Cold, Hard Truth: Learning a Foreign Language Is Hard

Especially when learning a language that is so different from your own, as in the case of a native English speaker studying Japanese, acquiring that language, simply put, takes a lot of time and effort. And those two things demand a good deal of motivation on the part of the learner.

This is why so many casual learners of foreign languages give up before they’ve really gotten anywhere, before they can even hold a spontaneous conversation in their new language. Unlike, for example, mathematics, where you can start applying the basics of the discipline in your everyday life from 1+1=2, it takes a long time before you can do much of anything that is actually useful in a foreign language.

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Caption: Studying hard or hardly studying?

That’s why an anime or manga fan may decide to settle for translated versions of their favorite works, or why an English teacher in Japan may decide that only rudimentary Japanese language skills and the camaraderie of fellow English-speaking teachers provide enough of a convenient lifestyle and social community over here in Japan.

Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you may get the impression that the benefits of learning a foreign language are all about money. But that’s not so.

In my experience, another magnificent thing you can get from your time and effort is wonderful insight into how people from another culture really think and how they view the world.

My favorite example from Japanese is the expression よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku onegai shimasu). It literally means, “Please be kind to me.” If English is not your native language, how many times have you said that in your life? Well, the Japanese may say or write it a dozen times or more a day! It’s part of greeting a new neighbor, colleague or customer, closing a letter or email, ending a formal phone call with your barber or the auto repair shop, etc., etc. When you master the use of this phrase, it provides deeper insight into Japanese attitudes about formal relationships.

As you may know, if you produce a translation that is a word-for-word copy with standard terms from a dictionary, you often end up with inscrutable drivel. In fact, I have never translated よろしくお願いします literally as “Please be kind to me.” I always ask myself what phrase I would put in this context if I were writing the document from scratch in English. My best answer may be something like “I hope you had a great summer break” or “We appreciate your business.” Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all because there simply isn’t an equivalent expression and the text flows better without it.

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And therein lies the problem with machine translation powered by AI. Unlike a human, a computer cannot take things into context and adjust properly. I can guarantee you AI will never come up with my translations of the aforementioned Japanese expression. You’d need a computer as smart as Commander Data to do that, and if AI ever gets that smart, we’ll all be out of a job anyway, so no point in fretting about it.

Fortunately, you’re not a machine, which means that if you do learn a foreign language, you will have a better understanding for what’s going on inside the mind of, for example, the Korean engineer with passable English who is struggling to fit in after being transferred to your department’s office located outside of Houston.

Learning another language can also help you to enjoy creative works as they were originally intended to be consumed. Of course, there are some brilliant translations of fiction out there. My personal favorite is Frederik L. Schodt’s English translation of the manga “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow. This book was part of what inspired me to become a translator.

But amazing as Mr. Schodt’s rendition may be, nothing can outclass the genius of the original Japanese as written by Mr. Shirow. Sometimes a translation is better, but usually because the story just wasn’t very good to begin with. For any writings, music or film worth reading, listening to or watching, I recommend you consume it in its original language if at all possible. It is only then that all the subtle nuances and the cultural context truly make sense.

So if learning a foreign language is hard—and it certainly is—one of the many things you can do to keep yourself motivated is to remember why you’re doing it in the first place. Maybe career opportunities? Are there certain people you want to understand better? Or do you perhaps want to enjoy creative masterpieces as they were meant to be consumed? Knowing the answers to these questions is key.

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