Frustration leads to anger, anger leads to shame, lather, rinse, repeat
August 8, 2010 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I've lived in Japan for some time now, but I'm not very good at the language. When I encounter anything beyond the simple, and I don't understand what's going on, I feel frustrated, then angry, then ashamed, which undermines any confidence I have to speak the language, which makes it less likely that I'll do better the next time. What can I do to break this cycle?

In slightly more detail: I used to work in a place where English was predominantly spoken, so I never needed to learn all of the "workplace Japanese" that I need now in my current job. Also, I'm not a very social person, and like to spend my free time on my own, so I don't give myself chances to go out and learn the "social Japanese" that I should.

Now I've been here nine years, my language skill is atrocious, and every time someone tries to ask/tell/explain something and I don't get it - which is often - I first feel frustrated. Partly because not only do I not understand, but I can't even clearly express what it is that I don't understand (other than, "everything"). Then I feel angry - first at the other person, and then I realize that's unreasonable and stupid, so it turns inward pretty quickly. Then shame that I have been here so long and still can't get myself beyond "いい天気ですね?" [1] without my brain seizing up.

This has an entertaining cascade effect - my perceptions of how my co-workers perceive me tend to suffer (perceptions which, yes, are entirely in my head, but then so is everything else), which makes me less willing to try and talk to them because - in my head, mind you - I feel like they see me as a barely-functioning idiot. My anxiety over my inability to speak at a level appropriate to how long I've been here makes me actively avoid chances to interact and speak, and therefore improve, which reduces the chances of successfully interacting with people in the future, etc etc.

It may also make me appear standoffish and unfriendly, but I'm a factory-model introvert, so that doesn't really bother me so much.

I've entertained the idea of taking lessons, but having the time and energy to do it is one problem (12 hours a day at work, including the commute), to say nothing of finding a teacher who's willing to deal with the neurotic mess I have made myself into. I can study at home, but again, without someone to practice on, it's not going to stick. [2] Studying on my own eventually devolves to the classic, "Oh, what's the point?" level, leaving me with dusty textbooks and hundreds of little vocabulary cards scattered about the house.

So what do you think? Is there any way to break this cycle, to re-frame language learning in such a way that it won't make me feel like a lobotomized gorilla, or should I start brushing up on my Charades?

[1] "Nice weather, isn't it?"

[2] I do have a Japanese boyfriend, but his English is much, much better than my Japanese, and honestly - I don't feel comfortable speaking Japanese around him, mainly because if I start this cycle up around him, then I'll have absolutely no one to talk to at all....
posted by MShades to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps not the advice you were looking for, but:

How much do you really NEED to speak Japanese in your current job? You can't speak it now, yet you have the job.

People live here in Japan for decades without getting anywhere with the language. I happen to love the language and work as a translator, but that's just me. Everybody has their own skill set. My girlfriend (now my wife) used to get mad at me for tracing kanji on her back while we were kissing. Without that kind of obsession, you're not going to make a lot of progress. So don't. Cut the Gordian Knot with a decision to spend your time and mental energy on things you enjoy rather than those that make you miserable.

Your boyfriend speaks English. Many people here in Japan speak English. You're an introvert anyway.

Not all the gaijin living here long-term speak Japanese. Just be one of those people. Don't make apologies. Don't feel bad about yourself. Say, "I have other priorities than learning Japanese."

Instantly your life is improved.
posted by zachawry at 8:37 PM on August 8, 2010

I never took lessons, I learned while living in Japan. Initially, I used the "Nihongo no Kiso" books, and practiced with my future wife.

When I was working in a Japanese environment, I had plenty of free time to study, so I learned kanji. I also tried to digest every single work-related staff newsletter etc.

I think what you should do is make a plan: identify 5 basic conversation patterns you want to master. Write them on a piece of legal paper.

Find a trusted confidant at work. Ask them to practice with you. Let them know what your goal is.

See if they can help you reach it.

But like zachawry said above, you don't need to learn Japanese. Your Japanese coworkers probably do not expect you to. Personally, I think learning Japanese enriched my life and made me *happier* as a non-Japanese living in Japan, but that's just me.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:55 PM on August 8, 2010

So your dilemma is, you can't get better at speaking/understanding Japanese except by speaking/understanding Japanese, but you are too embarrassed to do this with anyone. This makes it difficult. Many people in your situation find that drinking helps them get over this hurdle (nommunication, etc.). I know you said you like to keep your private time to yourself, but have you considered going out with a language-mixed group of friends once every couple of weeks?

My first recommendation is, seriously, to find a teacher. You should be able to do this online. Often city hall/ward office will have information about free lessons. Don't worry about being "neurotic" or whatever. Teachers can handle it.

Here are a bunch of other ideas that may or may not work for you.

