How Hard is it to Learn Japanese and Can You be Fluent in 3 Months?
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about a subject that has come up before and that is fluency in three months. I’m going to talk about this for a variety of reasons, but basically, the trigger of why I’m talking about it now is because my friend Benny the Irish Polyglot has announced his most recent project, which is to achieve a B-2 Level in Japanese in three months. He’s going to do this in Valencia, Spain where he’s studying Japanese in anticipation of going there after three months. I don’t remember how long he’s going to spend in Japan when he goes there.
So I watched the video. I’m going to leave a link to the video. Benny is very anxious to have you watch the video and subscribe to his channel so I’m helping him achieve a little bit more notoriety, fame, whatever, which I’m happy to do because Benny is a great motivator. If you watch his video you will come away, I think as I did, with the feeling that here’s a man who is encouraging people to learn languages. He’s not afraid to show his own mistakes or shortcomings. He has a lot of enthusiasm and he’s showing people to learn a language.
So the message, fundamentally, is positive. However, when it comes to the actual substance of the message, in other words, that you can achieve B-2, which is fluency, in three months in a language like Japanese which is very different from any language that Benny knows, do I think that is possible? No. Do I think it’s realistic? No. And I will explain why. Benny carries it off because he’s so enthusiastic in his video, but overall as a message to language learners I don’t think it’s a very construction one.
Now, I want to first of all tell you what B-2 in the common European framework of reference or frame of reference, whatever it’s called, corresponds to. It is: Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his or her field specialization; can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party; can produce clear detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantage of various options.
Is this achievable in three months sitting in Valencia studying Japanese? No. In fact, Benny more or less admits this in his video. He sort of says ‘failure is an option.’ In other words, he is encouraging himself to learn. He’s set this unachievable goal, he’s shooting for the stars and he’s going to work very hard. That part of it is very good. I have no doubt that he will work very hard and I have no doubt that he will learn a lot of Japanese and that he will arrive in Japan with a great advantage and probably further along than many foreigners who have lived in Japan for many, many years.
For all of these things I salute him, a great thing to be doing, but the message that you can achieve this level of fluency, what I just described in three months, to me is almost a distortion of language learning. What’s the hurry? What’s the hurry? In fact, to achieve that level of fluency you have to have a lot of experience with the language, with the people, with the culture. You have to understand context. There are a lot of things that you simply cannot achieve no matter how hard you work in a period of three months.
I think the language-learning process itself is enjoyable and I think one of the things we need to do is to find ways of learning languages that are enjoyable. As Alex Argaez said in a video, which I’m going to talk about in another video of mine where he talks about polyglottery, he says a number of very interesting things, that language learning is fundamentally an autodidactic process of interaction with the language. You, yourself, have to interact with the language. Teachers can encourage and provide feedback, but ultimately the successful language learner is reacting in a self-motivated way with the language. That’s how he learns.
Argaez also points out that many polyglots, such as Alex, such as myself, such as Benny, all have techniques on how to do this autodidactic process. While there will be many points in common, there will also be points, techniques or methods that are different and this is going to depend on what we like to do, circumstances, time available and so forth. We’ll see this here with Benny.
Benny’s focus is on speaking. He’s always said to speak from day one and here he says he’s going to be speaking from day one however many hours a day, one or two, with his Japanese tutor. He will also be studying. He shows he’s got some books in the background and he’ll be working with flashcards, but the motivation for him is to do all of this stuff so that he can then speak a little more the next day, which is fine.
I would take a different approach. I would focus more on listening and reading, initially, building up my vocabulary and my ability to understand to a point where, actually, I can have a more meaningful discussion with a tutor. But the key thing in language learning is it’s a self-directed autodidactic process of interaction with the language. You’re obviously going to want to do the things that you like to do and the things that work for you.
I see some of the methods, for example, that Luca uses. He translates from the language he’s learning into his own language and then back into the target language again. I’m sure that’s an excellent and a very effective way of learning. We also have Alex Argaez who is very fond of shadowing, which means reading text out loud while walking, and many people claim this is very effective. I won’t do either because I don’t want to.
