Before I left Japan in May, I planned a pub crawl in Tokyo’s Shibuya district with some friends. My friend Brian had to work until 7 p.m., so I first went for ramen with a couple of Japanese friends. One spoke English but the other didn’t, so I figured I would speak only Japanese in order to make sure everyone understood each other. When Brian arrived, we could switch between the languages and balance things out.
We walked to the restaurant, chatting in Japanese on the way — about nothing of any great import. I asked about the girls’ work. 「今どんな仕事してるの？」 (“Ima donna shigoto shite runo?” “What kind of work do you do?”) To my surprise, helicopters were involved. 「まじで？！乗れるの？」 (“Majide?! Noreru no?” “For real? Do you get to ride in them?”) One girl replied, 「いえいえ、クライアントのために用意するの。クライアントが乗るのよ。」 (“Ieie, kuraianto no tame ni yōi suruno. Kuraianto no ga noru noyo.” “No, no. We organize them for clients. The clients ride in the helicopter.”)
We also discussed the bars I planned to take them to, and I explained that these were serious craft-beer bars, with serious pints of seriously strong beer. 「だから飲み過ぎないようにシェアしたほうがいいかもしれない。」 (“Dakara nomisuginai yō ni shea shita hō ga ii kamoshirenai.” “So it might be best to share [pints] so we don’t get too drunk.”) 「ええ？ダニエル、弱いの？」 (“Ee? Danieru, yowai no?” “Huh? Can’t you hold your booze, Daniel?”) Clearly, I was making a great impression.
At the restaurant, a small tonkotsu (豚骨, pork bone) ramen joint that reeked of garlicky fumes from the broth, we ate and continued chatting. The girls were very sweet, but I found myself becoming increasingly irritated over the course of dinner. “Isn’t it time to go to the first bar? When are we meeting Brian?”
At first, I put it down to hunger. But even after ramen and gyoza (餃子, pork dumplings), I was still checking my watch. “What is wrong with me,” I thought. “Here I am with two very nice Japanese girls, eating delicious Japanese food, about to go out and have high-quality Japanese craft beer, and for some reason I’m uncomfortable!”
Eventually, I realized I was frustrated at the discomfort of having to speak a nonnative language. Not that the conversation was particularly difficult, and there weren’t many challenging phrases. But, for whatever reason, I yearned to just relax and sink into some beers and English conversation; it takes me so much less brain power to speak English, and I was ready to chill out.
This episode got me thinking later that if you want to learn a language to any degree beyond “Where is the toilet?” you must get used to the discomfort of learning it. Certainly, if you want to approach fluency, you must come to love, and even crave, it — for that pain means you’re training your mind.
It might be said that this is true of almost anything. It’s more comfortable to watch TV than to write an article for a newspaper. It’s more pleasant to loll about than it is to exercise. It’s more fun to sit around and eat donuts than to sit around and not eat donuts.
People talk about taking up the study of something “for pleasure,” but the “fun” side of learning gradually diminishes, giving way to the grind of a routine task. Just as a runner’s high wears off midway through a marathon, so it is with learning a language. The rapid accumulation of knowledge of early and intermediate levels of a language gives way to the slower, repeated grind necessary to attain the highest levels of proficiency. You have to get used to these diminishing returns of study and soldier through it.
I soldiered through five pints of beer in Shibuya, winning back my self-respect in front of my friends. One remarked, 「シェアしなくても全部飲めたね。」 (“Shea shinakutemo zenbu nometa ne.” “You managed to drink all [of the beers] without sharing.”) I wasn’t too drunk, and I also fought through the unease, speaking more Japanese than English during the evening. Clearly, my tolerance for Japanese was getting stronger, too.
The novelty factor involved in studying a new language can be a strong motivator for beginner students. Japanese, especially, has much to offer — a complex writing system, different linguistic patterns, friendly and polite people to practice speaking with, and a vast array of art (high- and low-brow) to discuss. But repetition — endless, sometimes painful repetition — is what builds fluency. This one particular outing was fun, despite the discomfort, but what really mattered was all the times I’d gone out before and will in the future, as well as remembering to accept the diminishing returns of language study in order to reach your goal.