- Practice asking about things (for clarification, for definitions, for pronunciations, etc.) and describing things (i.e. getting across concepts you don't know the exact word for, in simpler words you do know). This will ensure that fewer of your conversations grind to a total halt, especially with sympathetic interlocutors, because you can bootstrap things.

- Enlist the assistance of your boyfriend, but reframe it as a sort of game. Rather than "If I can't say exactly what I want in Japanese to him, at any tie, I suck," make it, "Okay, starting right now, if I get through an hour without resorting to English, you make dinner tonight -- deal?" This will work best if you are out and about having fun together, rather than hanging around watching DVDs at home (not enough actual talking required) or doing official stuff together (too high-pressure).

- Practice reading to expand your vocabulary, then try to bring this into your speaking. If you can get to the point where you can read Japanese subtitles (even just in part!) while watching a Japanese movie or TV show, rent some and do so. Lots of (basically) natural conversational Japanese there, ready for the shadowing.

- Take up a new sport or hobby performed in groups with talking involved, but success dependent on non-verbal factors, like ikebana or futsal. You may find it easier to talk to new people with no previous baggage (e.g. not co-workers who you imagine to be frustrated with you as a team member or whatever).

- More of a meta-idea, but: take up meditation. Find a Buddhist temple near you that does meditation mornings on weekends or whatever, and go there. Because it sounds like you know that you are being held back mostly by your own feelings and hang-ups, but don't know how to free yourself from that. Maybe meditation would help you. Also, priests who run that sort of public-facing program will generally be very, very friendly and patient when you talk to them. (It's their job, after all.)
posted by No-sword at 9:12 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, learning Japanese made me happier, but that was because I loved the language itself, in addition to the fact that it opened up avenues of communication with people.

The poster, however, does not love the language, and she needs to decide if the negative of forcing herself to study the language will be worth the positive of more communication.

Learning any language, much less a beast like Japanese, is a huge undertaking, and if you don't like it, you don't like it. How much would gaining incremental more fluency improve your life? How much would just deciding to be happy the way you are improve your life?

Difficult questions.
posted by zachawry at 9:15 PM on August 8, 2010

"Maybe meditation would help you. Also, priests who run that sort of public-facing program will generally be very, very friendly and patient when you talk to them. (It's their job, after all.)"

I'd have to disagree with this. Meditation may or may not help, but Buddhist priests, even ones who run public-facing programs, are not pseudo-therapists the way clergy (of any religion) are in the States. Any individual may be different, of course, but in general religion as an avenue of solving personal issues is a pretty alien concept to Japan.
posted by zachawry at 9:18 PM on August 8, 2010

The point is, she doesn't need to be intimidated talking to priests who run these programs about the program itself and what the point of it is, because they want to talk to people about this stuff. That's why they make them open to the public in the first place. Obviously, they're not Methodist youth pastors who will invite you into their office to rap about peer pressure for an hour.
posted by No-sword at 9:35 PM on August 8, 2010

Sorry, No-sword, I thought you meant that the priests would be open to talking about her troubles with Japanese, lack of self-confidence, etc. Which seemed like kind of a stretch. :)
posted by zachawry at 9:42 PM on August 8, 2010

My take is that if you've gotten by for nine years already, you probably understand more than you give yourself credit for. Try not to beat yourself up over this.

Also, and this is kind of a long shot, but if you're really located in the city you've set in your profile, maybe the dialect is throwing you off as well, because it's nothing like the hyojungo taught in textbooks. I'm Japanese and have only ever lived in Tokyo (when I'm in Japan, I mean) and whenever I go to the Kansai area, even I can't sometimes understand what people are saying if they're speaking really fast. The Kansai dialect tends to shorten words, scrunch them together, and/or lop them off altogether, so it's hard to parse, sometimes even for a native speaker from another area. So, there's that. If it's Kansai-ben you want to improve, you'll have to toss out your textbooks, set aside your hangups and just get out there and practice.
posted by misozaki at 9:46 PM on August 8, 2010

Cultivate a sense of humor. Laugh at the stupid gaijin, then try, try again!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:50 PM on August 8, 2010

I've had a really similar experience with German, and know people in NYC who have had a similar experience with English. I kind of thought it was my own secret shame for a while, that having such trouble with the language was having such a wide-spread effect on my life and mood and out-look. I've found learning a new language when you're not five years old is hard not only because it's hard but because my identity is much more tied up in the culture of the language I've been speaking for the last 30+years. There are much bigger shifts I have to make to speak this other language and sometimes I just can't be bothered. Which can be alienating to those around me and... well, exactly as you've described.

That said, I recently took a long break in the country of my mother-tongue and found it has worked miracles on my mood and my language abilities.
You need a break every now and then and you should take it at every opportunity.

Language courses helped me also though being daily reminded of my ineptitude at this other language was hard and less fun than I anticipated. I have also forced myself to take care of as much beaurocratic/day-to-day stuff as I can bear. I've found these formulaic interactions are a good way to practice, inoffensive, shallow, low-expectation.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:23 PM on August 8, 2010

Is there any way to break this cycle, to re-frame language learning in such a way that it won't make me feel like a lobotomized gorilla, or should I start brushing up on my Charades?

