Mythbusting: A Japanese Girlfriend is the Best Teacher?

Mythbusting: A Japanese Girlfriend is the Best Teacher? post image
Quick kanji test for you.  Can you translate this?

Quick kanji test for you. Can you translate this?

A few years ago, we got a new teacher at our school and one of his first questions of many was “If I got a Japanese girlfriend, she could teach me Japanese right?” He was half-joking, half-serious about it of course. But, it is a bit of a common myth all the same.

The general idea is that all you have to do is find an attractive Japanese member of the opposite sex go on a few dates, and you’ll be an amazing speaker of Japanese *poof* just like that, like in the fairy tales. You’ll both even fall madly in love and build a house with a white picket fence (with your bare hands no less) and have millions of super model children that will go on to solve all political, social, and medical problems in the world. It’s that easy right?

Well, it is true that having a significant other that speaks the language is beneficial, but it’s not a cure-all. It doesn’t even really mean you’ll be fluent. Fluency generally comes from at least some hard work or some late nights of studying. Language does not and can not be automagically absorbed from your significant other no matter how hard you try (and I should know because I’ve tried).

Fluency in Context

It is really difficult to be truly and completely bilingual. One reason for this is that inevitably you have only been in and practiced for a certain number of situations in another language. It is almost impossible for you to be very fluent in every situation even if you are pretty comfortable with the language.

For example, if you are living in Japan and speak Japanese on a regular basis at work, you are probably able to get around a office. You are most likely also able to order at a restaurant and make hotel reservations and other daily life things. But, you will probably at least struggle a bit with say, making an impromptu speech at a wedding or discussing the current politics and your opinions on them.

Now, you could probably get through those situations by making a few points here and there and stumbling through them, but nobody would think your fluent (if they had to judge you purely from that situation). If you did make a lot of speeches at weddings, over time you would become probably quite good at them and reach a fluent level, but just because you are comfortable and good at Japanese doesn’t mean you can handle the situation perfectly.

So if you have a significant other that speaks Japanese, more than likely they are not going to want to be your teacher. They want to spend time with you and draw hearts in the snow with you not teach you what to say at work. Don’t get me wrong, any special someone in your life wants to help you, but you can’t abuse that to learn a second language.

What this comes down to is dating a Japanese speaker will really help your ability to have daily conversations in Japanese, and maybe some heart-to-heart conversations or even maybe philosophical discussions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be fluent. I know plenty of people that can have a smooth conversation with their girlfriends, but have a difficult time with N3, even N4.

Your Comfort Level with Japanese

Having a Japanese-speaking sweetheart in your life will help your Japanese though. It’ll help your general comfort level with the language for one thing, which can go a long way. Just getting used to the sounds and the patterns of the language will help your comprehension a lot.

It is also a great opportunity to chat with someone that you feel comfortable making mistakes with as well. I know some learners can be a little intimidated by speaking Japanese to a native that is not a teacher. There is nothing to fear of course, but everyone has that natural desire to be in control of what they are saying and doing, and when you are first learning a language, you don’t have that control.

Also, it’ll provide plenty of motivation for you to learn the language and be good at it. After all, it is hard enough to understand the opposite sex if you are speaking the same language much less speaking two different languages. So, the deeper the relationship gets, the more having a good command of the Japanese language will help you out.

One, obvious thing to keep in mind though, is don’t get involved with someone just to learn the language. There are plenty of happy friendly people out there that would love to chat away with you in exchange for doing the same in your native tongue if you need general language practice. You don’t need to go playing with someone’s heart to learn.

Am I Crazy?

What do you think? Can you learn a language from your beloved? Let me know in the comments.

T-shirt is available at Amazon.com

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Bill R February 16, 2013, 4:18 pm

    My wife is Japanese and I know lots of guys with Japanese wives/girlfriends. They are great teachers if you want to speak Japanese like a woman. It will certainly draw a lot of giggles from Japanese women but Japanese men will definitely raise more than a few eyebrows.
    If you want to learn to speak Japanese, work your but off on your and go to work for a company where you will have many Japanese coworkers. Listen to them on the phone or when they speak to each other and make note of what you hear.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 17, 2013, 5:22 am

      Yeah, the more people I talk to, the more people tell me that this is the way to get to a high level of fluency and pass the N1, basically work at a Japanese company where Japanese is spoken all the time or try to emulate that as much as possible. I’m a bit stuck at the moment, I would like to move into an all-Japanese environment, but just need to take care of a few things first.

