I have a close Japanese friend who has been learning English for over 10 years. I know that she has been learning for at least 10 years because she was a pretty good speaker when she first attended my class nearly 10 years ago.
Though she doesn’t have the opportunity on a daily basis, she speaks very well. Well enough that she could find a job using English in Japan. In fact, I recommended that she do so.
She says she needs to study more. That she needs to study more grammar and that she doesn’t speak good enough to do anything serious.
The truth is that she is afraid. Afraid she won’t understand. Afraid she will be embarrassed. Afraid everyone will find out how bad at English she really is.
She is so busy being afraid and focusing on what she doesn’t know, she can’t see how much she really does. It’s a perception problem created by fear.
Fear Stops Opportunity
In order to learn Japanese, or any language, you have to be willing to get out of your comfort range. If you try to learn all of the grammar structures and words before you start speaking, you’ll never start speaking. And it’s important to start speaking as soon as possible. You should start speaking on day one.
The earlier you start speaking Japanese in your studies, the faster you will learn.
But fear stops us from pursuing speaking opportunities and engaging with Japanese speakers. It makes us think, what if I make a mistake? What if they laugh at me? What if I can’t understand? It’s the voice that says “don’t try to speak to them, just keep your eyes down”.
Fear pulls our focus to what we might not know and the bad things that might happen. It forces us to overestimate the negatives and underestimate the positives.
For example, the humor of making a mistake when speaking Japanese will strengthen the bond you have with that person and it will help you remember the correct way to say it. The chance that person is offended because your English isn’t perfect is near zero.
How to Get Over Fear of Speaking Japanese
Getting rid of fear is both difficult and simple. It’s difficult because it requires doing the thing you are afraid of and simple because you know exactly what to do. If you are afraid of speaking Japanese, speak Japanese.
Yes, you will make mistakes. You will mispronounce, and not understand, and misunderstand, but you will learn, and you will have fun. You will get better. You will learn where you need to study more and where you are strong.
You Can’t Get Better If you Stay in Your Comfort Zone
After my friend explained to me that her English skills weren’t good enough to pursue the opportunities we discussed, she told me that she wished someone could speak with her and tell her where she needs to improve. She feels she isn’t good enough, but she isn’t sure where to improve.
I went through this myself. I felt that my Japanese wasn’t as good as it should be. But I wasn’t sure what I needed to learn to make it better. I was living in Japan. I spoke Japanese 100% of the time, and yet, I still felt I wasn’t good enough. If only someone could tell me exactly what I needed to learn to get better.
It has been ten years since I remember feeling that way. I have had some time to think about it and reflect on it. I have also read dozens of books on learning, language, and habits since then and put that knowledge to use to learn new skills.
Here is what I realized: This feeling comes when you want to get better, but are afraid to get out of your comfort zone and go to the next level.
You feel you aren’t good enough for the next level and instead of trying and learning, you try to first gain more skills. But since you don’t experience the next level, you don’t know what you need to learn. If you knew, you’d be getting better rather than worrying.
Fear creates a vicious circle. You are afraid you aren’t good enough, so you don’t try. And you don’t get better because you don’t try.
Try, Fail, Try Again
Failing is not the worst thing, failing to try is. If you try, then you learn. This knowledge makes you smarter, better, and more likely to succeed the next time.
You can’t learn Japanese if you think you must speak perfectly. You have to make mistakes to learn. It’s part of the process. This is true in anything we do.
Get used to failing and making mistakes. Think of it as a game. Try, fail, make adjustments with the knowledge you gained from failing, and try again.
You Decide Your Japanese Level
Only you can decide your Japanese speaking level. No one else. You decide how much you learn and when you stop learning.
But be careful, because the decision to stop learning can be an unconscious one. You may still be studying, but if you stop getting out of your comfort zone, if you stop being mindful about your learning, you will stop improving.
My friend has two business opportunities in front of her. Both of them involve English. Both of them are great opportunities and are a strong match for her skills.
They both require her to grow and learn and get out of her comfort zone. Until she does, she will feel her English isn’t good enough and she won’t know where she needs to improve until she tries.
But if she takes the challenge she will find most of what she fears wasn’t real. It won’t be scary anymore because the unknown will be known. Once it’s known, she can learn it and practice it.