Learning a language as a non-native speaker is different from learning your native language. The learning process is different, the pacing is different, the type of vocabulary learned in what order is also different. A major problem (and deterrent) for learning a new language is how languages are taught. In the case of Japanese, learning resources and classrooms throughout the world will generally stick to learning Japanese from textbooks or other prepared materials. While these resources are helpful, often times they are used as the primary means to learning a new language. Furthermore, students who study languages within academia also will be exposed to learning a language through a linguistics perspective. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, an emphasis is placed on the technical aspects of the language.
How foreign languages are typically taught in schools
In order to understand how a language operates, it makes sense to teach the technical aspects of the language as well. The problem with this method is the focus is taken away from the natural use of language. When native speakers acquire their language, a large amount of learning happens in the immersion environment. Focusing too much on the technicalities of the language means there is less time dedicated to actually using the language. Learning the language and using the language is not always the same. While there is value in learning the finer points of a language, there should also be a focus on making the learning process incorporate as much practice for reading, writing and speaking as possible. Without practicing these elements it becomes difficult to acquire a language in the practical sense.
How do native speakers acquire language?
While there are some differing hypotheses as to how language acquisition occurs, the common thread is the language needs to be spoken around a child in order for them to learn this language. Languages spoken within the home and a different national language can lead to children going up as multilingual. Also, any child can learn any language as long as this exposure is present. Children do not control or make decisions regarding their physical location and as such the language(s) a child can acquire at this stage in life are influenced by which languages are spoken around them, both inside and out in the community.
Can we acquire Japanese the same way native speakers can?
Immersion is a technique which has been attempted for Japanese language learning. The most extreme (and costly) form is moving to Japan for a certain period of time and attempting to learn the language during this time. Going to Japan may sound like the ideal environment for immersion and promising progress can be made, however there are downsides to this method. Not everyone can afford to live in Japan. Affordability can be an issue if one cannot find a suitable job in Japan. Given that this is in regards to individuals in the process of learning Japanese, many opportunities are closed off by the lack of Japanese ability. Another problem is the time commitment. Not everyone will have the opportunity to stay in Japan for an extended period of time. The last problem with immersion that should be noted is that even in Japan there are pockets of English speakers as well. So if one goes to Japan as part of JET for instance, that path will introduce English speakers to you, and the snowballing effect continues as your network in Japan expands. This reliance on English communication undermines the whole purpose of immersion learning. If the social group that is developed is predominately of English speakers, the chances for practicing Japanese are going to be even more limited, despite being in physically in Japan.
It is also possible to immerse yourself with as much Japanese learning practice as possible outside of Japan. While speaking ability may be hindered, there are many free and paid resources available for learning Japanese. In some instances the Japanese learning community is fairly lucky as equivalent learning resources are not available for many other languages. Reading Japanese children books is a good way to acquire vocabulary as these books are designed for children and as such they are not as complicated to read through as newspapers. Listening to Japanese podcasts is also another method for improving listening ability and word recognition. It may sound odd but being able to identify when Japanese is spoken in a mixed language environment is a (small) milestone. Similar to books, there are also many resources dedicated to practicing listening in Japanese.
While learning Japanese exactly as a native speaker would require a stroke of luck (and if you’re reading this, that time has passed), as language learners we can always strive towards incorporating Japanese daily and keeping a consistent routine. Language learning does take time and for a language like Japanese from an English speakers perspective, it will require some serious time commitment. We also need to focus on using the language instead of learning the language from the linguistics perspective. While I do not disagree with the rationale for doing so, it becomes easy to get too caught up with technical aspects of the language which can hinder allotted time for other elements of practicing such as reading, writing and speaking Japanese.