Month 5 of immersion: Being honest with yourself about your own ability

There was a a time when I felt may knowledge of Japanese was vast. I had studied, spoken, and consumed more media than my peers and classmates. Was praised by my teachers and friends, even sought out for help and advise. Fellow learners, teachers, and even natives assumed that I always knew more than I actually knew. It got to the point that I had some sort of aura where people just assumed that I knew it, which is kind of a weird feeling. But the truth is, It would all fall apart when I would sit down to watch something and realize I was understanding very little of it. When someone asked me a question and I had to look to a dictionary or elsewhere to come up with the answer. Or worse, when a native would start conversing with me naturally, then realize I wasn’t really understanding, then have to slow down. Not my fondest memories. I guess it many ways, I fell for my own hype, and perhaps it is something that prevented me from progressing faster and more efficiently.

As a person who has been part of a local leaning community, I’ve had my fair share of students come to one of our sessions overstating their ability. Everything from ”Yeah this is easy, to yeah I would say I’m pretty fluent”. But when they would show up they never uttered a single word in Japanese and couldn’t answer when we asked them the simplest question in Japanese, or just answered in English. Some of them had some legitimate study under their belt. Classes, programs, some had even been to or lived in Japan. Still, what they claimed didn’t seem to match up with what they actually knew or could actually function in. Perhaps some of them would just crack under the pressure.

Having been part of both online and local in person communities, I can say with confidence that it is all too easy to overstate your ability online, especially if there is no one there to test it. And I believe people often do. To say that doesn’t happen is to say that lying to make oneself look better is not part of the human condition. It’s there, it’s inevitable and it happens every day. People are quick to claim that they did 10,000 Anki vocab words in one year, or learned hiragana in a single weekend, or can understand 95% of what they watch with no issues. Especially when one is young and seeking acceptance, or when one has reached an age where they feel that their relevance is faltering. People have different reasons for this and really, it’s not all that different for the same reasons that people present a different life on social media from the life they really live, or why they use filters, or may lie about having something they don’t have or done something they haven’t done. It’s hard to imagine that not a single one of us has not done this to some extent in our lives. And I’m not saying that there aren’t people that achieve some of these amazing feats, I’ve met a few, but that’s not the case for most of us. It can be a detriment to claim this to others, but even more so if oneself believes it.

Overestimating your ability:

When you watch something you have to ask yourself if you really understood what is it that you watched. And while I’m not one who will look up every unknown word and grammar I don’t know, I do often reflect on how much I felt I understood. For some people, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we understood most of what we read or watched even if we only understood 5-10% of it. Why, because it feels like a win. I don’t know if any of you play fighting games, but I remember one quote from a well known Street Fighter player. And I’m paraphrasing “If you are playing against a less skilled player, play your best character and make sure you beat them every single time. If you go easy on them and they win maybe 5 to 10 out of 50 matches, they’re going to remember it as being more even.” So I’m not saying to not be proud or excited if you only understand 5-10% of what you read or heard. That’s honestly more than what most Japanese learners will ever know, but be well aware of your ability.

Often times when I talked to people who were beginners in Japanese, they would claim to understand 50-60% of what they watched. Things with very specific vocabulary like Fate and Attack on Titan. A friend of mine said that he went through all of the Japanesepod101 intermediate lessons, but felt that he didn’t rally learn anything new. The only content he had ever immersed in was Dragonball and a couple drama, and was living in the states. Such a claim was near impossible. Truth is, I can probably cite countless examples from my years interacting with learning communities and tutoring, but I think you get the picture.

Underestimating your ability:

Some of us are guilty of this too. Japanese culture praises humility and some of us take this to heart. It is one of the things that I found intriguing about Japanese culture and language. I think that often translates into how we view our own ability. This, I feel can also be a hinderance.

The biggest setback with this is that one may find themselves going back to easy or beginner material more often than one should. I’ve certainly have been guilty of this on more than a few occasions. Holding myself back from reading things I felt were too hard or playing games with just “too much dang Kanji”. If you haven’t studied in a while, I can understand this, but I’ve met some people that go back to beginner materiel 3-4 times within a span of several years. Review is fundamental to learning, but sometimes ya just gotta move on and not be afraid to move on to harder material for fears of not being able to understand enough. It’s sort of like a rhythm game like Guitar Hero of Dance Dance Revolution. Most people start on easy mode until it well, becomes easy. A lot of people might move on to Medium difficulty and do decent or even get perfect scores and may plateau there. Very few will move on to higher difficulties and this is also too true when it comes to Japanese. The people who don’t move on to harder material, is not necessarily because they don’t want to, but may be very comfortable with the material they they do know, and may know very well.

It’s also unwise to jump into the hardest thing possible I feel. I tried to do this with Persona 4 several years ago and boy was that not fun. I had a notebook full of vocabulary and notes. And honestly, that might be fun for some people, but it wasn’t for me. I could have played or watched other things that weren’t as difficult. I’m doing it now…but it’s several years later.

The most important take away here is, like the title says, being honest with yourself about your own ability. No matter what you may say, or claim, or make people believe, or what people make you believe, the most important things is self-awareness. You may not be as good as you think you are, or you may be better than you think you are. Other peoples thoughts and opinions may give you better insight, and will likely help you better access your skill level, so seeking out help and feedback is extremely important. But ultimately, the most accurate determination will likely be made by yourself. Even people with the best intentions who want you to genuinely succeed still can’t go into your head and pick out everything you know.

Side note: Perhaps my experience with more pompous and over-confident learners comes from where I live. Here in the US, humility is valued, but confidence and a “I can do anything” attitude is highly emphasized. People from other countries tend to do better and acquiring language and not treat it like they are deciphering secret ancient text.

In May, I definitely did not get as much immersion as I would have liked. Not very much reading, and not too much watching either. I did manage to finish Rascal does not Dream of Bunny Girl Sempai which was, not what I was expecting. One of the more otaku-ish series I’ve watched. I can see why some of these get some flack, but it’s the Otakuy series that seem to be the most culturally deep without the need of swords, samurai and fox demons. My partner and I started watching Japanese content at dinner time again. We finally resumed Hi-Score Girl, which we should finish up some time soon. Also went back to doing flashcards in iKnow which I had not touched in over a year. I was surprised to find out how much I had forgotten or had trouble recalling. Probably went through about 1500 reviews, made a dent in the 5000 or so due….whew. In June I plan to really ramp up reading and I know I’ve said that before, but apart from Bunpro, I‘m gong to make that priority in place of iKnow or Jpod 101 for June. Only 32% done with Devil is a Part Timer light novel, and I would like to finish it, and if not at least make some real progress. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out Haruna’s Daily Diary here in the forums, I would definitely recommend it. You can even reply to her posts in Japanese which I have done so myself. If you read my replies you’ll realize that I still have plenty to work on, but I’m glad I did so and you should at least try it out if you haven’t.