Out of love with Japanese: overcome a language learning crisis

The very first time I was fascinated by Japanese was in 2003: Quentin Tarantino had just released Kill Bill vol.1 and I went to watch it at the cinema for 3 times in less than 2 weeks. In hindsight Uma Thurman was not super good at it, but nonetheless I thought it was the coolest language ever.

Flash forward to 2012: I got a BA in Asian Cultures and I moved to Kyoto to study Japanese at a language school. I was planning on staying for one year and ended up doubling that. It was the most intense, both one of the happiest and one of the most difficult times of my life. I stepped out of my comfort zone in ways I didn’t believe possible. I fell in love with the country’s culture and picked up some of its habits, to the point that my friends would make fun of me saying that I was more Japanese then the Japanese themselves.

Despite feeling so at home I realised that the way of living was not for me. I didn’t want to do crazy amounts of overtime and I was aware that being a foreigner and a woman wouldn’t have made things easy for me.

I moved to London and for some time I kept looking for bits of Japan here: ramen restaurants, Japanese bookshops, showings of Studio Ghibli movies, exhibitions and concerts… All I wanted was to stay in touch with Japan.
I spent my first months in the UK studying for JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) and I achieved N1, the highest level.

I could finally read a novel, watch a movie without subtitles, have a natural conversation with a native speaker. Unexpectedly, that was when my motivation dropped. It’s not like I felt I had learnt all there is to learn, quite the opposite. One can never really stop studying Japanese.

So, what happened? Why is it that the one big passion of my life seems to be fading? I’ve been thinking about it and I found two main reasons for it.

overcome a language learning crisis

Language learning burnout

While studying for JLPT I was ultra-disciplined: I would practice kanji on my commute to work, do reading exercises on my lunch break and study grammar after I was back from the office. My first priority at the time was to pass the test. I had a well-thought, effective study schedule that ultimately helped me succeed, but the recovery break I took after the exam became kind of permanent. I didn’t have a next goal and I was exhausted: this was enough to kill my motivation and make me postpone Japanese learning indefinitely.

Falling in and out of love

Weird as it might sound, I often compare my passion for Japan and its culture to a love story. It started with a crush from a distance on something I didn’t know that well. After moving to Kyoto it developed into a more mature, all-absorbing love. It was rooted in a deepening knowledge of the country and its culture and in my efforts to accept its flaws. I made sacrifices for it, invested energy and emotional resources to make it work. In the bottom of my heart, though, a little voice kept telling me it was not going to. As much as I love Japan I wouldn’t be happy living there, being an outsider all of my life in a society that is still, too much, patriarchal and sexist.

I left, but I still miss Japan like crazy, thinking about it is painful. This brought me to detach myself from all things Japan and made me reject the language too.

So how do I deal with it now?

After a long time of denial I’m finally facing the fact that I hit a wall. Despite everything I obviously don’t want to abandon this passion for good. This is why I came up with a few strategies that hopefully will help me reconcile with Japan and its language.

Slow down

As I mentioned, after a learning burnout you are going to need a break. If the thought of spending time practising your target language makes your skin crawl then you have to leave it for a while. Forcing yourself will make you hate it even more. Take a step back, be forgiving towards yourself and plan what’s coming next. You’re not giving up on this, just resting for a while!

Try to remember why

Do you remember why you decided to learn this language to begin with? Was it for study or for work? Do you have friends from that country and wanted to communicate with them in their native language? Were you fascinated by the language’s sound, or did you want to challenge yourself with its complicated grammar or different writing system? Perhaps you were interested in its culture or one of its aspects?
Dig a bit into yourself and go back to the start. Which leads us to…

Do the things you enjoy

For me it all started with my other big passion: movies. I fell in love with Japanese cinema and everything else came after it. I love animated movies, I love black and white classics, I love the new generation of directors making extreme films you’d never see in the West. If I can’t bring myself to open a textbook I can always pick a good flick and learn a new expression from its dialogues. Pick the thing you love the most about your target language and begin from that. You might think it’s not enough but it’s a start.

Take baby steps

It’s ok to start from something small and add to it when and as you feel ready. You can just listen to your favourite songs for a few weeks. Maybe one day you’ll want to look up that word you don’t understand and write it down on your notebook. Then you can make a flashcard for it on your favourite app and practice a few words a day. What about searching for different uses for it in sentences? All when you’re ready, at your own pace.

No rules!

Especially if you’re exhausted from studying too hard you should avoid all schedules and rules for a while. If you absolutely don’t want to study any grammar then don’t. If you planned an activity but you hate the idea of getting at it, leave it. Get closer to the language however feels right for you.

