Take Ten Years of Language Study into Less than Two Years.

I arrived in Akita (i.e. not Tokyo), Japan on July, 4th 2004. I did not know much Japanese. I didn`t know how to order kerosene for my heater. I did not know how to use the ATM machine at the post office. And I definitely did not know how to deal the NHK guy. Perhaps you have had similar experiences in a foreign country.

At the time, these seem like very difficult and often frustrating experiences. But, looking back I am really grateful for them. In fact, if it were not for experiences like those, I probably would not have learned Japanese as quickly as I did.

I am also grateful that I was also an English conversation teacher at the time as well. It was because of that experience that I noticed the common problems amount my students. This included the lack of any perceivable progress (or in fact perception of going backwards), the problem of forgetting new words by the next lesson, and difficult of continuing to study when having a very busy life.

I faced the same problems as my students, but at least in two years I was able to pass several levels of the Kanji Aptitude Test, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and of course properly order kerosene without freezing to death.

This was not just because I was living in Japan. I know a very likable guy named Pete. I have only been in Japan for about 14 years. He has been in Tokyo much longer than that. He is a much more successful English teacher than I was.  But, he did not speak Japanese. I did not want to be like him in that respect.

It was not because I had a Japanese girlfriend either. I wouldn`t start dating Japanese in earnest until after I moved to Tokyo about 3 and half years later. In fact, I approach my now wife by speaking in Japanese and had conversations with her in Japanese well before we became more than friends.

Lastly, it was not because I was good at languages. I majored in Electrical Engineering for God`s sake. For most of my life, I had avoided studying foreign languages as much as I could. Heck, I took a home economics class in Jr. High school just to avoid taking Spanish of all things. BTW, Spanish is about as easy foreign language as it gets for an English speaker.

You may be wondering, if for my entire school life, I had avoided studying foreign languages how did I become an English conversation teacher in Japan. Suffice to say, before “settling down,” living in a foreign country for 1 year seemed like a good idea and my uncle lived in Japan.

Ok. Now that`s settled. The point I did not have any special help nor special talent in learning a foreign language. However, there was one major difference. When I got to Japan I was very motivated to learn how to learn Japanese as quickly as possible. I was in a very cold, a very snowy, and a very rural part of Japan. If I did not learn quickly it was going to be a very tough and boring experience.

But the questions are “How committed are you?” and “What will you do to get?” Following is for those who want to put skin in the game.  It is for those who want to get better now. If you are not sure please read the first part and check.

Those who will get good at foreign languages (and presentation skills for that matter) have certain characteristics.  The foundational characteristics are:

  • They know what they want.
  • They invested in that desire right at the beginning
  • They share that desire with friend or make it public
  • They create forms of feedback or accountability
  • They remove any obstacles that gets in their way

You`re probably thinking that this could apply to thing outside of learning a language, and you are right. It can apply to just about anything you want to achieve, but we are talking getting good at a language, so you can be a better presenter in that language.

Knowing What You Want is More Than Wanting to Be “Good”

If I were to ask you “What do you want?”, many would say “I want to be a good presenter in English,” “I want to speak English well, so I talk to foreigners,” etc. This is good as far as it goes. But with only that statement it is hard to determine if you got what you want.

Imagine there is some magical genie in a bottle. You rub the lamp and presto the genie pops out.  You tell him, “I what to speak to a foreigner well.” The genie nods and in a cloud of smoke a Korean man pops out and starts speaking to you in Japanese. You now can speak to a foreigner well, but that is not what you wanted.

Even if you say, “I want to speaker English well.” What does that mean to you? In what context? With whom? About what subject? You may be inclined to say I want to speak English well anywhere with everyone about everything. Except that is probably not true even in your own native language.

When was the last time you could speak in great detail about security implication of the new Transport Layer Security (TLS) v1.3 with another security researcher? I am guessing not anytime soon. How about the pros and cons of snow shoes verse Wakans? If you are not into hiking mountains in the winter time you may be hard pressed to enter that conversation.  

The point here is you need to know what you want to talk about and how much detail do you want to talk about it. For someone who is really into IT security it would be worth the trouble to learn all the jargon that goes with it. However, on the other hand if you are not interested then do not bother to learn the terminology that goes with it.

In any case, whether it is vocabulary or anything else you need to be able to say objectively that I have reach this specific goal. The best way to create a specific goal is to create a specific project outline with a hard deadline. That way you know when you are done and what you are going to do. If you write something and then decide “Nah, I don`t want to so do that,” that is fine. Just figure out what you want to do.

However, you might think but I don`t know what I really want. That is ok too. Just start brainstorming things projects that you might want to do. Then pick the one that “sparks joy” as Mari Kondo would say. Even if it not much joy, at least it is a start. You can also change direction if you come up with something better.

