The early stages of language acquisition

Each stage of language and culture acquisition has its own challenges. Probably the greatest battle in the early stages is against the feeling of being overwhelmed and discouraged. The goal of fluency can seem very distant (I’m never going to make it), and progress can feel painfully slow or non-existent (I’m not getting anywhere).

The classroom is an artificial environment created to make the learning process manageable—vocabulary is restricted mostly to words that the students know, new words are introduced gradually, and the teacher speaks clearly and slowly. But step outside the protective bubble of the classroom in Japan and you’re immediately confronted by native speakers communicating with a full range of vocabulary and at speed. It can feel like you’ve been airlifted from the paddling pool and dropped into the ocean!

Here are a few strategies that may help.

Be realistic in your expectations

When you signed up to do cross-cultural ministry in Japan, you accepted one of the hardest mission assignments, if English (or another European language) is your first language. The Foreign Service Institute classes Japanese as a language that is “exceptionally hard for native English speakers,” and also indicates that Japanese is “usually more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category”—in other words, Japanese is the hardest of the hard.1 So realise the magnitude of the task and don’t expect to be fully fluent after spending two years in language school.

Furthermore, Japanese people are infamous for their inscrutability, and Japanese culture has a reputation for being opaque to Westerners. So becoming familiar with the culture is no small undertaking.

Admire the view and celebrate small victories

After you’ve been climbing Mount Fuji for several hours the summit doesn’t appear to be any closer than when you started out, but the view below becomes more expansive. The same is true with language and culture learning: the goal may even seem to recede with effort, but you can see how much you’ve progressed compared to a few months ago. Take some time to admire the view by flicking through earlier chapters in the textbook and previous assignments you’ve done.

Also, celebrate each “first” you achieve: the first time you order something in a restaurant (and the first time you get what you ordered!), the first time you understand a response when asking for directions, and the first time you introduce yourself to a Japanese speaker at church. While these may seem like small things, they can be valuable spurs to continue studying.

Make things easy for yourself

Try to lower the bar as much as possible when communicating with native speakers and when reading and listening. Speak one-on-one with a native speaker rather than joining a group. Choose quiet places to converse. Spend time with people who are easy to understand and who can adjust their speed to your comprehension level. Avoid talking on the phone when you can speak to someone in person. When reading, choose material that you can read comfortably without a dictionary. Watch programs and listen to podcasts that are pitched at your level.

Set small goals in overwhelming situations

When you find yourself in a situation in which the language usage is over your head, it can be helpful to set small goals. The brain is equipped with a self-protection mechanism by which it will zone out when overwhelmed with too much information. Thus, the natural tendency is to tune out when listening to someone talking at a level that is too hard for you understand. But while you can’t hope to understand all the content of what is being said, you can listen for words that you do know and look up words that you’re not familiar with. Likewise, if the only reading material you have available is too hard for you, look for characters and words you recognize.

Depend on God

Most importantly, depend on God and his grace, and draw comfort from the assurance that you are always at the level he wants you to be at the moment. Remember that he is always able to use you irrespective of your language ability. One missionary I know has been in Japan since the 1950s but has never attained proficiency in Japanese to the point that he can preach without an interpreter. However, God has used him greatly to bring Japanese to Jesus and to encourage believers. As you depend on God in prayer, he will take you to the level that you need to be.


1. Language Difficulty Rating, “Effective Language Learning” http://www.effectivelanguagelearning.com/language-guide/language-difficulty

Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org

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