I recently unearthed a booklet entitled, “Japanese Church Growth Patterns in the 1970’s” by Morris B. Jacobson. There is no date on this booklet, but I imagine it was published in the early 1980’s. Matthias and I were assigned the job of going through boxes and discovered a gold mine of old books about Japan including this one. I could write a whole post about the information we read, but one part of the booklet that interested me were the results of a survey regarding the relationship between musical ability and Japanese language acquisition. I had conducted my own survey so I was excited to read the results. (Click here for my survey.)

For those of you who are musical, I am sorry to report that according to the research Jacobson conducted there is hardly any link whatsoever between musical ability and proficiency in Japan. “Level of music ability itself seems to be neither facilitative nor inhibitive in the person studying Japanese.” This confirmed what I’ve guessed for a number of years. When I first arrived in Japan in 2001, I really believed that people who were musical would have a less difficult time learning Japanese. Over the years I have realized that this is not necessarily true  – Japanese is so monotone that it can be frustrating to speak in such a “flat” way. English is a stress/ unstressed language and if you speak Japanese the way you speak English, it will make your Japanese sound really, really weird.

Other thing to note from the survey were the top thirteen factors to gaining proficiency in Japanese language. (FYI, apparently 111 men took part in this survey.) Drumroll, please! Here are the top eight:

1) Linguistic exposure
2) Arrival age
3) Developed aptitude (i.e. aptitude for languages)
4) Japanophilia (love for Japan)
5) Satisfaction
6) Public speaking skills
7) Childhood multilinguality (Did you learn another language in your youth?)
8) Number of children

“If only one predictor of the thirteen were to be used, linguistic exposure (the time spent studying) would be the best single indicator of results.” (I agree, Mr. Jacobson!)

Some things I could have guessed, but other factors were very interesting. I had already guessed that the older you are the less likely it will be that you will be fluent in Japanese (trust me, I am learning German in my 30’s which is quite tough). Also, if you’re not serious about studying Japanese, of course you won’t make much progress. I had not really thought about the level of satisfaction in your ministry in Japan, love for Japan, or public speaking ability being directly linked to proficiency in Japanese.

Regarding the main point about linguistic exposure, I am often amazed at how easy it is for a missionary to live in Japan for many years and yet have very little exposure to the Japanese language. In other words, it is very possible to live in Japan and yet rarely hear Japanese spoken except on Sunday mornings or once or twice a week beyond the worship service. This is possible because missionaries can teach English or work at international schools, environments that are almost entirely in English, and come home to an English-speaking roommate or family. If you are facing a situation like this, you will have to work extra hard to make sure you escape your comfy English bubble. Blessings on those of you who are learning Japanese and I promise, once you get over the big hump, Japanese gets really fun.