In my English speaking class, one student sighed and asked me, “Why is English so difficult to learn?” “Maybe that is life. It has many tortures, challenges, but happiness,” I said. However, this dialogue is always on my mind. I feel a sense of complexity in foreign language study.
Recalling my journey, I am grateful for experiencing different foreign language learning methods, which makes me more complete. I am a language teacher from China. I used to teach Chinese university students English and basic Japanese. Now I am a language teacher at a local university in Japan, teaching low-proficiency Japanese students English and basic Chinese. I am also a language learner of English, Japanese, and French.
I learned English in an Asian, test-centered style. I passed many English exams: class quizzes, semester-final exams, national-level exams, and TOEFL. Until I entered university, when I began to appreciate English. Teachers and students there read many short essays and beautiful poems (such as Shakespeare’s sonnets) and watched various movies. We organized English salons and role-played some episodes from dramas. China, at that time, was not such an open country as it is now, and I could not study abroad or talk to a foreigner easily. I still got a lot of fun from university activities, which gave me a different view of learning English than the exams.
My Japanese learning is different from English learning. I started learning Japanese when I was 23 years old. After a three-month intensive training in basic Japanese, I flew to Japan to study an M.A. course. Since then, I have not joined formal Japanese classes or passed any exams. I watched TV, read books, and talked to Japanese people. After three years in Japan, I went back to China. In the next fifteen years, I seldom used Japanese. Occasionally, I watched Japanese dramas and taught some university students basic Japanese. It was not until 2019, when I came to Japan for a doctoral degree that I started to self-study Japanese again. To my great surprise, I did not forget most of what I learned. Instead, I improved very quickly. I later passed the Japanese Proficiency Test N1 (the highest level) and have little difficulty using Japanese in daily life and the workplace.
Now I speak English and Japanese at the Japanese university I am working at. I often feel like I have forgotten my native language, Chinese, when I concentrate on explaining ideas or thoughts to my students and other teachers. I design different interactive class activities to bring my students the same concentration. If my students could feel lost in expressing themselves in another language, they would start an enjoyable journey onf foreign language acquisition and self-development.
So why am I grateful to language study? My experience of learning foreign languages brings me great enjoyment and allows me to discover myself. On the way to learning a foreign language, we may not be able to avoid preparing for dull exams. Sometimes, we must passively do what a language teacher forces us to do, and sometimes we are free to choose what we want to learn. It is hard to judge which way is most effective to acquire a foreign language and manage to use it. The complicated psychological process of struggle, confusion, persistence, and enjoyment leads to our growth. Another important thing is that losing oneself to engage in continuous exploration can be a start to knowing oneself.
Learning a foreign language makes you a better language teacher. Keep that in mind if you are a non-native speaker of English who feels insecure about your English. That insecurity is a strength. And if you are a native speaker who has had a hard time learning another language, keep that experience close to your heart, as one of your tools.