Immersion, jumping in the deep end and forcing yourself to swim. Leave the floaties at home and just go for it. I did that. I went for it. Diving in head first, or maybe more like a cannon ball. Yeah, that’s about the level of finesse I used. Two years ago I told myself I was going to step up my game and put my Japanese learning on hard mode like a boss. Two years working at a Japanese company in Tokyo, every day a battle in the ring, with no possibility of escaping into using English. 四面楚歌。
Language learning is like a boxing match. Native speakers are the heavyweight champions and you’re just the underdog contender. Every word, a jab. Every question, a flurry of punches, a combination fired in your direction, a challenge of your comprehension. Block. You understood. Take a hit to the face. You didn’t understand. Maybe they hit too hard, maybe they punch too fast. For now all you can do is hang in the ring, the conversation, as long as you can bear, blocking and hoping come out the other end with your face still intact.
Eventually you start to see the patterns in the punches, you vocabulary expands. Your comprehension quickens, and you can start to dodge and block with increased confidence. You want to attack, or at least counter, but the words just don’t come out. Your arms are too weak, all you can do is jab. 片言。
But of course they’d be weak; you’ve never had to use them before. The mental acrobatics your brain is doing just to spit out a simple sentence to counter the onslaught of questions coming your way is starting to take effect. Your confidence increases, able comprehensible sentences, and now you’re on the offensive. The words start to flow off your tongue, effortlessly, and you’re a able to return jabs, uppercuts, and flurry of punches of your own. Still rough around the edges, but you can string together complex grammar like a calculated plan, powerful enough to start doing damage. If your words were punches, 四字熟語 would be your combinations. You’ve taken a beating, but now you are a seasoned formidable opponent. Suddenly thing you only dreamed of achieving are now part of your daily routine.
After a few years in the ring my Japanese may still be rough around the edges, but I’ve learned how spar and go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights. Now after two years of all Japanese all day every day in a Tokyo office, I’m moving on another company where English is the default language and I’m hoping my hard earned Japanese skills don’t atrophy and wither away into nothing. Of course, continuing to live and work in Japan I’ll still have plenty of opportunities to hone my language skills, but without the same environment it makes me wonder, can I stay sharp?