My two pennies:

Plan time off and take intensive lessons somewhere where: you don't know anyone; people don't speak English much.
This will enable you to learn in a pressure free environment and your days will be structured, which will delimit your social interactions (useful for introverts).

Until you get the time/money, give yourself a guilt-free grace period where you don't worry about this at all. Afterwards, you'll be in a better position to see what you want to do with Japanese.

You say you're very busy with work so I guess creating the time and desire to just study Japanese - where you are - is what you really need but sometimes physical distance can do wonders for breaking cycles and changing attitudes which is why I think going somewhere else is a good idea.
posted by mkdirusername at 11:50 PM on August 8, 2010

I understand a little of how you feel, because I have lived in China for six years, and though I speak pretty decent Mandarin now, that's because I took long periods of time for pretty intensive study. (I didn't speak any when I came here).

I think mkdirusername has it right, if it's possible, you might want to take time off from your job for a long period of time (a year would be great) and focus intensively on studying Japanese. Otherwise, it's just really hard to make it stick when you are working in what sounds to be an English environment, and speaking English with your boyfriend. Don't beat yourself up about it- it's like that with any adult learning a language. (I've seen it time and time again).

If you can't/are not willing to take a break and study intensively, you might want to think about doing the following:

-think about your specific goals in Japanese. what will make your life easier, in terms of vocabulary sets in Japanese?

-find a TV series you like to watch in Japanese. You might get hooked on it.

-I don't know about Japan, but in China, "regular" people like waiters and watresses, fruit vendors, taxi drivers, security guards, etc. rarely speak English. You can try to frequent their place of business or make small talk daily. Seek out people who speak no English.
posted by bearette at 12:33 AM on August 9, 2010

posted by Jacqueline at 5:45 PM on August 9, 2010

For finding a private teacher, check out Labochi. It's a findateacher webservice, and I managed to get a lot of hits when I looked. You set up your schedule, so you'll only be contacted by teachers who can match it.

As for frustration, I completely understand (thanks to everyone who helped me through that). I've been here for ten years, and, while my Japanese is getting better, I still speak like a brain damaged child. The key is that I speak, even knowing that I'm making mistakes. I try to notice them, and to correct them in the future, but it doesn't always work like that.

I think the main point to focus on is your confidence level. You think you can't speak, so you don't. For me, I was surrounded by superior Japanese speakers from day one, and felt embarrassed to speak in front of them, so I didn't, for roughly five years. I would suggest that you sit down with your boyfriend and let him know about your struggles with Japanese, and that it's affecting your work-life, and causing you stress. More than likely, he'll be interested in helping you. On the off chance that he's not, there are many, many places here that can help you improve your speaking, and give you a chance to practice conversation. You might also talk to some of your coworkers. Be upfront, acknowledge that you make a lot of mistakes, and that you've had some difficulty expressing yourself, and ask for help. You might be surprised by the support you get.

And as Jaqueline says, alcohol. My turning point came from alcohol. Long-story short, I got drunk while out with friends, and my loneliness (one year with no dates) overcame my self-doubt, and I ended up breaking away from my friends and joining a group of non-English speaking Japanese people at the bar, and woke up with a phone number. I know, of course, that drinking to excess is dumb, but at the same time, even though parts of the evening are hazy to me, I spoke Japanese. It was huge for my confidence going forward, because I knew I had done it in the past, and therefore believed I could do it again in the future. Once you reach that kind of moment, a lot of your anxieties about the language will pass, or at least subside a bit.

For now, up the level of Japanese in your daily life. TV, music, studying, and most importantly, speaking. Maybe give the flashcards a rest, and find a teacher/tutor who will get you to speak in Japanese for an hour each week. And good luck. You can do this. Once you break the frustration-anger-shame cycle, you'll be able to enjoy life here much, much more.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:57 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing that helped me a lot was preparing for conversations before I had to have them. I need to go to the pharmacy and ask for something I don't know the word for, I look it up first. It's a "Choose your own adventure" way of planning the interaction: what else do they want to know? My symptoms? The size? Pill/liquid form? And look all of those words up, and write the new words down (including kanji) before having the conversation.

I also had a lot of friends practicing in volunteer positions with children or old people, or reading a lot of manga. My preferred practice route is karaoke, but to each their own.

If it makes you feel any better, think about how many times you have watched them go through the frustration-shame cycle (skipping anger) when they are trying to speak English to you!

Please don't be one of those foreigners who never learns the language. It is a disservice to the rest of us. If you want to make some place your home for an extended period of time, this is something you should do to make your life easier but also to better understand the culture and world around you. (I think the tracing kanji when kissing thing is creepy too...)
posted by whatzit at 11:55 AM on August 15, 2010

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