Talk to other learners

Do you have any friends learning the same language as you? Even if it’s a different language it can still work. Reach out to them and ask if they went through the same struggles as you and what they did to overcome the crisis. Chances are they too felt demotivated at least once and they have a bit of wisdom to share.
If you can’t think of anyone among your acquaintances have a look at Facebook groups and internet communities: language learners online are a lovely bunch and they’ll be happy to help you and support you.

Bonus: Take a trip (not necessarily all the way there)

One of the most effective ways to make you fall in love again with the language is by visiting the country where it’s spoken. Being in contact with natives, getting by without using English during your trip and having first hand experience of the culture will boost your motivation.
If you can’t pack up and go travelling straight away – understandably – there are other things you could do: join a language exchange meetup, take part in events or festivals, or once again look for an online community.

Did you ever go through a language learning crisis? What strategies did you use to overcome it? Let me know in the comments!

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14 Comments

  1. 26th May 2017 / 7:18 pm

    I can totally relate to what you are saying! The same happened to me with Swedish. I lived there for a while and fell in love with the language, but I totally lost interest when I came home, knowing I will never make a life there. Like you describe it, I almost rejected everything related to the language and totally stopped using it. I don’t have any regrets, since it is of no use in my life today, but now that I’ve joined the language learning community, I like to listen to old songs or watch series I used to like.

    • Elena
      29th May 2017 / 7:01 pm

      It’s great that joining the language learning community brought you a little closer to Swedish again. As much as I understand all of the reasons why someone would stop practising a language in this situation, it’s still such a shame to forget it completely.
      It’s relieving to know I’m not alone in feeling this way and that someone can relate to what I’m going through!

  2. 26th May 2017 / 9:49 pm

    This was the best writing about language learning I have read in a while. For so many reasons. I love it when people write about their own experiences and dare to go personal, instead of just sharing empty lists of how-to tips. Personally I find there are a lot of feelings and emotions related to my language learning, and that is how I want to write about languages – how it makes me feel, both at its best and at its worst. That’s how you’ve written here, and I love it.

    And I so much relate to feeling lost after reaching a goal, when I don’t have a new one. I haven’t yet experienced any of this with languages, but I have in so many other things in life. And you can’t just think of a new goal and keep going. Your previous goal was formulated over a long time, perhaps it started with a vague thought and small things kept feeding it and making it clearer and more important… So it will take time to find a new goal.

    And finally, language lovestories are totally a thing! I’ve always thought that the appeal that some languages have to me more than others, with no clear reason, is so similar to having a crush. And then, when you get to know a language better, you slowly grow more fond of them, learn to love even their less amiable grammar twists… So it only makes sense that sometimes you also fall out of love with a language.

    I hope you and Japanese can find a way to be really good friends for life!

    • Elena
      29th May 2017 / 7:15 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment Tiia, it really made me happy! I was actually a bit worried while writing this post that I was going too personal and people wouldn’t find it interesting. For me it’s quite natural to disclose parts of myself when writing and to have lots of emotions involved in most things I do, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this!

      I think for me this language test was the “final boss” in my Japanese learning since the very first day I started studying, so after that I got totally lost. For some time I considered looking for a job that would let me use Japanese, but then I made different choices and at least for the moment that is not the case. Right now I find it very hard to think of my next goal.

      And also I’m happy I’m not the only one having language love stories! After all if you dedicate so much effort, work and time to something then it’s definitely going to become important for you.

      Thank you again for your comment and for your support!

  3. Elfin
    28th May 2017 / 8:12 am

    Elena, this is a great post.

    Your story is so amazing. Your experience with Japanese is exactly like a relationship.

    All our language learning experiences are, but maybe yours is more so, because of the many practical considerations you had to make for you own well being.

    I think you did the right thing but I do hope you find a way to sort things out and get to be friends with Japanese again.

    I love that you mention the gender issue, something that is usually glossed over but does play a part.

    We can all relate to this story, because everybody at some level, has had this happen to them.

    Thanks for such a brave post.

    • Elena
      29th May 2017 / 7:24 pm

      Hi Elfin, thank you so much for your comment and your kind words, it means a lot to me. I didn’t expect such a positive response to this post, I’m happy that I’m not alone in this and that I could connect with such sensitive and understanding people.
      The gender issue is something I feel very strongly and for me it’s very important to talk about it because it definitely influences my experiences in different countries and within different cultures.
      Thank you so much for the encouraging words!