I’m not writing a test. I learn languages for enjoyment. I enjoy the process. I have for the last week or two been refreshing my Italian and I’m having a ball. I’m listening to podcasts about Charlemagne, Carlomagno, Van Gogh, very interesting podcasts. In Italian I know most of the words so I don’t need the text. Now I’m going to start focusing again on Czech, so I’ll go back to very interesting texts that I have with audio. I just like doing that. As long as I’m interacting with the language, I’m learning.
If I were in Benny’s shoes, he’s saying, for example, he’s not going to read. He’s not interested in reading. He doesn’t like reading. My approach would be to focus on building up my comprehension; therefore, I would want to read because reading is a very good way of acquiring vocabulary, learning about the country, the culture and the history and so forth and so on.
As my goal if I were going to Japan in a few months, I would build up my comprehension skills foremost because once I get to Japan I’ll have, I think, a lot more opportunity to speak. So I might have, as was the case with Romanian, three hours a week or so of Skype discussion. Not for the first month, but starting the second and third month. Mostly, I want to build up my ability to understand. So when I get to Japan, as in the case with Benny, I will stumble for the first week or so, but then I’ll have lots of chance to speak and if I understand what people are saying, if I can read things around me, if I can read the newspaper and so forth, I’m going to be doing a lot better.
The important thing in language learning and what I kind of want to focus on here is I think language learning is an enjoyable activity for its own sake and we should learn to do it in ways that we find enjoyable. So if it’s enjoyable, what’s the hurry? Second of all, I will pick up on something Alex Argaez said in his video and that is that he feels that the sort of emphasis on quantifying in language learning is not helpful. In other words, how many languages do you speak, he says is not a meaningful question because he speaks them all at different degrees of fluency and some of them may lie dormant for a while. He can’t just turn them on. So he doesn’t like answering that question. He also thinks that the emphasis on proficiency, testing our levels, B-2, B-1, whatever, that’s not so useful either.
What he feels is useful is finding efficient ways of learning and I would add enjoyable ways of learning and learning in ways that enable us to maintain our languages. I think this is also another important point. If you learn a language for three months and leave it, it’s very easy to lose it. I feel it’s important to have ways of learning that you find enjoyable so that you can always go back to them and refresh, maintain and even improve your languages.
For example in Czech now, which I’ve been away from more or less for eight months, I go back and I grab a beginner book and very quickly it all comes back to me. I can almost hear again the recordings that I used to listen to in my earlier content and I’ll do that for a couple of days interspersed with the more difficult stuff that I’m doing. The whole process is enjoyable, but my Czech hasn’t gone away. It’s kind of subsided a bit, but it can be very quickly brought back because I learned it through a process of massive input and exposure in a very enjoyable way. It’s not a chore. It’s not unpleasant. I’m not in a hurry. I’m enjoying it.
Following up on that, rather than worrying about how much we can cram into three months, how quickly we can learn, how many languages we speak, all of this quantifying, I agree with Alex. We should focus on quality, how efficiently, how enjoyably can we learn, to what extent can we learn languages in a way that we don’t lose them, that we retain them and can maintain them, I think those are the important things. That kind of activity is a life-long endeavor. We never totally master a language, we shouldn’t forget them either and we gradually accumulate more and more languages.
I think Benny with his Japanese, which he’ll follow up with a visit to Japan, will have there a base such as he has with Chinese that he can build on over time. In order to take those languages to the level that he is at in his romance languages or in German, it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to be three months. So to that extent, I think the idea that he encourages people with his video and to judge by the comments on his YouTube channel people are encouraged an they appreciate his energy and his honesty in exposing his level in the language. So it is a positive message from that sense.
You know three months goes by very, very quickly. If you start a new language, especially a very different language like Japanese, three months goes by very, very quickly and to even suggest that you could be at a B-2 level after three months is in real terms, maybe not in terms of Benny’s objectives, which is to stimulate interest in language learning, but from a realistic point of view it’s not achievable.
I don’t want to start a controversy, but I just think it is important to make the point and for me to state my beliefs. My beliefs, therefore, are that language learning is immensely rewarding not only because of what we are able to achieve, i.e., potentially fluency in the language, but the actual process itself. It’s a process of discovery. It’s an enjoyable one. The brain learns, but it learns slowly. I look forward to your comments. Thank you for now, bye.
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