One things that people don’t know about me is that I am – or at least was at one time – a pretty accomplished pianist. I’ve played professionally. Specifically, in the community theater productions of a small town in Iowa. Long story.
But last night I was just playing around on the piano – I’ve given up practicing and performing a while ago – and I realized that being proficient at the piano is not that much different than being proficient at a language, such as Japanese. You put in a lot of work – and I mean a lot of work – becoming familiar with the different building blocks. For example, in piano, you learn the scales and the arpeggio fingering and a few other things. You also learn different parts of music theory, like keys, modes, etc. All this stuff you learn not for the sake of learning them themselves, but so that they become such second nature that you can recognize them when you see them in real time and execute them properly without really thinking too much about it. Then you’re free to worry about the expressive details rather than the mechanics.
The same thing applies to a language such as Japanese. There is a huge initial hump to learning Japanese. You have to learn two entirely different syllabaries – and figure out at some point that they’re not an alphabet and an entirely different set of symbols. It’s not really enough to just be able to puzzle them out, you have to become so familiar with them that you can recognize them on sight. But not only that, you have to learn an entirely new phonetic structure, grammar, etc., and then be able to recall it all instantly. The reason native Japanese speakers are so good at that is not because they’re any smarter than us. They’re not – and you can prove that by asking most of them to speak English. But it’s because they’re so familiar with these things that processing them is in real time.
That is the true reason that Japanese is so difficult.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. As I mentioned, the hump is very real. In the community college class I took, it started out with fourteen people and ended with seven. Sensei didn’t, and I think still doesn’t, understand why this is the case. It’s because there’s an incredible amount to learn and a short period to learn it in, and we don’t get that immersion unless we specifically seek it out – and have time for it. Most of us don’t. But the truth is, we’re not learning a language inasmuch as we’re building familiarity with a language, and the point of learning the basics is just to bootstrap us enough that we are able to start building that familiarity.
If one doesn’t understand this, one will never succeed at becoming fluent in a language.
So yes. It’s important to learn the basics, and sometimes the only way to learn them is by rote and practice. But once you do learn the basics, rote and practice will only get you so far, and will never get you to fluency. Fluency is only achieved by a deep familiarity with the language.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There’s always a place for rote and practice. But in actuality, past a certain point, fluency doesn’t need rote and practice. It just needs immersion. A command of the language requires constant learning – just as with English. But fluency doesn’t.