      • andrew February 17, 2013, 6:34 am

        As you know though, being in a normal Japanese company doesn’t make passing N1 simple. Being in a Japanese company for a few years (long time) will help with N3 and most N2 content. But N1 takes a lot of outside studying that is not heard “around the clock” in most Japanese companies. I must admit though, having Japanese co-workers is nice though. You have a lot of people that can answer your questions for one.

        • Bill Richmond February 18, 2013, 2:54 pm

          Working at a Japanese company is definitely no guarantee. You’re Japanese will definitely improve but you will still be faced with the age old dilemma of Japanese people speaking english to you. I’ve found that no matter the level of your Japanese, Japanese people will almost always respond to you in English even if you initiate the conversation in Japanese. The only exception to this is if you are in Japan and the person you are speaking to has no or very minimal English speaking ability. Also, some will speak Japanese to you if they know you well and feel comfortable with you.

          • Clayton MacKnight February 18, 2013, 4:11 pm

            I used to have a friend that actually got really angry when natives used English instead of Japanese. 🙂 I think they are just trying to be as polite as possible, but it makes for some awkward situations to say the least.

  • Andrew February 16, 2013, 6:19 pm

    Haha! That T-Shirt is hilarious!

    I think like you said it well.. yes you can learn from a beloved. it is great for casual conversation lingo, especially if they can’t speak your native language, but not for the advanced stuff. You don’t want to be in a relationship for that sole reason and bore your lover with tough questions either (unless they love that kinda thing).

    Back to the shirt tho ha, that thing is dangerous but funny.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 17, 2013, 5:23 am

      One site said it was ‘a real conversation starter’. I suppose that’s true, whether or not is a conversation you want to have is another issue.

  • Nino February 17, 2013, 1:16 am

    Accepting japanese girlfriend applications! Cheeky shirt! 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight February 17, 2013, 5:24 am

      I know, right? I want to give this to a few of my mates and see what happens.

  • Russell February 22, 2013, 9:27 pm

    I think the key is finding a girlfriend who barely speak english.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 25, 2013, 6:46 am

      That’s a good point, my friend got married to a woman who could hardly speak English and it has helped him to dramatically increase his ability to speak and understand Japanese.

  • Dan March 1, 2013, 8:35 am

    I actually saw a guy wearing that shirt while walking around Harajuku (I think). I could never bring myself to wear a t-shirt like that! I guess knowing what it means doesn’t make it quite so bad, rather than being totally oblivious to the meaning. I actually saw a men’s plus size t-shirt for sale outside of Japan with 大きい男 written on it!!! Imagine if you couldn’t read kanji!

  • Ryuu June 11, 2013, 12:57 pm

    Definitely agree on some points and love the shirt. Might get one myself for grins

    One thing I disagree with though is the “never becoming truly fluent” comment. Obviously if you’ve only just completed N2 or N1 the vocab and grammar etc won’t come to you instantly as it would for a native speaker. But over time, especially if you’re speaking Japanese everyday, you would reach that level.
    Just looking at your example though, in all fairness, most people struggle with situations that they’re not accustomed to (native language or not). Whereas they excel in situations they encounter everyday. Purely due to being accustomed to the kind of language used. You wouldn’t use the same spoken style in a wedding speech as you would in a business meeting irrespective of language.

    As for learning a language from a significant other, I think you’ve got it spot on. Also, as Bill R said above, you’ll end up picking up the spoken style of your partner, which is fine for a same sex relationship but could end up being a little embarrassing otherwise :p

    • Clayton MacKnight June 14, 2013, 3:02 pm

      First off, I didn’t say ‘never’, I said ‘almost impossible’, which granted can seem very similar but, are not actually the same.

      The main point I was trying to make is that if you practice a particular situation with a language, you’ll get really good with that situation and some of that will of course spill over into other situations, but not completely. So, for example, I know plenty of guys that can chat up the ladies at the bar, but would struggle to get through a business meeting in Japanese. I guess they have their priorities. 🙂

      The point is fluency in one thing doesn’t automatically transfer to another area, so the rationale that chatting with your girlfriend will get you to a level that you can pass N1 is a little misguided. That was the original point I was trying to make.

      As for whether their are true bilinguals in the world or not (or whether you can become 100% fluent in another language), that is another topic for another post. Linguists debate this all the time. For example, how do you define fluency? Aren’t some native speakers of a language not completely fluent? The philosophical questions go on and on.

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