Investing in the desire at the beginning

One way you can really tell if someone is committed to what they want or not is that up front they put some money and time to reach that learning goal. Now, if you are unsure you want to commit to something then trying something out for an hour or so is fine. However, if you really going to improve yourself in X, then you got to block your schedule and start getting the things you need to accomplish the goal.

When I lived in Akita and worked as an English conversation teacher, most of morning were free. So, I would get up and study for the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test for at least an hour, but usually more. I bought a series of yellow books that help you study for the quiz. I bought a Nintendo DS and practice kanji quizzes in my spare time. So, you can see I spent a fair amount of time and money just to get where I got. You need to do the same thing.

If you are not willing to spend both time and money, then you are not committed. You might say, but I am so busy! I work late, I have to go to work early. I still need to play with the kids on the weekends, etc. These are excuses. If you are really committed to the project you will find a way. You will ask people. You will do the research. You will remove all obstacles.

However, there will be a group of people who think “I really want to do this. But for some reason, I can`t concentrate, I can stick to it, etc. etc.” For those you think that you want to do it, but for some reason cannot will yourself to change, I would spend a morning or evening in a quiet environment and contemplate on the conflict. Mostly like you have not fully convinced yourself that it is important to study.

Share that desire with friend or make it public

There is an interesting bit of debate about whether it is good to share or not to share your goal with friends. One side says that it is good idea. It will help you stay committed and accountable. The other side says that you shouldn`t share, because it can hurt your motivation.

Former comes in two forms. One is the inform of a dream killer who just tells you how your goal is impossible or not worth pursuing. The other is in the form of your brain confusing imagination with reality. This research was published in Psychological Science in 2009 and also mentioned by Derek Sivers.

While there is the problem of repeatability that has plagued in many social science research, I think it is useful to do for a couple of reasons. The first is that it helps you clearly articulate your goal. Second it helps setup accountability.

More than ten years ago I told my coworker that I want to pass the Kanken (Japan Kanji Aptitude Exam).

 “That`s great,” she said “What level?”

 “Hmm, three?” I said.  

“Maybe you should try four. If it is too easy, at least you will know what the test format is like,” she said

“That is true,” I said.

“Do you know when you want to take?”

“I haven`t decided yet. Maybe this November.”

“Then you better get started, there is not much time left.” …

The conversation went from there. The point here sharing your goal can sometime help make your it more concrete and also help you see what steps you need to take. Obviously if you share it with the wrong person you are only going to get a lot of pain, so pick your confidant wisely.

Which then brings us to:

Create forms of feedback or accountability

As I said above, telling your goal to friend can help make your goal clearer and it also helps increase accountability.  Having a friend gently ribbing you for slacking off is a good way to keep yourself accountable. But there are other ways.

For example, I run a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) meeting so that people can share and keep each other accountable. It is a way I use to add social pressure. Even if we cannot force ourselves to do something for our sakes, we can add social pressure to forces ourselves to move forward because we do not want to let others down. At least in this meeting, everyone reports even if it is a small bit of movement and everyone support each other.

Any way how you add accountability is simply up to you. Some people use friends, some people use support groups, some people use devices, or other methods hold themselves accountable. Do whatever works for you.

On the other side of the coin, feedback is very important. If you don`t get any feedback how can you improve?

That is why I strongly recommend that you first record yourself and check your ability after watching your own video. You do not need to be a world class cinephotographer.  Just use the iPhone and record. From you can self-evaluate or show others how to evaluate. I would recommend giving people a simple set of questions, so they can know what will be ask. Sometimes you need help people along as so they know what kind of feedback you want.

Remove any obstacles that gets in their way

Every day, we face many obstacles that can get in the way, slow us down, or simply stop us from achieving our learning goals. For example, TV can be a huge sucker of time, but so can YouTube. I still have a TV in my home in case there are some training DVDs that I want to watch, but otherwise it just sits there in my living room.

Some of us use Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds or whatever to fill up time. You can remove those from your smartphone if they really are causing you trouble.

I generally recommend that you sit down and write out all the possible people, things, circumstances etc., that are standing in the way, slowing your down or stopping you from achieving your goals. Then go about removing or changing these things one at a time. Maybe you can do it all yourself, maybe you need some help. In any case, the more successful people change their environment so that the obstacles are removed, and their environment actually helps achieve their goal.  So, please take the time to make those modifications.


In conclusion if you really want to be a better language learner and much better speaker and communicator you really need to keep in mind the characteristics that I just mentioned. These are

  • Know what they want.
  • Invested in that desire right at the beginning
  • Share that desire with friend or make it public
  • Create forms of feedback or accountability
  • Remove any obstacles that gets in their way

If you do you will have all kinds of success in any project that you pursue.