I’ve recently started taking one-to-one Japanese conversation lessons. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been a bit of a humbling experience.
Between work and family responsibilities, I only have 30 minutes a day to study Japanese, and I’ve spent this time every day for the past two years memorising kanji characters, vocabulary and grammar patterns. So in theory, I know a decent amount of basic Japanese.
I say ‘in theory’, because it’s one thing to have information in your head, and another to produce it in a conversation. Which is why I’m now focusing on listening and speaking skills, to achieve some kind of fluency with the material I’ve accumulated so far.
After my first one-to-one conversation lesson, Mami asked me how the lesson went. I said it was like my first driving lesson – I was relieved to have survived without crashing the car, but my pulse was racing, and I knew I’d stalled the car three times and almost ran through a red light because I was concentrating on the pedals.
We’re all bad drivers on our first lesson. And right now, I’m bad at Japanese. I can make myself understood, but it’s not pretty.
I’m lucky to have a great teacher in Teppei Sensei, who is very patient and easy to talk to. He has great podcasts too, so if you’re learning Japanese I highly recommend listening to Nihongo Con Teppei (he has separate podcasts for beginners and intermediate learners).
I say it’s been a humbling experience, as I haven’t learned a new language for many years. I’m quite comfortable speaking French, which I learned as a boy. Now my French is by no means perfect, but I’m used to being able to express myself and discuss just about any topic I want to.
So it’s humbling to be a beginner again. I’ve heard enough Japanese to know how bad I am. I can often hear myself making mistakes as I say them, or failing to recall the meaning of simple words when Teppei Sensei uses them in our conversation, and then kicking myself afterwards.
But I have to accept being bad if I’m going to get better. The more I speak, and the less I care about making mistakes, the more I will learn from my mistakes, and the better I will get.
It will take years, but then most skills worth learning do take years.
And this is certainly true of a creative discipline. We start off bad and we have to accept being bad if we’re ever to get good.
A few years ago the radio host Ira Glass made a great video about this, where he points out that all of us who get into creative work do it because we have good taste – we watch great TV, listen to great music, read great literature and or whatever, and think “I want to do that!”
But when we start, we’re not very good at it. So there’s a gap between our taste and our ability, which is really uncomfortable.
In the course of the video, Glass plays a recording of his younger self eight years into his career, delivering a radio news segment, and mercilessly dissects the writing and the rhythm and intonation of his speech. He does this to underline how bad he was and how many years it took for him to get good at it.
But according to Glass, the real problem isn’t the gap between our taste and ability. This is uncomfortable but it’s also inevitable. Everyone has to go through it to improve.
The problem is that most people give up because they can’t stand the gap. It affronts their sense of who they want to be as a creative, so they give in. Or they ignore it, and refuse to accept their limitations, so they don’t learn from their mistakes.
And the solution, according to Glass, is to keep going in spite of the gap, and to do a lot of work over many years. That’s the only way to close the gap. It’s long and painful, but ultimately rewarding.
And if you think about it, it’s the gap that makes it worth pursuing – if it were easy, if there were no gap and anyone could do it easily, it would be unremarkable.
So if you’re struggling in the early stages of a new skill, ganbatte kudasai!
This Japanese expression means ‘Please do your best!’ and it’s used to encourage people when they’re facing a challenge. I have recorded it here, with my beginner’s accent, to remind us all of the gap, and to encourage us to persist in spite of the gap.
You can hear an audio version of this article on this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 4’03”.