Today I had to make a copy of a document. As I was walking down the hall toward the copier, I said, quietly to myself, 「コピーをします。」 Not very profound, and not a great Japanese language exercises, is it? But then it occurred to me that I could ask for permission to make a copy. That one took a moment of thought, but I did come up with 「コピーをしてもいいですか。」which I’m pretty sure is “May I make a copy?”
Our administrative assistant overheard me and commented on my ability to learn a foreign language, and that got me thinking. Yes, there are people who memorize things faster or more easily than other people. Yes, there are people who pick things up faster than other people. Yeah, I have a pretty good memory, and that helps, but, really, the nucleus of success in learning a foreign language for the vast majority of us is hard work. I am putting a lot of effort into learning Japanese and doing things like talking to myself in Japanese and trying out new grammar structureｓ whenever I can, and that’s why I’m having success.
I know a guy who taught himself Japanese. He knows it well enough to watch anime without subtitles and to have done fan translations of some mango, but he isn’t comfortable speaking the language, so I can’t practice talking with him. Bummer. But that wasn’t the point. I kind of wandered off there. Let me start over.
I know a guy who taught himself Japanese, including reading, and I asked him how he learned the Kanji. His answer was “Brute force memorization.” Ultimately, that’s what I did, too. Yes, I used the Hacking Japanese Supercourse (which is astoundingly great and helpful, by the way) and the Anki deck from nihongoshark.com (also astoundingly great and helpful), and those tools make it easier but they don’t eliminate the day to day grind of memorizing the darned things. It isn’t about being a special language wizard, it’s just about putting in the time and effort, that’s all.
Don’t let people trick you into thinking that only someone with a special gift can learn a language. When you show some success at learning, people will begin to tell you that you must have a gift for language, the assumption apparently being that us normal human beings can’t possible learn Japanese. Don’t you believe it.
(I’m not saying you don’t have a gift for languages, by the way. You might, for all I know, but I’m saying that it isn’t necessary.)
By the way, I heard an interesting perspective recently. I met someone who had taken Japanese in high school (though she could remember next to none of it now) who said that the fact that Japanese was so different from English actually made it easier to learn, not harder.