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A Very Human Thing: Language Learning ・非常に人間的なこと:言語学習・一个非常人性化的事情:语言学习

Updated: Nov 23, 2023


Have you ever wondered why we use “easy” to describe learning our mother tongue, but “difficult” to describe learning any subsequent languages?

People often ask me if Japanese is difficult to learn as a foreign language. The problem is the word “difficult.” I would use that word to describe many other things but language learning should not be described as difficult. Here’s why:

1. Language is uniquely human.

We’re the only animal on this planet that have languages.

One day, while I was playing a Spanish-language-learning game on my phone with my nephew, I was reminded of how our society thinks about languages and it has nothing to do with our biological truth.

My nephew had learned a lot of Spanish already and it was showing as he was playing the game. He was getting question after question correct. But the moment he got an answer wrong, he hung his head down and said: “I guess I’m not good at learning languages.” And then he gave me back my phone.

I stared with my jaw somewhere on the floor. This is exactly how our society thinks about language learning: “We humans are just not good at learning languages.”

I turned to my nephew and said to him: “You learned English, didn’t you? That’s a language! You are very good at learning languages!”

Just being human means that we are good at learning languages.

2. You could have learned any language as your native language.

You could have been born anywhere on this planet and learned any of the amazing languages as your native language. We often think it’s obvious that we are native to whatever language we happen to be native to. But the language you consider to be your mother tongue is just a coincidence of both time and place.

While language learning is inherently human, we were not born with a specific language implanted into our brains. If you were born in France to French parents, you probably learned French. If you were born in Japan to Japanese parents, you probably learned Japanese. But you could have been born to Canadian parents who lived in China and learned Chinese or Brazilian parents who lived in Russia and learned Russian.

3. Learning a Language is Learning How to Communicate.

Probably the biggest reason people equate the word “difficult” to learn a language is that we associate it with the equivalent of being handed a five-pound textbook, a very uninteresting learning environment with no real-life scenarios to use the language, and assignments that are impossible to finish, excruciatingly boring, and make you want to break your pencil into two.

What I’ve learned is that no matter how much you memorize out of a textbook or how good of a score you get on a language proficiency test, you are only as good at a language as to how well you can communicate with another human being in that language. This is why it’s really tricky to describe language learning as black and white; easy or difficult. Communication is also not that clear and straightforward. The key to communication is not knowing an entire 2,000-page textbook word for word or memorizing sentence patterns and vocabulary words. Nor is it carrying around a proficiency certificate and showing it off to native speakers.

Communication is the ability to stay curious, listen and study, and it is being able to relay information.

No one, not even native speakers, is perfect at any language. Language is a toolbox for communication and even the best communicators in the world, like Oprah Winfrey, have changed how they speak and what words they use from their ever-growing language toolbox. Communication is an on-your-feet kind of thing and language is one of the beautiful tools we have to understand, listen to, and be curious about another human being.

When people ask me if Japanese is difficult to learn as a foreign language, I tell them that nothing that I am curious about or want to learn is difficult. I always have fun when I’m learning Japanese and am inexplicably elated when I can communicate with someone I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to without building that language toolkit. It’s never been about how many words I’ve memorized, or what certificates I achieved. For me, it’s not difficult to learn a new language because I know that there is no such thing as perfect. I can let my guard down, make tons of mistakes, ask a load of questions, stay curious, and learn something new. Ultimately, I can communicate with another human being; I can understand and be understood by another beautiful soul.




1. 言語とは人間特有なものです





私は甥っ子に向かってこう言いました。「あなたは英語を学んだでしょう?あれは言語だよ! 君は言語を学ぶのがとても上手だね!」と言いました。


2. どんな言語でも母国語として学ぶことができたはず。



3. 言語を学ぶことは、コミュニケーションの方法を学ぶこと。







你有没有想过,为什么我们用 "容易"来形容学习我们的母语,但是用 "困难 "来形容学习任何后续语言?

人们经常问我,日语作为一门外语是否很难学习。问题在于 "困难 "这个词。我会用这个词来描述许多其他事情,但语言学习不应该被描述为困难。原因如下:

1. 语言是人类独有的。




我盯着地板陷入了思考。这正是我们社会对语言学习的思考方式。 “人们不善于学习语言"

我转身对我的侄子说:"你已经学会了英语,对吗? 那是一种语言! 你在学习语言方面非常出色!“ 我说。


2. 你可以学习任何语言作为你的母语。



3. 学习一种语言就是学习如何交流。

人们将 "困难 "一词等同于学习一门语言的最大原因可能是,我们将其与递给你一本五磅重的教科书、一个非常无趣的学习环境、没有使用该语言的真实场景、以及无法完成的作业、令人痛苦的枯燥、以及让你想把铅笔折成两截联系起来。






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