Things no one prepares you for when learning a new language

I am running out of pictures to make the cover photo. I think I need to go on more adventures

Hey gang. Another week, another short read from your friendly Japan-based scribe. But wait, it’s Tuesday…

Sorry squad, I forgot to hit publish so this is a tad late. This week we carry on with our language series. I’m no expert on language, if I’m honest, I struggle to learn new languages, especially when the learning is left completely up to me. So this week I’ll talk more about the things you need to know to be able to make the pots to be done:

For those who don’t understand what “the pots” are – This is South African comedic gold

Training your mouth

If you’ve ever tried to speak a language that isn’t your own for an extended period, you might have found that you may make the sounds wrong or like me, your mouth might go into spaz mode and you find yourself spluttering and slipping over words that you know perfectly well in your head, but that just don’t translate well to your mouth.

The muscle memory that gets hardcoded from years of using specific sounds is hard to fight against. In my years of juggling between languages, this is the one thing I have always struggled to overcome. Even in my home language, Zulu, there are sounds that my mouth is just not accustomed to making because of lack of use. I remember being told by one of the Zulu guys I was almost housemates with at varsity, that my father’s use of language made him sound like he came from Kwa-Zulu Natal. I was baffled, not because my dad had an accent from a place he’d never lived for any significant period, but because I didn’t have it myself. How could this man who had been certified Zulu by a “real” Zulu have raised someone like me? Of course, my reality since pre-school has been that the largest chunks of my waking hours have been spent with none Zulu speakers. The few hours I would spend at home with my family were never really enough for me to develop the perfect verbal diction and intonation that my father had.

The point of that sad story is that your mouth is a tool that needs to be sharpened. When you come across a new language that requires you to make new sounds, it’s probably a good idea to get practising. I’ve been in Japan just over 4 months now and my spoken Japanese is still at level minus 10. In most cases, I know the words I need to verbalise to communicate what I need to, but I need to counter the blockage in my mouth. To do this I’ve started to use my shower time as a safe space where I can sound like a crazy person in my attempts to train my mouth muscles. For fifteen to twenty minutes every morning, I stand under a jet of steaming hot water and make sounds like a broken record. The results are not yet drastic but I’m finding it easier to wrap my mouth around some sounds that are unfamiliar to me.

Training your ears 

This one is important. You may or may not know this by now, but the human brain is a trickster and a sensitive one at that. Whenever the high processing mega-machine that is your brain feels overwhelmed or threatened with what it regards as too much information for you, it goes into shutdown mode. When this happens, you might feel like your brain is trying to sabotage you, but the truth is that it’s just trying to protect you.

When I first arrived in Japan, this exact thing happened and suddenly I understood how some people in my own home country have managed to live alongside all the South African languages for years and still failed to pick them up (here’s looking at you homies, you know who you are). It also made me understand all the foreigners who have lived in Japan for years but have still failed to pick up Japanese. In your brain’s attempt to protect you, it’s robbing you of one of the most important tools in language learning: Your listening ability.

When you gotta respond in conversation but you hear the wrong things

It’s hard to get your listening back once you go into this space but it is possible. Passive listening is actually more active than it’s made out to be. You may think that sitting in your target language environment is enough for you to pick up on all you need to learn a language, but the truth is that you have to make sure you are actively passively listening. Let me explain, if your brain is in blockade mode, you won’t be picking up anything from the conversations around you. It will be as good as listening to the static that you sometimes come across on the radio. When you actively passively listen, you have to announce to your brain that it’s time to eavesdrop, and it’s time to eavesdrop hard. Your brain will probably be confused at first, maybe even get angry to the point of giving you headaches, but telling your brain to listen even in the times of not understanding is how you will start picking up on things.

Recognising patterns

This leads me to the next bit. Once you have forced your brain to actively passively listen to things a few times, it automatically goes into passive listening mode more easily. Over time, you will start to notice that you get weird words stuck in your head. Sometimes this will genuinely be because someone used a word on you that you don’t know the meaning of and now desperately need to define to feel secure in your head. But most times it will just be the pattern recognition software that’s built into your brain finally kicking in.

You need to update your software to continue…

This is great. It’s confirmation that your passive listening is paying off. But now what? Personally, I’ve started to build a dictionary of all the words that become sticky. As my list of words grows, so does my vocabulary. This is probably the most natural and easiest way I have found to learn vocabulary. Unlike all the words collected from months spent on language learning apps and language courses, this feels normal for my brain and I am remembering the meanings in my long-term memory as opposed to short-term memory. I’m not sure of the science behind it, but I suspect your brain is trying to complete an equation when it highlights a word to you. Your job is then to help it along by filling in the value of “x”. This then goes into your long-term memory archives as a complete equation, available to you to use again in future when the need arises. And thus the puzzle grows.

Battling to maintain your level of curiosity

No doubt all this talk of equations and puzzles make his whole thing sound tiring. It is! I love Japanese but I hate the process of learning it; I swear. It’s painful! Even though I live in Japan and knowing the Japanese language would make my life a considerable amount easier, trying to convince myself that I really do need to learn is an ongoing battle.

Let’s pretend the brain is language

Perhaps that’s been the hardest realisation on this journey. As a polyglot with less than 10% interest in linguistic matters, I thought that placing myself in my target language environment would be all it would take to keep me motivated. The reality is, I have to keep finding new ways to stay interested. I am no expert on how to do this but all I can say is that you need to find what works well with your personality. If you are the studious type, you already know what all the methods are that help you keep studying. Use them. I am the sociable type so my method of staying interested has been to involve myself in group activities that will have a lot of Japanese going on. This has ranged from hanging out with my fellow teachers to joining the table tennis club at one of the schools where I teach. The added push to get to know the people I’m hanging out with has served as a nice form of consistent motivation to learn. It’s also given me a nice bucket of vocabulary to concentrate on too, which is making the prospect of learning a little less daunting.

Because learning a language feels like the Hunger Games

Overall, I’d say, when you learn a new language, it’s important to go back in time and turn into that curious nosey 3-year-old that you once were. When you are old like me, learning is about finding new ways to hack your brain. Like I said in the beginning, I’m no expert but I hope my learnings so far can perhaps be helpful in helping you to figure out your own brain hacks for whatever your current challenge might be.


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

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