How to Improve Your Japanese: Survival Situations

I was in the hospital attending to my father-in-law who, at the time, was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). By this time, my father had lost the ability to speak and was on a life-supporting respirator machine. One morning I walked into his room to check on him and saw a panicked look on his face. I could hear wheezing from the tube providing oxygen to his lungs, and his faced started turing red. I noticed there was a nurse in the room attending to another patient, but I wasn't quite sure what to say or do so I just started speaking anything and everything I knew in Japanese. It got her attention and she quickly attend to my father by clearing out the obstruction in his breathing tube and the situation was under control.

Again, I was in a hospital at midnight with my wife who had been suffering from a high fever for almost a week. In the moments before heading to the hospital she began to lose feeling in the right half of her body, and I immediately starting thinking stroke. As soon as I got to the emergency check-in window my Japanese just started working. I don't know how or why, but I was speaking Japanese to the midnight shift nurse that I hardly had any exposure to in the past. They immediately rushed my wife in for MRIs and she was soon placed in the ICU where she would eventually make a full recovery.

The above examples are two situations where I simply had no choice but to survive and use what I had learned in Japanese. Situations where you don't have the comfort of a classroom, the time to look up words in the dictionary, or simply the time to stop and think, I call 'survival situations'. Frankly speaking, I have learned more Japanese in these brief 5-10 minute conversations than I would in a whole semester with a PhD professor in a classroom. Immediately recognizing the benefit of these survival situations, I instinctively began to think of ways of reaping the same benefits without all the life-threatening effects of survival situations like the ones I described above. And it dawned on me, everyday I am encountered with these survival situations. Sometimes as simple as taking public transportation, walking into a bank and opening an account, making a reservation on the phone, ordering food at a bar and striking up conversation with someone, or joining a local club and meeting new people. For those of you not in Japan try befriending a Japanese, or finding someone to video chat with. There are plenty of ways you could challenge yourself without having to be in Japan, the point is to just get your face out of a book.

Up until I moved to Japan, most of my experience with Japanese existed in a book, cellphone apps, and classrooms. I lived in an area with many Japanese, heck I am married to a Japanese and we hardly ever spoke in Japanese to each other. After living in Japan for a year or so, I started noticing that I purposely avoided putting myself in situations that required me to actually speak Japanese in a natural environment because I was terrified of making mistakes. This is the kind of thinking a classroom environment reenforces because it's designed to be a safe environment. However, having gone through these tremendously stressful situations and surviving with the little Japanese I knew taught me the true value of being brave and diving in head first with my Japanese, and most importantly, to take advantage of these precious survival situations I encountered on a daily basis. It also taught be that there really is nothing to be embarrassed about! It was a THE breakthrough moment in my Japanese language learning journey.

Speaking of diving in head first, there are some pools definitely not worth diving in head first so I think it would be appropriate to give you a few do's and dont's when it comes to putting yourself in these survival situations.

Don't put yourself into a situation that is not survivable. In other words, don't try to make a reservation over the phone for hotel if all you can say in Japanese is your self introduction. You will get buried, and as a result, it will make you less likely to put yourself in further survival situations.

Do put yourself in situations that will challenge your current level of Japanese. For this, I always apply the 50% rule. If you understand roughly 50% of what someone is saying to you, then you at least understand the topic and some of the keywords. Everything else may be a mystery and that's okay. Leave most of it to the dust and only ask for more clarity from the speaker on material that is just out of your knowledge bubble. If you aren't hitting that 50% marker then politely exit the conversation if possible, or change it to something you're comfortable with. Of course, all of this only applies to situations you put yourself in, if you're faced with an important conversation, 50% won't cut it, and you need to find someone who can help, or you better have a really good dictionary.

Don't assume that survival situations are all you need to improve. That's like those athletes that never practice and only play games. Eventually, they start to fall behind those who practice. In language learning, survival situations are the game, and studying is the practice for those games. Without both, your Japanese will hit a very low ceiling at some point. With that said...

Do study. If you knew you were going into the mountains for a few days you would prepare the necessary equipment, right? The same applies to these language survival situations. I understand some of the situations you find yourself in will be unexpected, and in those cases you REALLY survive. But for the situations you purposely put yourself in, do as much study preparation as you can. For example, if you're going to make that reservation over the phone, study a bit of phone lingo and reservation lingo before giving it a go. Sounds simple, but it's amazing how a little prep can give you the confidence you need to get you out the door and speaking. As for materials, I would recommend the internet first and foremost, any of the Kanzen Master books, or the Genki series. And for those of you who find it hard to stick to commitments, I recommend signing up for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) because it will give you a solid goal to work towards. But be aware that the JLPT will only help you improve your comprehension and reading of Japanese.

Do work at your comfort level. Some people would feel challenged with just a simple hello to a stranger in Japanese, while others may want to jump right in and try striking up conversation at a public hot spring, now THAT takes guts! This is not a competition, it's a personal challenge, that's it.

Lastly, the Japanese you learn in survival situations will stick with you because it's connected to a unique experience. Research shows that retention of newly learned material improves when you make unique connections to that material through real-life experiences. So to all of you working hard at mastering Japanese, be brave and try throwing yourself into a survival situation. If you already are, bravo! Keep challenging yourself and no matter what don't give up! These survival situations will make you more confident as a speaker, most importantly, they will better prepare you for REAL survival situations like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

Let me know if you have any questions about learning Japanese or coming to Japan, I'd be happy to help in any way I can.


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