I’ve had two stints learning Japanese. One a few years ago, which ended when I realised I wasn’t going to be living in Japan any time soon. And one more recently, which ended… well, the story was pretty much the same both times.
It’s been a long-held ambition: the ability to read, write and speak Japanese. I enjoy the pictorial aspect of the kanji symbols, their layered meanings and beautiful, precise forms. I enjoy the fact that there are three sets of symbols to master, giving an unparalleled visual texture to the language. I enjoy the fact that the grammar is barely comparable to Western formulations. I enjoy the subtle way the language sounds. That you read sideways, top-to-bottom, turn pages a different way. I enjoy learning the multitude of words that have no equivalent in English (for example, 木漏れ日 or komorebi, which refers specifically to light that has been filtered through the leaves of trees).
The problem is not the difficulty of the language itself - if you’re learning Japanese, you probably enjoy a challenge (trying to master 2000+ complex characters is certainly that). The difficulty is the feeling I have that it is not going to progress without my living in Japan, and the immersion in Japanese that that would entail. However, the more I’ve read about prolific language-learners, the more I’ve started to doubt this logic.
I remember reading that Gabriel Garcia Marquez preferred One Hundred Years of Solitude in English. He said it gave the novel a new solidity. I remember reading that Nabokov wrote his favourite work, Invitation to a Beheading, in two weeks, as opposed to the years of effort supposedly required for the creation of masterpieces. Sometimes real insights can be gained by seeing things backwards, upside-down, having the courage to go against perceived wisdom. Increasingly language commentators have been coming to my aid on this front.
Many experienced language learners argue that moving to a foreign country can slow down your ability to learn a language, as you get caught up in starting a new job and adjusting to the numerous cultural difficulties and practical tasks beyond the field of linguistic communication. I’ve met countless people living in Japan and other countries that are not their original homeland, who live productive lives without immediately acquiring the language - because this is possible, and convenient, and falling back on the ex-pat community is an understandable comfort (needless to say, they are all English-speakers).
These same advanced language learners will then argue that a degree of the immersion-effect is possible if you change your regular radio shows and newspaper reading to Japanese-language sources. And that the energy to learn the core lessons can be more easily summoned within the safe context of one’s natural environment.
As for remembering the endless new words, kanji and expressions without the privelege of regular useage - the brain is a wonderful thing, they might say. And there are plenty of Japanese people in London.
Wisdom or wishful thinking? まだ決めてないです。