Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

8 English-learning Action Steps that I Picked Up in Japan

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 @ 07:49 AM

English-learning action plan, Boston


In January of 2005, my plane landed in Tokyo and I began my new life in that very different culture.

A year and a half later I left Japan, having reached a basic conversational ability in Japanese. I had also passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 4. I was proud of what I had achieved.

Today I'd like to share with you the eight action steps I took to reach my goal.

I want to show you how you can take these action steps in your own English-learning journey while you are studying English and living in the United States. Ready? Here we go!


My Path to Japanese Proficiency 




1) I built a foundation before leaving home

 Language classes to build a foundationI was offered a job teaching English in Japan in September of 2004. I accepted it of course! My big move would be in January of 2005. That gave me four months to grasp at least the basics of the language before I arrived in Japan.

I signed up for a Japanese class in Boston and drove two hours twice per week to take my class. In the class, we learned basic hiragana and katakana with flashcards. We learned how to greet, basic conversational phrases, how to count, and how to ask for directions.

I still had no idea how to speak Japanese, but at least I had created a foundation and I had gotten used to hearing the language.

This was important because later, when I arrived in Japan, I was one step ahead. I was able to dig into the more important business of forming sentences and learning through conversation lessons because I already understood the basics.

I could keep my head above water while I navigated the first few weeks of my new life in Tokyo.



Your English-learning action step

Build a foundation and gain a mental edge.

Build a solid foundation with your English before you arrive in the U.S. Most of you spent your childhood years learning English in school so you already have a solid foundation.

However, what kind of a foundation do you have? Are you a grammar expert but have no idea how to use those grammar rules in conversation? If that's the case, build your foundation around conversation skills while you are still in your home country.

Find an online language exchange or work with a native English teacher via Skype. Know what you already have. Figure out what you else need and build it. This will give you the mental edge you need when you get to the U.S and it will make it easier to get started with your English classes when you arrive.



2) I set a primary goal with a deadline

 set English learning deadlines, hourglassDec 12th was my deadline. That was the day I would take the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam.

I knew that I wanted to leave Japan having accomplished something.

It was important for me to grow through the experience and I knew that being able to speak Japanese would create a new dimension in my life in the future.

I decided to set myself the goal of passing the JLPT level 4.

I had approximately eleven months. I knew the exact number of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters that I had to know to pass.

It was time to get started.




Your English-learning action step


Set a time-bound goal as soon as you arrive in the United States and determine how you will measure your results.

What will you accomplish with your English while you are in the U.S.?

What level will you reach and by when? What is your deadline?

How will you know if you have reached that level?

Once you have settled into your new life here (within a few weeks or a month), it's time to start asking these questions. Write down your goal and share it with your community of family and friends. It's important to create accountability. Someone should know that you plan to accomplish this goal. Go public with it and don't keep it to yourself.




3) I set a secondary goal

japanese school staff newIn my mind, speaking a language is about connecting with people. It's not about passing tests. Sure, as I said above, I wanted to be able to return to the U.S. with Japanese proficiency on my resume and the only way that I could do that was by taking the test.

But the real goal for me was connecting with the people in my life. My two managers at our school in Tokyo didn't speak English.

Every time we all went out after work, which happened often, we had a blast over sukiyaki and Japanese beer. There was always laughter at the table, tons of it.

The problem was, there was a gap between us and I didn't understand most of the jokes. As one of the only two native English speaking teachers at the school, I needed others to translate so that I could communicate with my managers.

I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if I could have a real conversation with them by the time I leave?" What if we could talk and joke together without another colleague to translate?

That was the goal that really mattered for me. It was about human connection because human connection makes life rich, especially when you are living on your own in a new country.


Your English-learning action step


Decide who you would like to connect with on a deeper level.

You are learning English to connect with people. Think of someone who is in your new life in the U.S. now but who you maintain a very superficial relationship with because of the language barrier.

Who is that person for you?

How could you build a relationship with that person if your English were better? When the studying gets tough and you aren't sure if you can keep moving forward, this goal might keep you going more than the test grade.




4) I put flashcards all over my walls

 use flashcards to learn a languageOnce I knew my goal and my deadline, I got to work!

I knew that I had to learn at least 100 kanji characters to pass the test, so I started by plastering flashcards all over my tiny six tatami-mat apartment in Tokyo.

I looked at my flashcards on the toilet, as I got into the shower, and when I cooked my dinner.

They were on top of my TV, on the door as I went out, and on my laundry line. I also had a portable set of keychain flashcards that I studied on the train. I started to see flashcards in my sleep! This was an important part of my quest to create a Japanese-only environment. In addition to flashcards, I often kept the TV on at night to listen to Japanese, even though I couldn't understand what was being said.


Your English-learning action step

How are you creating an English-only environment?

Surround yourself with English.

Cover your walls with flashcards, keep the TV on, start your morning with the news in English, read a newspaper in English during your lunch break, always have a novel in English at your bedside table.

You have the power to create your own environment so don't make excuses that you never have the opportunity to practice your English. Change what you can control and do it today.



5) I found a language exchange partner

 language exchange partner Japanese to EnglishThere is a reason that I talk about language exchange partners constantly on this blog.

Language exchanges often work. I was lucky to find Naoki, a software engineer, who lived in Tokyo and was interested in American culture and learning English. We met 3 times per week. We sat in a cafe and practiced Japanese for half an hour and English for half an hour. It was great and it gave me a chance to use the words that I learned with the flashcards in daily conversation.

