I hope you were able to read our recent post with our Japanese language survey. It was a lot of fun putting that together. Today I thought I’d share a few thoughts about being a missionary who is learning Japanese.

I once overheard a veteran missionary say it takes ten years to get a good hold on Japanese (which has turned out to be true for me). However, I think this ten-year thing applies mainly to Americans (who will mostly likely have an especially hard time with Japanese if it is one’s first foreign language). Germans and other Europeans, for example, have already learned two or more foreign languages as youngsters before they attempt to master Japanese and generally don’t need ten years. Koreans learn Japanese lightning-fast and Chinese people are quite literate even if they do not speak a word of Japanese.

A digression for Americans learning Japanese: if you are an American missionary heading to Japan and can manage to learn Japanese well it will mean so much to the people. The unspoken stereotype tends to be that Americans cannot and do not learn Japanese well. (Incidentally, we have a worldwide reputation of being friendly and outgoing but just terrible at foreign languages.) Of course there are exceptions, but I know few missionaries to Japan who are able to speak Japanese extremely well and even a few who speak almost no Japanese (despite decades of residence in Japan). Reasons for this include a tendency to surround oneself with other foreigners or English-speaking Japanese, age (if you’re learning Japanese in your 30’s and 40’s it’s going to be a much, much tougher battle for you), sheer lack of ability with languages, being “too busy with ministry” to ever really learn Japanese, and especially the mindset that since some Japanese people speak English one can “get by” without really learning Japanese.

I thank God for four big factors in my life that helped me to learn a lot of Japanese.  First, I started young, fresh out of college (even younger would have been more ideal). Second, the people in Sendai did not speak English so I had no option whatsoever of “speaking only English to get by.” Third, my roommate was truly phenomenal at Japanese and in order to save face, I studied hard just to keep up with her. (Thanks, Katie W.!) Another huge reason was that my host mom was shrewd and gave me a big speech that went something like this: “Danielle, I have a dream that one day you and I will only speak in Japanese.” I told her she was nuts. She continued, “I see a lot of you foreigners come to Japan. They come and stay for a few years either to make money, have a nice experience, or work as missionaries. Almost none of them ever learn to speak Japanese. Think about what that says to us Japanese. Are you going to be one of that kind of foreigner?” I thought about her words and took them deeply to heart. Now, more than ten years later, we only speak in Japanese!

Here are a few practical notes for learning 日本語 (Japanese):
1) Prayer – the BEST thing to do! When I was learning Japanese there were many people praying for me to learn it well.
2) Regular private and/or group lessons – both are good, private were always better for me given my personality. I developed such good friendships with all my private teachers and think of each of them fondly. I am not at all fond of group lessons but some people really love the interaction with other learners.
3) Do NOT surround yourself with other foreigners – this is so tempting to do but it won’t help you learn the language. It’s good to deliberately seek to be involved in as many activities as possible which are total immersion type of situations.
4) A good dictionary is essential! I carry mine everywhere I go along with a tiny notebook to write down new words. The dictionary has evolved from a paperback to a DS Lite.
5) Review, review, review! I am currently reviewing over 70 pages and five notebooks of lessons from the past 5 years of language study. It is not easy but so essential.
6) Be humble – it makes it easier to accept correction, pursue correction, and correct your own mistakes. We often meet missionaries who think they are much better at Japanese than they actually are (a huge temptation).
7) Realize that if you learn the language well, it will change you. Your mannerisms, your way of thinking, your body language, the way you hold yourself will be greatly altered. Be willing to make the change.
8) Never give up! Perseverance is key. Learn to trust in God that all your hard work will pay off beautifully several years down the road.