I almost didn’t write this blog post. Why? Because I am currently driving with my wife back up to Seattle from LA and only have about 30 minutes available to write. My inner perfectionist almost talked me out of posting anything at all, arguing that it’s better to do nothing than do something less than perfect. Fortunately, I’ve learned to resist the siren call of such irrational perfectionism (well, most of the time). I now believe that done is better than perfect and that the habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself (hat tip to Gretchen Rubin). In other words, it’s more important that I stick to my weekly goal of publishing at least one blog post on Language Mastery, even if it is a short post like this one. The exact same lesson applies to language learning. How many times do we put off practicing Japanese because we don’t have enough time to put in a complete study session? How often do we procrastinate because we don’t have our preferred resources on hand or are not in the ideal environment?
As a teacher, blogger, and coach in language learning, I’ve heard just about every excuse there is for why one can’t learn a foreign language. Here are the most common, limiting, and ultimately untrue beliefs: 1) “Learning languages is really difficult, especially non-Romance languages like Japanese.” 2) “I don’t have enough time, money, or language ability to learn a language.” 3) “I don’t live where the language is spoken.” 4) “I’m too old to learn a language.” While learning to speak a new tongue might be easier or more convenient for some people (e.g. those who have hours of free time available each day, deep financial resources, the freedom to travel frequently or move abroad, etc.), it is imperative to understand that anyone can learn a language well if they: 1) Prioritize language learning in their lives. 2) Do the right things consistently (heaps of listening and reading input and heaps of active speaking and writing output). 3) Change their beliefs about language learning.
Chad Fowler’s “Harajuku Moment”: How Honest Self-Reflection and a Strong Enough “Why” Create Lasting Motivation
To succeed in any long-term endeavor, may it be learning a language or transforming your body, you need to have a strong enough “why”. “I kinda want to learn Japanese” or “It would be nice to lose 20 pounds of body fat” won’t cut it. Your objective must be a “need”, not a “want”. This concept is illustrated beautifully in a section of The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss titled “The Harajuku Moment”. Tim shares the inspring story of Chad Fowler―a CTO, programmer, author, and co-organizer of the RubyConf and RailsConf conferences―who lost over 70 pounds in less than a year! While his specific story is health related, you can apply the exact same wisdom to language learning.
Words are powerful tools. Not only can they communicate nuanced thoughts and complex feelings, but they can actually influence our thoughts and feelings, too. Consider, for example, the profound difference between “have to” and “get to” when coupled with the phrase “study Japanese today”…
We’ve all been there. We find ourselves standing in the language section of Barnes and Noble staring lustfully at the colorful rows of shiny new books, thinking naïvely to ourselves, “This is the missing resource. If I just buy this book, I can finally make some real progress!” It’s a perfectly naturally instinct and I admit that I have succumbed to it an embarrassing number of times. I’ve excitedly purchased language learning books that ended up sitting on my shelf unopened. I’ve joined online membership sites, bought apps, or made in-app purchases, only to rarely if ever open the sites or apps. It saddens me to think of how many trips I could now take using the money I have wasted on language learning tools and resources I never ended up using. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now, but the frustrating truth is that I will likely do the same thing again. Why do so many of us fall into this trap again and again?
Is it ideal to learn Japanese in Japan and Mandarin in China or Taiwan? Yes. Is it a mandatory condition? Absolutely not. Let me be clear: living in Japan and Taiwan for a number of years was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I go back to visit as often as possible. But while living in a Japanese or Mandarin speaking country can certainly provide learners of these languages many advantages, it’s critical to understand that it’s not a requirement for success. In today’s world, “I can’t learn Japanese or Mandarin because I live in rural Kansas” is an excuse, not a reality. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you really can learn any language, anywhere.