I started to gain confidence and that made learning more fun. So I kept going. Naoki was a key part of my path to Japanese proficiency.


Your English-learning action step

Find your English exchange partner.

People are busy, especially in the cities like Boston or New York. But somewhere in your city, there is a native English speaker who is planning a trip to Spain or Japan or Russia. He or she needs to learn your language as much as you need to learn English.

This person should be committed, patient, and willing to split the time equally between the two languages. If you don't find the right person at first, keep looking. The best part is, you don't have to pay anything for a language exchange. Find your exchange partner now and set up a time and place to meet each week.



6) I went to class while my colleagues stayed in bed

 English homework for private English students, paper and pencilMy work schedule in Japan was such that I had mornings off.

Many days I didn't have to be at work until 2pm or 3pm. That left the whole morning to work toward my goal. I eventually started seeing results.

I went out one evening with the group of native English teachers with whom I had been trained and one friend noticed as I confidently had a conversation with the waitress at an izakaya. He looked at me with a sense of shock on his face and said, "How did you get to the point where you can have a conversation like that in Japanese?" I told him I had been taking classes 4 mornings per week at the local community center. He said, "Wow, I can't believe you get up that early. I am usually in bed until at least 1pm since I don't have to be at work until 2pm."

One day of class didn't make a difference for me; however, I kept getting up early, before work, while everyone else was still sleeping. After a year it did indeed make a difference. It made enough of a difference that I passed the test!


Your English-learning action step


Push yourself when it would be easier to stay in bed.

To accomplish anything in life, we need to make sacrifices.

If you really want to reach that goal you have set, you need to give yourself a good, hard push every single day. Every day you will wake up and you will have a choice to stay in bed and watch a movie in your native language or to go to your English class, meet with your exchange partner, or study your flashcards.

These choices that you make every day will equal your results one year from now. Push yourself so that you won't have regrets later.



7) I laughed at myself constantly

 lindsay laughingThere is no doubt that when you are learning a language like Japanese, your mistakes and the situations you can get yourself into can be downright embarrassing or just really really funny!

These mistakes and these moments of confusion are what make language learning colorful!

I can remember a few situations where I laughed at myself and my mistake until tears came out.



Your English-learning action step


Keep it light and have fun with it.

Learning English doesn't have to be as serious as you make it.

It can be fun if you look at it as an experiment. Be light on your feet. Be ready to laugh at your mistakes. Allow others to help you and realize that they are not judging you as harshly as you think they are. They are too busy judging themselves.



8) I maintained friendships with native Japanese speakers

 Lindsay and Akiko snowboardingI was lucky to have great Japanese friends during my time in Tokyo and I made a point to spend a lot of time with them and their friends on the weekends. We went out for dinner, went snowboarding, visited parks and shrines, went to the beach, and they showed me their country!

Although some of them spoke English very well, they were willing to speak Japanese with me and that was important.

I owe a lot of my success to these friendships, not only did I learn the language but I gained a ton of insight into the culture and how to communicate beyond language, with Japanese people.

These friends became cultural brokers for me and helped me to work through communication challenges that I was having with colleagues or students.

They also supported me. I knew I could count on them to help me pay a bill that was written in Kanji or to help me get through a few days of homesickness.



Your English-learning action step

Think about who you are spending your time with and how they are helping you improve.


Who is in your social circle? Is it all people from your native country? That sounds comfortable and easy but it will not help you improve or grow with your English. Challenge yourself. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and make friends with native speakers.

You might need to attend meetups or go to events, but figure it out and it will make a huge difference in your English improvement.



Now the sad truth and how to avoid it

 don't lose your languageThere is a sad part to this story. Up to this point, it might sound like learning Japanese was a huge success for me. I left Japan with my JLPT exam level 4 certificate in my hand, great memories, and cross-cultural communication skills. I was ready to begin my life in New York City.

Here's the sad part: I lost my ability to speak Japanese within two years of returning to the U.S.

What happened you ask? Well, things started out ok. I found Makiko, my language exchange partner in New York. We met regularly and spoke for about an hour each week.  I attended some Japanese meetups in New York for a while.  But Makiko moved to London and I got lazy. Within a few years, I could no longer recognize those 100 kanji characters or even string together a sentence that made any sense. What a shame!

Don't let this happen to you! Here are some things you should do to avoid losing your new language :

  • Find a few different language exchange partners when you return home (easy when you live in a big city, harder in a small town)
  • Join meetups and attend as often as possible
  • Prioritze studying but keep it fun
  • Set a new goal every six months and create a plan to reach it
  • Consider the actions that you take each day and how they are getting you closer to or further away from your goal


At that point, my interests changed and I decided to learn Spanish.

I did become fluent in Spanish, mostly through immersion and I have maintained my Spanish. Maybe my Japanese-learning experience served a different purpose. Maybe while I was learning Japanese, I was learning how to learn languages. Perhaps having the skills to learn a second language made Spanish more approachable. Sometimes the ultimate benefit that we gain from a pursuit isn't what we expect.


So, how do you plan to implement these 8 action steps into your English-learning routine? Set your goal and take it seriously. Work at it every day and find a way to make it happen. If I can make it to a basic, conversational level in Japanese, you can take your English to the next level. So get going!

 Speak English with Confidence NOW




Photo credits: hiragana- kanko, language class- Shane Global Language Centers, sad soccer ball- FromSandToGlass, notebook and pen- Sterlic, hourglass- comedy_nose, flashcards  drcw,

Topics: Advice for English Students, How to Learn English

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