A language learner

Hi! I’m Isaac. I’m from Seattle, North America. I like to learn languages.

How not to learn languages, part 1

Age 4 to 14: I managed to take Spanish for ten years without ever realizing that Spanish was a real language. I don’t blame my Spanish teachers. I just didn’t have any Spanish-speaking friends, and most language teaching in the US is horribly misguided.

French in high school was a little better, because I do have Francophone relatives. But after two years of grammar drills and apathetic teachers, I was ready to give up on ever getting fluent in French.

Learning Chinese

“You guys should learn Chinese,” our dad once said to my brother and me, when we were about 8 and 11. “It’s going to be important someday.”

We couldn’t fathom how it would be important, but we believed him and agreed to learn Chinese. However, the lessons never materialized, and we forgot about it. We had bigger matters to attend to, like MTV and Donkey Kong.

In college I got into foreign films, and was captivated one day by a movie from China with a female anti-hero who speaks in a thick Beijing accent, chopping rivals’ heads off while looking and sounding like some exotic kind of evil pirate. Problematic orientalism aside, it reminded me of the long-forgotten promise of Chinese lessons. Maybe I could be an evil, halberd-wielding pirate too someday. Or if not, I could at least learn to sound like one.

When I was about to graduate from college and needed something else to do with my life, I started learning Chinese with Pimsleur. There were 90 half-hour lessons, and it’s supposed to take as many days to finish them. I got through them in about a year. Then I went to Chengdu, Sichuan, and spent my savings on a semester of Chinese classes at Sichuan University.

A lot of the classes involved memorizing characters and doodling in my textbooks while the instructor recited poetry. Most of my classmates spoke good English, and that was the language I heard most of the time, in class and outside of it. When the semester ended, I realized I’d spent six months learning practically nothing besides a couple hundred simplified characters and how to haggle over cilantro. I went home broke and despondent, wondering how I would ever learn Chinese if I couldn’t even make progress in China.

I went back to Seattle and became a programmer. My Chinese languished. I was close to giving up when one day my brother told me he was enrolling in a Chinese class at his college. I envisioned listening to him recite from memory the entire text of Dream of the Red Chamber, rattling off esoteric chengyu, and engaging in brilliant repartee with my Taiwanese friends while I sat off to the side, hanging my head. I could not let this happen. At the very least, I should understand the repartee part.

I started listening to podcasts every day on the way to and from work. I found more conversation partners. I was also deeply motivated by a blog, All Japanese All the Time (AJATT). It’s by an American guy who spent 18 months obsessively surrounding himself with all Japanese (all the time) while living and studying in the US. After a year and a half he was fluent enough to have an interview with a Japanese company (in Japanese), and get a job as a software engineer in Japan. Now I not only had motivation, but I had no excuse.

For about three years, outside of work, learning Chinese was my life. It was hard, and sometimes it was boring, but the more I learned the more fun it got. I started reading comic books and light novels in Chinese, watching Chinese TV, and listening to Chinese pop music, learning the lyrics and singing them at the KTV in Chinatown. Speaking with my Chinese and Taiwanese friends in Chinese got less tiring and more exhilarating.

How not to learn languages, part 2

Learning Chinese was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Naturally, I wanted to learn another language. I decided to learn Japanese next. Since I’d already figured out how to learn languages, I thought, surely this time it would be a relative breeze.

Like I’d done with Chinese, I grabbed every resource I could find. I got a kana book. I made sentence and vocab flashcards. I watched hundreds of hours of anime and TV (using subtitles when not understanding became too painful). I listened to NHK. I wrote essays on Lang8, got a teacher on Italki, and signed up for Wanikani.

The one thing I didn’t do was have a lot of Japanese-speaking friends. I met a few conversation partners, but we didn’t hit it off. There were a couple notable exceptions in Seattle, but then I moved to San Francisco. Japanese gradually became more of a burden than an excitement. I found myself looking forward to getting fluent in Japanese just so I could finally stop learning it. Predictably, the more pressure I gave myself, the less progress I made.

Liberation

A couple years went by. In July 2016 I was living in Taiwan, looking for something fun to do, when it dawned on me: I have to stop learning Japanese. It was like being liberated from a poisonous relationship. Suddenly the world was alive with possibility.