What 500 Japanese Lessons Did to Me

I noticed today that I passed 500 Japanese lessons on iTalki, the platform I’ve been using to learn Japanese. Combine that with my previous lessons on Verbling, and my total lessons as of today (Jan 2019) comes to exactly 680 lessons over 2.5 years.

500 lessons seems like a lot. It’s been a slow and long road, but one that continues to be fun, challenging, and rewarding. While I still can’t carry on a proper conversation, I might be able to converse with a 5-yr old. For about 3 minutes.

With Japanese, I’ve not only learned a new language, but just the process of learning a new language taught me a lot about achieving goals and approaching them with the right mindset. I wrote about my ‘autopilot’ methodology here.

For this post, I thought I’d reflect a bit on some additional ways I enjoy and have benefited from learning Japanese.

Japanese lesson log

2.5 yrs and just passed 500 lessons

Mental exhaustion is a wonderful thing

You know that feeling when you’re brain feels like it’s working way too hard?

The feeling when you’re using every bit of attention you have, your brow is furrowed, and you’re brain feels so overworked that you’re just about ready to give up?

That’s the feeling I get during and after every Japanese lesson I have.

About half the time when I’m trying to talk to my tutors in Japanese, I end up closing my eyes tightly and scrunching my face as I try my best to construct something remotely comprehensible. It’s exhausting. And probably hilarious as likely nobody would ever have such an intense face to say “today, I will go to the grocery store and do laundry.” (今日スーパーに行って、洗濯します!)

For many years, I found that feeling uncomfortable and not particularly enjoyable. It’s like when I get punched in the head boxing, why would anybody enjoy that?? It’s much easier to just let the instant gratification monkey see what’s new on the interwebs.

But over time, I’ve grown accustomed to, and actually enjoy the mental exhaustion I experience when I study Japanese. It’s rewarding to know that I’ve worked hard, that I’m at the cusp of my abilities, and growing, even if ever so slightly.

In the book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle speaks of the concept of white matter, myelin, which insulates and enhances transmission of signals in the brain. Myelin is grown through deep practice and found in large quantities in highly skilled and high performing individuals. Myelin is also believed to help against the fight of degenerative brain conditions such as MS or Alzheimer’s. I like to imagine that with every exhausting Japanese lesson, I’m not only stretching my language limits, but also building up myelin in my brain. Because who knows, maybe future me will thank me for it later.

Not just learning a different culture, but actually experiencing one

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela

Language is used to express thought and emotion to others. One of the most curious things I’ve experienced in studying a new language is how different cultures think differently and communicate differently.

Japanese culture is rooted strongly in respect and is reflected in the variation in language based on politeness. At first, the various methods of communicating the same message seemed redundant and odd, but as I’ve experienced it and learned to use it more, I’ve begun to understand how the  usage of various forms of Japanese can convey familiarity, friendship, respect, flattery, and more. While English certainly has subtleties to convey formality, the concept itself generally does not exist in North American culture and is not formally taught.

On a semi-regular basis, I’ve come across Japanese words or phrases that don’t translate to English. There are ideas and beliefs that just don’t exist in English. This difference is interesting insight into how different cultures can think. My favorite is “gannbatte,” which is used in a variety of situations with a general translation to of “please try hard”” or “all the best” when spoken to another person, and “I will try hard,” when spoken in the context of oneself.

Most striking is that when I speak Japanese, I actually feel and act differently. My tone, demeanor, pacing, and actual feeling changes as I “think” more Japanese like. I’m sure much of this is due to my limited ability to actually communicate, but it’s fascinating to put myself into a different cultural mindset and to actually experience it.

Who needs a double espresso to kickstart the day?

As I’ve written before, I do my Japanese lessons first thing in the mornings. 2 years later and my tutors still laugh at me as I join our Skype calls groggy and miserable. I originally started doing morning lessons because I knew I’d be too tired/lazy to do them in the evenings after work, but I now keep up the morning routine because I’ve found it a rewarding way to jolt my day started and set me onto a good path for the rest of the day.

I’m not a morning person. I hate waking up. But with my Japanese lessons, an actual person, and an always punctual person, is waiting for me at 6am, and that always forces me to get out of bed. I’ve forced myself to become a “morning person.” 10 minutes into my mental exhaustion and I’m wide awake.

After I finish my lesson the feeling of accomplishment inspires me to keep my trend up and it’s an easier process for me to put on my gym clothes and get some exercise in. Like a snowball effect, my ego pat’s myself on the back for “being so accomplished” and further motivates me to keep my streak up. I read or listen to a book while commuting, rather than scroll through Twitter or junk read. I end up heading out for the day in a positive mood to contribute, learn, and work hard for the rest of the day.

As I write this, it sounds cheesy and self-aggrandizing to me, but it works. Learning a new skill itself is rewarding in itself, but if through learning that skill I can also kickstart my day and set off a chain reaction of rewarding activities, all while tossing my inner-lazy aside, it makes everything all the much enjoyable.

So while I still speak like a 5-year old, after 500 lessons I can not only speak like a 5-yr old Japanese child, but I’ve challenged my brain, learned a new culture, and developed a method to kickstart my day.

I can’t wait until I can speak like a 7-yr old.

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