Dave : “How long did you live in Japan for?”
Sally : “10 months”
Dave : “Oh wow, so you must be fluent then?”
Sally : “Um, not really”.
Sound familiar? Sadly for us native English speakers, Japanese is not Spanish, and it takes time and effort to learn. While living in Japan certainly makes picking up the language significantly easier, effort is required. Being lazy will guarantee your Japanese ability will remain just at is was.
You may be thinking “But when I went to Japan on holiday my Japanese improved and I didn’t study at all”. Well, that may be true, but most of that ‘improvement’ was likely just the reinforcement of Japanese which you already knew.
After a few years of study at High School or University you have a surprisingly large database of vocabulary, grammar, sentence structures, and comprehension tucked away under the surface. Normally in your home country you don’t use Japanese very often so the Japanese which you have stored away doesn’t come out naturally on command. However after even just a few weeks in Japan, your perceived Japanese ability will increase as you repetitively use it over and over again and calling on those words and phrases becomes more natural.
But then comes the plateau.
After the initial polishing of knowledge you already had tucked away you reach a critical point. Apart from a few new words or phrases you may hear often and learn by practical use rather than in books, your Japanese stalls. By this point everyone tells you your Japanese is great and has improved, but actually it has stopped getting better. Why? That’s simple. You’re not studying!
There’s only so much Japanese you’ll absorb naturally. It doesn’t matter how many times you look at a kanji character you don’t know. Unless you make an effort to find out what it is, it might as well just be squiggles on paper. It’s the same with vocabulary. Unless you make an effort to learn new words that you hear, you’ll forever be in the dark.
Once while I was visiting foreign staff working at a ski resort. While there I stuck up a conversation with one of their Japanese co-workers. During the conversation he asked me the meaning of a few words. No sooner had I explained the meaning and had written them down. He was making an effort and his English was improving. During the same visit one of the foreign staff commented ‘They’re learning more English off us than we are Japanese off them’. I asked him “Are you making an effort to learn Japanese words like they are with English?”. He looked at me, blushed, and replied, “No”.
Japan is the best place to learn Japanese. When working at a Japanese resort you will be surrounded by Japanese 24/7. As soon as you learn a word or phrase you’ll hear it being used all around you, making it stick in your memory. However, you have to learn the word first in order to recognize it.
So enjoy your time working in Japan, but remember if you want your Japanese to excel you will need to make a little effort. Japanese isn’t Spanish. You won’t become fluent just by being there!