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 (and everywhere else) is misguided, I’ve come to believe.
French in high school was a little better, partly 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.
“You guys should learn Chinese,” our dad once said to my brother and me, when we were 8 and 11. “It’s going to be important someday.”
We couldn’t yet fathom how, but we believed him because he was an adult who read the paper. However, then the lessons never materialized, and we forgot about them. We had bigger fish to fry anyway, like MTV and Donkey Kong.
In college I got into foreign films, and was captivated one day by a movie from China starring a villain with a thick Beijing accent, chopping victims’ heads off while sounding like some kind of foreign pirate. It reminded me of the long-forgotten promise of Chinese lessons.
A couple years later I realized I was about to graduate from college without a plan, and the next day I started learning Chinese with Pimsleur. Then I went to Chengdu, Sichuan, and spent my childhood allowance 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 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 how to haggle over cilantro and read a couple hundred characters. I went home broke and despondent, wondering how I would ever learn Chinese if I couldn’t even make progress while living in China.
In Seattle I got a job. 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 deeply motivated by a blog, All Japanese All the Time (AJATT). It’s by an American guy who created a Japanese bubble around himself, and managed to get fluent in about 18 months. He even got a job at a Japanese company, interviewing and working exclusively in Japanese. It seemed like I had no excuse for not learning Chinese.
For about three years, outside of work, learning Chinese became 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 Japanese too. Since I clearly had this language learning thing figured out, Japanese would be a 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 so I could finally stop spending so much time learning it. Unfortunately, the more pressure I gave myself, the less progress I made.
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 freed from a poisonous relationship. Suddenly the world was alive with possibility. I got a job at a bakery, and… wait, what was I writing about?