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Barriers to Learning Languages Abroad

Cynthia Ma


Putting classroom lessons into a real-life context isn't always easy. 

My hardest lesson in Japan happened almost two months into my stay in Nagoya and halfway through the school semester.

The requirements of the study abroad program at Nagoya Gakuin University include a mandatory Japanese language class once or twice every school day. I was very excited to further my Japanese language skills and improve my communications with both the people at school and at large.

I enjoy learning another language because as a native English speaker living in Canada, I've never been required to study a second language. Coming to Japan, I only knew how to read and write Japanese characters. I had limited vocabulary and zero syntactical education. And don’t get me started on kanji.

I felt ashamed. In the eight weeks I had been studying Japanese in Japan, why had no one corrected my pronunciation?

During the first two months, I worked hard when it came to writing and speaking Japanese and I felt confident with the amount of information I was able to learn and retain.

But one day everything changed.

Maybe I should contribute my feelings to my progressively worsening mood throughout the day. After being with other people for a prolonged period of time, I need to recharge otherwise I struggle to communicate effectively.

The conversation itself became the catalyst for a difficult lesson. Several school friends had stayed late at school to chat about many different topics—both in English and in Japanese. We tend to switch between the two for everyone’s benefit. After a while, the native Japanese speakers commented on my Japanese responses. I thought naively that my words, though often fillers, were pleasing to hear.

The laughs and comments about my "cute" speech continued after almost every spoken sentence of mine. I realized that something about my speech was strange and I pressed them with questions about their reactions. After a while, I finally received a straight answer and it broke my heart.

Several people, at different intervals, told me that I was speaking Japanese wrong. Not one or two things were incorrect, but the summary of all my studying led to me saying every word in a "Western" accent that often made it difficult to understand and laughable to others.

What an incredible blow.

I had to understand. I inquired earnestly about my spoken Japanese. They reiterated what I had heard previously: "Your pronunciation is wrong" and "just change how you speak." I tried feebly to defend my accent, the root of the problem, and my achievement in Japanese so far by explaining the natural tonal quality of my voice no matter what language I was speaking. Sadly, their response was unforgiving.

I felt ashamed, defeated, and then, outraged. In the eight weeks I had been studying Japanese in Japan, why had no one—especially my teachers—corrected my pronunciation? The lack of feedback from others led to a habit of using Japanese syntax and vocabulary incorrectly. With clarity, I realized that every time I spoke Japanese, I incited laughter and/or confusion.

No longer was I excited about the language. No longer did I want to speak freely in my limited Japanese. The strong self-consciousness over my ability to communicate silenced my passion for Japanese completely. How can one learn a language with these complications? How do I overcome this latent disadvantage already ingrained in my mind?

The reason I was so surprised by my mistakes in speaking Japanese mostly came from the manner it was explained to me. I take my education seriously, but in an instant, it was reduced to a joke.

Learning a language in its country of origin will have its challenges. The difference from being around native speakers 24/7 and a language professor back home is staggering. I have found many inaccuracies between my Japanese language teacher from my Canadian university and what is commonly used in Japan.

This brings me round to the hardest lesson I have learned abroad; learning to let go. For me, this was a three-fold lesson:

1. Let go of all the things you learned about language back home. Don’t forget what you learned, but be prepared for those lessons to be challenged and sometimes proven wrong. I wanted to defend my instruction from back home and prove that everything I learned previously was right, but that’s a foolish way to grow in that language. The truth is, even teachers are wrong sometimes.

2. Let go of the anger and/or sadness brought on by other’s critiques. If you feel accomplished in your studies and you have the grades to reflect it, then let everyone else’s comments slide off you.

3. Let go of your stubborn unmovable pride. This was not only the hardest for me to let go of but also the greatest roadblock to my studying. I wanted to be right all the time when I was in class, because I take pride in my ability to learn. You need to admit to yourself that there is always somebody more proficient at the language than you. Be grateful that you have someone to ask for help on things you might not understand.

Learning this lesson shook my confidence and it took a few days to build it back. Now, I can say happily that I'm still as eager about Japanese and have excelled in it since.

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Cynthia Ma

Cynthia Ma has started her last year of a psychology degree in Canada and joined an exchange program to study in Nagoya, Japan for a unique school semester. Her exchange school at Nagoya Gakuin University includes classes in Japanese language and culture.

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