I assumed that if I teach English in Japan for a while, my Japanese would begin to flow naturally, and that I would deftly navigate my way through the complex socio-linguistic maze of modern Japan.
However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…
In retrospect, this assumption was like submerging myself and expecting to learn to breathe underwater as a survival instinct — it just doesn’t work.
Expectations & Life Before Japan
I grew up with the stereotypes of Japan that pervaded Australian television in the 1990s; the sweeping generalisations of salarymen, sumo, samurai and pop culture. Growing up in rural Victoria, my only exposure to the language itself came via video games or exchange students.
After I finished my Arts degree, I decided I would become a teacher and was drawn to the Teach in Japan-style advertisements that popped up in newspapers and even played on the radio.
So, Japan it was.
I would travel, earn a reasonable wage, gain valuable teaching experience and come back fluent in another language; a seemingly perfect plan.
My First Few Months Teaching English in Japan
Arriving in Japan, I followed the instructions I’d been sent and left Narita airport, taking the bus north to Ibaraki prefecture and Tsuchiura — my new home.
I worked in a prominent eikawa, and so I soon got to know other teachers from every corner of the English-speaking world, as well as my British and Canadian housemates. It certainly proved for a smooth introduction to a foreign world, we socialised, shopped, ate out and explored the surrounding areas.
We had a great time.
Months passed and I had a nice routine going, or so I thought.
I knew a few little phrases and words — toire wa doko desu ka? (where is the bathroom?), ikura desu ka? (how much is it?), kyou wa nani o shimasu ka? (what are you doing today?) — and could get around easily.
Indeed, with English and just a smattering of Japanese, one can do just about everything they need to do in a modern Japanese city.
However, This Wasn’t Really Inline with my Original Goal
My initial goal to teach English in Japan and learn Japanese at the same time wasn’t really going to plan.
By the end of each working day, my brain wanted nothing more than to relax; to chat in my native tongue, to use natural colloquial expressions, to understand and be understood as an adult.
After a hard day of slogging through the present tense, passive voice and conditionals, the thought of sitting down to learn basic grammar in another language was suddenly very unappealing, so I wasn’t really speaking or learning much Japanese at all.
I wasn’t truly conscious of all this at the time, but I soon would be, as subtle warning signs started to appear all around me that hinted my mistake.
For instance, many of the other teachers had been in Japan for years. It didn’t really alarm me that most spoke barely any Japanese.
Indeed, the only ones who seemed to speak the language were the same ones who didn’t really hang out with us or left after just one drink.
Boring! Only in retrospect did I see what was actually happening.
Then, one day, I got lost…
The Wake-Up Call
I fell asleep on the bus and woke up at the last stop, miles past my stop on the final bus of the day. The driver urged me off and the bus left; I stood alone and half-awake on a dark road in the Ibaraki countryside.
I had no idea where I was nor what I would do. Suddenly there were no signs in English, nor were there any friends or colleagues to help me out.
Having parked the bus at the depot, the senior bus driver walked past, obviously heading home. He could see I was still standing where he left me and spoke with me in Japanese. All I could do was shrug and, on the verge of tears, let out a pathetic wakarimasen (I don’t understand).
He gestured for me to follow him and took me back to his home nearby, where his elderly wife cheerily greeted me in Japanese. Again, wakarimasen.
They spoke in Japanese for a while as she made tea and sat me down. Their efforts to make conversation were sadly all in vain — all I could blurt out was Osutoraria (Australia) and Tsuchiura ni sunde imasu (I live in Tsuchiura).
The bus driver then picked up the landline phone and called someone, chatting briefly in Japanese. He handed the receiver to me and a voice in broken English said to me:
they want to help you.
I almost wept with relief.
The Epiphany & Solution
For so much of the time I was in Japan, I was never an active participant in language learning. I never really sought out opportunities to use Japanese, even though they were all around me. I took shortcuts, hung out with other English speakers and pointed at menus, rather than actually ordering.
I left Japan with a mind full of memories and a big hole where some degree of Japanese fluency should have been. It took me too long to realise I had wasted my opportunity.
When I returned to Australia, my lack of fluency gnawed away at me, I felt hideously embarrassed every time the topic came up; people expected me to be fluent but I wasn’t even close.
I knew exactly what I’d have done if I could redo it: I would have prepared, I would have engaged and I would have been more disciplined.
And so that’s exactly what I did…
I bought books, used flashcards and made new friends. I watched movies and listened to music. I completed a Diploma of Modern Language in Japanese — I used the language.
I spent a week with a language school in Fukuoka and did all the things I did before; the only difference now was that I was using Japanese as much as I could. I put myself in situations where I had to use it. No more pointing at menus or items in shops. No more subtitles. No more phrasebooks.
Just me and my slowly improving Japanese. Little by little, things began to make sense.
My Advice to You
With all this in mind, if you one day find yourself on a plane to Japan (or anywhere else for that matter) and you want to learn its language, here are some of my top tips on how to learn a foreign language immersively:
- Don’t wait for the ‘right’ moment
Learning a language takes time, desire and persistence. The sooner you start, the better. With helpful language learning apps like LingoDeer, you can learn or practice any time of the day.
- Befriend a native
Ideally, this will be a native speaker who also speaks your native language or is learning it but already has a reasonable enough level for the two of you to communicate.
Further tip: you can use language-exchange websites such as Speaky to find a willing native friend, or attend local language meetups using platforms like, well, Meetup.
- Prioritize relevancy
Don’t open a textbook and start memorising things that are irrelevant to your lifestyle and interests; you should first fill your vocabulary with things you’ll likely use and encounter.
- Learn and use new words at every opportunity
Don’t know what something means? Find out. Be curious and ask people how to say things.
- Persistence and discipline pays off
If you can learn three words a day, you’ll have a thousand within a year. Many drops make an ocean.
- Repetition is key
The more you use, the less you’ll forget. Keep a notepad with you (or use the one on your phone) to note down the words you learn along with their translations. Then, try to recite them later on in the day simply by looking at their translations, or without looking at anything at all if possible.
- Don’t worry about what other people think
You might sound like a child initially, but that’s a heck of a lot better than saying nothing at all. Don’t stress about speaking perfectly — the main aim is to communicate. Fluency comes from understanding and being understood, not from sounding like a native speaker. You can iron out the flaws later on.
Final Words/Where I am Now
To conclude, I’m still not fluent. I don’t think I’ll ever be, as true dedication is required to achieve that status, but I can read and write and get around by myself all in Japanese.
I learn from my mistakes, both in terms of my language learning and life experiences. One day I hope very much to return to Ibaraki and have a real conversation with the kind bus driver and his wife.
If you too would like to teach English in Japan and learn Japanese, or just one of the two, I hope you find this article of good use and can learn something from my experience. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
Phillip O’Brien is a teacher and writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has taught and lived in Japan, Brazil and Australia and has a keen interest in languages, history, geography and intercultural understanding. Twitter: @Pobrien79