really like being with you.” Nothing more.

Don’t run back to your native language at the first opportunity when such strong feelings arise. Open yourself to them and keep using the language.

You may say some stereotypical things you saw in an anime or drama at first but, with time, these experiences will help you get a better handle of the language than any other situation.

Final Thoughts

I’ll never forget the small closet I had that call. It’s embedded in my Japanese skills. More than passing the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT N1), this experience proved me how much of a good handle I had of the language.

I’m now thankful for the realtor to have been that bad at his job. It was an expensive lesson but it was worth it.

Don’t fear situations where there’s no turning back. If you can, instigate situations where you don’t have a choice. If you can’t, be aware that unexpected situations will bring you to the next level.

Embrace the feelings that arise.

Whether good or bad, these feelings will help you make strides in the language. Remembering them later on will also raise your motivation to keep learning.

I wish I had had more such situations earlier on my journey.

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Mathias Barra

Written by

Polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping the world to learn languages and become more understanding of others. Say hi →

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

Mathias Barra

Written by

Polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping the world to learn languages and become more understanding of others. Say hi →

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

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