  4. 2nd June 2017 / 11:45 pm

    Elena, I completely adored this post so much! I could relate to many aspects of this, even if on a smaller scale. I too got my BA in Asian Studies with a focus on Japanese. I even got to study abroad for 3 months in Kyoto as well and I completely fell in love with that city. It has been 7 years since I was there and I yearn to go back to visit so much but I agree completely that even though I would have loved to stay there longer I don’t think I would have been able to live there for the rest of my life due to the same reasons you mentioned. I didn’t get to the level you are at as I only took close to 3 years of the language and haven’t studied it much since I graduated 5 years ago 🙁 It is definitely a language I want to revisit at some point and make progress in again but it probably won’t be until after my Korean studies pick up some more. I loved your story so much and I am glad we both have experienced that pull that a language can have on you!

    • Elena
      3rd June 2017 / 11:31 am

      Hello Judith, thank you for you comment! It’s nice to hear the stories of people who have a similar experiences as mine and to feel I’m not alone in this.
      Kyoto is an amazing city and I miss it so much, sometimes I’m tempted to forget all the reasons why I don’t want to live in Japan and to fly back there straight away. I hope you will have the chance to visit there soon.
      Your post about Korean resonated with me and I love to be able to share the downsides of language learning and the failures and difficulties I experience, not only my successes. I hope that your love story with Korean will be an amazing one!

  5. conycatcher
    3rd June 2017 / 4:08 am

    I studied Japanese for about 10 years up until 2002, but since then other languages have always had to take priority. I never really got that good before. Like i said, I have three other languages that I have strong motivation to work on and I don’t really run into many Japanese people where I live, so it would be hard to take it up again and get good. I did run into many of the issues you did with Japanese, but with Mandarin. It was hard to fit in. I felt like I didn’t get a fair shot. I felt pretty angry for a while. Good for you for sharing this with us. I work with Mandarin on my job. I don’t have many other skills. If you can find something good where you work with Japanese you might consider it.

    • Elena
      3rd June 2017 / 11:39 am

      Hello, thank you for leaving a comment!
      Indeed, when there is no motivation to learn or a real goal to work on it’s easy to lose track and quit learning a language completely.
      That’s precisely how I felt at some point in Japan, left out and angry. It’s frustrating when you’re putting a lot of effort to learn and blend in but they don’t let you in anyway.
      I have considered working using Japanese but for now I have other projects, hopefully in the future!

  6. 10th June 2017 / 1:38 am

    “Weird as it might sound, I often compare my passion for Japan and its culture to a love story. ”

    It doesn’t sound weird at all. I do exactly the same thing.

    Typically, we all talk about falling in love as in falling in love with someone, but there’s more than that.
    We fall in love with places, memories, stories, projects, ideas.
    We fall in love with sounds and languages.

    I’m in a complicated relationship with French right now. It’s getting better but I had to take a break for a while.

    Lesson learned: baby steps will take you further than you could ever imagine.

    The next thing you know, your target language has become a part of your life once again.

    • Elena
      17th June 2017 / 2:45 pm

      I’ve had many comments saying that it’s actually not that crazy, so I feel a bit less lonely in this now! Indeed, love is a feeling that encompasses much more than romantic relationships.

      I hope that your relationship with French improves soon. Sometimes the only thing one can do is take it easy and little by little get close again to your target language.

  7. 23rd June 2017 / 3:21 pm

    So much of this resonates with me.

    I spent 18 months in Nagoya, Japan, and I recognize myself in this story. After I went back to my home country (Ireland), I also had habits that I was stuck with. I even bowed to Irish people sometimes and they thought I was bonkers.

    I knew I couldn’t live there forever. No matter how long someone lives there, or how well they learn the language, they are always a ‘foreigner,’ even if they were born there.

    After I returned to Ireland, I tried to maintain the language for a while. But without being in Japan and experiencing it, the motivation to study the language just wasn’t there. Unfortunately I let it slide and forgot nearly all of the language that I had learned.

    However, I would like to get back the intermediate ability that I had in Japanese. I did get some books and I would like to take at least the lower levels of the JLPT. I don’t know if I would ever aim for deep fluency again, but it would be nice to be able to handle the basics again.

    • Elena
      27th June 2017 / 5:11 pm

      Hi Aidan, thank you for your comment!
      I know, it’s so difficult to stop bowing, some habits from Japan just stuck with me until this day.

      I get a bit emotional when I think about it, because I am very aware and sure about the reasons why I left, but at the same time I miss being there, it’s almost painful. I couldn’t have endured the “gaijin” treatment much longer, that’s a fact.

      It’s frustrating to forget so much of a language I spent a lot of energy and time on. Like you said, without motivation it’s hard to keep the level I had.
      I also think though that when you got to intermediate level or above in a language it’s difficult to completely forget it, and if you decided to put some effort into it again you could go back where you were without too much effort.

      I hope you manage to get back to Japanese studies soon!