Author: Aaron Preiss (
Date: January 17, 2023
(Revised: January 19, 2023)

I very often have the same conversation with 2 different sets of people: people who want to learn Japanese, and Japanese people wanting to get better at English.

Each set of people want to know: how did I get better at Japanese, and are there some things that they can do to get better themselves? Is there some kind of secret sauce, that if they simply adopted, would magically open themselves up to the secret of language fluency?

In some ways, there is. But what many people don’t accept or take into account is the motivation and discomfort that come with it. And that is: do nothing but speak the language.

That’s it. What does that actually entail? Every single day, at every chance you get, you put yourself in a situation to speak. You force yourself, and ravenously seek out opportunities to test your own skills, and get better.

What this means doing is what many people do not like – putting themselves out of their comfort zone, and making language acquisition a more core piece of their life.

For example, over the last 6 years, I have dedicated myself completely to the study of Japanese. I am far from perfect, but with a JLPT N1 certification and ability to communicate fluently, I think I have seen well the benefits and results of this approach. That is: my work, my friends, my relationships, my life – I have lived almost entirely in Japanese during this period. It has become almost a fact of life to me. I seek out Japanese communities where I go, as well as volunteer opportunities to continue applying my language skills to unique and testing places. Other than using Japanese at work, I actively attend Meetup-style language exchange events every opportunity I get.

For lack of a better phrasing, I have almost ‘lived as a Japanese person’. Not so much with that literal intent, but with my pushing myself to constantly speak, and get better.

There have been very difficult times a part of this – specifically, the first 3 years were a period of constant, and consistent, trial and error. You do this, you try that, and people even laugh at you politely when you say something weird and make a mistake. But every year, without fail, you can look back and say, wow, look how far I’ve come.

The reality is, though, 99 percent of people won’t do this. Almost everyone has a vague concept that they would like to get better at speaking a new language. Almost in the same way that many people say they wish they’d go to the gym more, or eat healthier, yet stick to their habits. I think a lot of people aren’t comfortable with the time and commitment that many new skills or practices, such as language learning, require from you.

But even more practically, many people also have, frankly, better things to do with their time. Some people, despite professing a desire to learn a new language, would rather spend that time hanging out with friends, or learning guitar. For those people, it isn’t that their lazy per-say, but it’s that they don’t have the requisite underlying drive or passion that pushes people like me into late drinking sessions with friends, shooting the shit in Japanese. They don’t see the same appeal in all the effort for something that ultimately isn’t that important, at least to them. Whether they express that way or not. And many won’t.

And why is that?

For most people, they again, have some idea they should learn a new language. Maybe they want to visit a foreign country, get a promotion at work, or make new friends. But where ever that motivation stems from, it is likely not enough to sustain the passion, which sustains the drive to try and learn constantly and get better. Moreover, many of those people are completely fine speaking at a low or basic level, as their use cases are more limited.

I am huge fan of Angela Duckworth, and her book, Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance. In it, she discusses that grit is your willingness and drive to get better at something, even when doing so can feel like a chore. She claims that:

“Grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal—is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain”

Language learning, for example, means hours reading textbooks or watching intricate grammar explanations online. If you don’t have grit, you won’t naturally push yourself to do these sorts of structured practice that is necessary to get better at speaking. A core component of grit is passion – and if your ‘passion’ from language learning derives from some general concept that ‘learning better English is good for my career prospects’, that likely isn’t going to be enough to sustain your energy, and thus, passion and grit, to stick with your language studies over the long term.

It’s like wanting to be a long distance running athlete, but refusing to buy the right running shoes, or brushing-off of the requisite 5AM, 10 mile jog before work. The reality is, you just aren’t that motivated. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But you should probably be honest with yourself if spending time picking up French is going to be worth the effort, before you sloppily half-apply yourself.

So what did I do to ensure my grit was strong, what drove my stick-to-itiveness? I knew, very early on, a few key things:

> I loved to study languages (I studied Spanish for 7 years prior to Japanese)
> I loved not just the Japanese culture, but the cultural exchange that occurs through speaking languages
> I loved the Japanese language itself, and found its sometimes obtuse intricacies genuinely fascinating
> I wanted to use it someday for work (as I had with Spanish)

And critically:

> I had (and wanted to make even more) Japanese friends

I actually think that last factor was the most critical of all – because then a language becomes a literal tool to be able to speak more with your friends.

In this pursuit, I set up every facet of my work and personal life to connect to Japanese in some way. Again, not usually intentionally, but because I had this strong underlying desire to seek out, almost like some kind of hunger, constant chances to practice, to get better.

But Aaron! you may say.
Learning a new language is difficult, near impossible for me!
Isn’t Japanese supposed to be super difficult?

Yes, of course Japanese is difficult. So is learning to be a long distance runner, or an astronaut. If the fact that ‘it’s hard’ is enough to deter you, you probably didn’t have that much motivation for it to begin with.

At the risk of sounding too much like a fortune cookie, or a terrible Instagram motivational post, it’s only impossible if you believe it is. Make the sacrifice, put in the requisite work, and trust the process. These things take time.

And hey, maybe languages aren’t your thing. All this advice could apply to any number of worthwhile, high-effort endeavors. But that just calls on you to find out what is worth, to you, your many hours of grit and dedicated effort. Find what makes you happy, what gets you up at 5am, and make that your purpose. As I did with Japanese, surround yourself with it, make it you mission to always improve, and get better.

Why this language learning approach may not work for everyone, is we are all inclined to different pursuits. But don’t let your laziness, or willingness to put in the effort, deter you. To do so means only failing yourself.

On this same note, I have noticed that people sometimes fetishize how supposedly ‘impossible’ Japanese is, especially Japanese people. Everyone is convinced it is simply ‘too difficult’. This narrative benefits nobody, unnecessarily baby-ing people with teaching/learning Japanese at slower speeds than necessary (yes, you can learn Hiragana & Katakana, the 2 writing systems, in a single weekend. Yes, you can learn all of the Kanji Chinese characters in a couple years). Just attack it as with any other pursuit, with passion and ignorance of difficulty, and I am sure you will make progress.

So that, the above, is why I ask people to truly consider how committed they are before even starting Japanese, English, or any language, and why I am also very critical about my own skills, constantly seeking to improve. Picking up a language, as with any new ability, requires literally thousands of committed hours of structured practice to get good at. But at the end of the day, when you’re sitting, having deep conversation about philosophy, in a 2nd language, with some guy you just met, at a hole-in-the-wall drinking spot, at 2AM, because you already missed the last train, I believe many will find, at that moment, the effort will have been worth it.

So, why not get started?