Yes, I have been asked this question before and I usually laugh when I hear it. Indeed, a topic very near and dear to my heart is language acquisition among missionaries in Japan. However, this has no connection to my own abilities with the Japanese language. In other words, I hope that none of our readers think my husband and I have “arrived” and are “fluent” in Japanese (whatever that means). I had my first Japanese lesson over twelve years ago and to be frank, I feel like I am just beginning to really get somewhere with my Japanese. For example, I am terrible at praying in Japanese, just awful. The good news is, my Japanese studies are no longer a chore but pure joy. Thank God for that!
So what exactly is hard about Japanese? Good question. For some, it’s the kanji that is the hardest. For other, the pronunciation is really problematic – I’ve met many veteran missionaries from many different countries with poor pronunciation. Of course, grammar can be tricky and confusing. For me personally, I still regularly feel like pulling my hair out at times when I am struggling to get across a very basic concept about God in natural Japanese. I think that speaking Japanese in a natural way that communicates a concept smoothly and gracefully is the hardest thing for me, by far. I have my moments when I hear a native speaker of Japanese rattling off a wonderful string of sentences and I am in awe of how splendid and lovely the language sounds to me. After the awe wears off I am tempted to despair because I know I’ll probably never be able to speak Japanese that gracefully. However, I keep my eyes on the prize and never give up!
Learning Japanese has been one of the most humbling and humiliating experiences of my life (and I am still very much so in process). It has stretched me in so many ways and I am thankful for the privilege of going through this painful, refining process. The best part of learning Japanese is that you are forced to be humbled to the dust over and over which allows you to give all the glory to God as you see progress. One learns to celebrate baby steps and praise God for it all. “Thank you Jesus that I talked for five full minutes with that lady at church!” or “Thanks, Lord, for helping me order off the menu without stumbling over my words.”
I am so thankful to God to have gone from not even being able to even order off a menu to being able to explain (in a simple way) the gospel to a non-Christian. That is all God’s grace! One final thought: after 12+ years, my language studies are so, so much fun. I absolutely adore learning Japanese and long for all missionaries to love it, too. What fun it can be to master a new word, a new expression, an idiom, or a Bible verse in Japanese for the glory of God. I wish all readers out there God’s blessing on your language studies – it’s worth every ounce of effort!