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 than 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.
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 the 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.
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 in 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.
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 in the way that 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 a 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!