Visiting forums about the Japanese language, or any language for that matter, can provide some great insight into people’s presumptions about learning languages. There is always one common tiff as to whether an adult who starts learning English can ever truly be fluent. There is that age-old adage you have to start learning a language as a child to truly gain mastery over it. Most people fall into either one of two groups: 1) You believe this adage or 2) you don’t. I happen to fall into the the latter group.
I teach a discussion class at AEON and we once had a discussion about an article called 10,000 hours. The article was written based on findings in the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of this article was that a person who devotes themselves to a trade, craft, etc. for 10,000 hours or more becomes a master of that activity. The article primarily used musicians as a case in point, but the same rule applied to “professionals” of all types. For example, the Beatles had easily surpassed the 10,000 hour mark, playing together at small gigs, developing a stage presence, writing music that reaches people, and honing their craft, before ever a symphonic sensation. Michael Jordan easily logged over 10,000 hours of focused, basketball practice before making other professionals look like amateurs, winning six NBA championships, and going on to arguably become the greatest to ever play the game. There are so many case studies to validate the 10,000 rule: Venus and Serena Willams, Warren Buffet, Roger Federer, Muhammad Ali, Mozart, your local dentist, Arnold Schwarzenegger, your local doctor, Babe Ruth, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong, and the list goes on and on.
Now here’s the thing to consider with the 10,000-hour rule: Did these people become raving successes because they put the time in? or Were they naturals that were going to become successful no matter what? In my opinion, it’s because they put the time in. Now these people may have had natural gifts, too, which set them above their peers, but I think the time they devoted to their craft made all the difference. I have to use Will Smith as an example. I don’t think he was all that great of an actor when he started, but he’s been honing his craft for years…and we’ve been fortunate enough to watch the entire process. Can you see the difference in his acting abilities from the Fresh Prince days to the Pursuit of Happiness film? Markedly different, right? I thought so.
I think learning languages is no different. I truly believe that if a person of average intelligence, who can learn from their mistakes, were to devote four years to seriously studying a language (whether an adult or child), they would be fluent, or extremely close. That’s not to say the you can sit in front of a book for 10,000 hours and hope to be a Japanese master…there has to be a method, a structure that allows you to engage all facets of the language: listening, speaking, reading, writing, comprehension, etc. Mind you, I’m not even close to reaching 10,000 hours of Japanese and I’ve lived in Japan for three years. Part of the reason I’m excited about moving to the public school system (despite the pay cut) is that I will have constant Japanese exposure on a daily basis, forcing me to speak and study in order to learn.
I once encountered a student who really started devoting herself to studying English very late in life. She came to my discussion class and was instantly one of the best in class. She sounded so natural and understood so well. I had a chance to speak with her after class and asked here which country she had lived in. To my surprise she had never stayed abroad for more than two weeks! She told me the reason her English was as good as it was, was because she fell in love with the language, surrounded herself with foreign friends, and studied hard. She was proof that it can be done. I have also encountered foreigners who started learning Japanese as adults, but sound so natural when they speak. If I were to close my eyes and listen to a conversation between them and a native Japanese speaker, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s people like these that give me hope. I want to be one of these stories…someday.
Can adults become fluent in Japanese if they put the time in? Please tell me what you think in the comments section.