How I Learn Languages

Near-Native Fluency: How I Learned to Sound like a Native Japanese Speaker

1422006066[Picture: HYUNWOO SUN (, FLUENT IN 8 LANGUAGES, WHICH HE LEARNED IN KOREA. He believes that there’s no talent for languages. You just have to figure out how to learn it. And once you’ve figured out how to speak another language, you can figure out how to learn other things as well.]

“You must have a gift for learning languages!” People tell me. But is there really a “gift” for learning languages? Or for anything really? I have a knack for imitating accents (my high school friends taught me a generic Indian accent!), but I don’t know if that means I have a “gift.” What I do know is that—just as the “best” programmers fell in love with programming, and writers with writing–I fell in love with learning Japanese, the first and so far only language I have learned to speak at a near-native level.

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for Anglophones to wrap our heads around. (While my background in Chinese saved me a lot of time when learning vocabulary, it did not help at all with the actual speaking of the language.) In order to achieve near-native fluency, I did a lot of work outside of class and asked a lot of questions on websites like and I believe it’s impossible to learn to speak at a near-native level from just taking classes; fluency in “a language cannot be taught; it can only be learnt.”

So to help myself attain near-native fluency in Korean, I’ve recalled how I got there in Japanese: 

1. I made it my goal to be able to pass off as Japanese.

In retrospect, this means to be “near-fluent.” The difference between someone who aims to be conversationally fluent and someone who aims to be near-native fluent is that the latter always asks, “Is this how people actually say this?” whereas the former is satisfied as long as they get their point across. Hence why you can be conversationally fluent in three months or less.

Why did I choose to aim for near-native fluency? For reasons I still do not comprehend, I was consumed with a burning desire to make it MY language. To be able to speak it without coming off as a foreigner. There is something satisfying about interacting with Japanese people without them detecting that I’m a foreigner. Once, a Japanese hobby photographer, who takes photos of people around the world in their home town, asked me if I would be his model for Tokyo. This was around fifteen minutes into the conversation, so when I said that I’m actually NOT Japanese at all, he was really shocked.

Of course, I’m still not native. I’m not sure anyone can become completely “native” in a foreign language. While I can speak natural-sounding Japanese, I still hear Japanese people speak and think, “Oh didn’t know you could use that vocab/grammar in that way!” I still have to ask, “Do people say that?” And I’m fine with that. After all, my goal was to become near-native, not native.

2. I studied Japanese in FUN ways.

Since I wanted to talk like a Japanese person, I of course STUDIED how actual Japanese people talked. More importantly, I figured out fun ways to do this, so I wouldn’t lose motivation. I read Doraemon manga, read my Japanese friends’ Facebook posts and messages, and watched dramas and variety shows. I loved Doraemon; it was a cartoon I watched with my family when I was little. I also love Facebook, as some of you may know. And I never needed an excuse to watch a drama or variety show, especially if my favorite boy band at the time—Arashi—was in it.

On the other hand, I did not find reading very pleasurable. I did completely read a novel a friend recommended, but that took a month (including time spent looking up words) and I don’t actually remember much from the book except how to say “bend your back.” So not only was reading novels, which I don’t even do in English, not fun, I also didn’t learn much from it, as most of any novel is written in a different style from spoken language. So I stopped doing it.

3. I took note of the MUNDANE.

I actively scanned my materials for MUNDANE PHRASES, focusing more on syntax than on vocab. For example, while watching a drama, I once wrote down the phrase メール嬉しかったです , which literally means “text is happy.” But obviously it doesn’t mean that the “text message” itself is “happy”; it means “Your text made me really happy.” It seems like an easy phrase to say, but a conversationally-fluent person might literally translate it from English, and say “あなたからのメールは私を喜ばせた,” which to a Japanese person might sound like “Your text happified me.”

“Your text happified me,” said nobody ever. (source)

Notice that the vocabulary (“text message,” and “happy”) are words a student would learn in the first month of Japanese class. But you would NEVER learn this syntax. Vocab is of course important; I was only able to focus on syntax after I had learned enough vocab. But since my goal was to learn to speak a language naturally, binge-memorizing fancy vocabulary, though an easy way to feel like I was making progress, was not going to get me there. You can know more vocabulary than a native speaker and still only sound half as natural. 

In fact, not too long ago, I looked back at my vocab notebooks from advanced Japanese class and noticed that I couldn’t remember most of them (at least not out of context). And I still can’t read science fiction (darn! oh wait, I don’t even read sci-fi in English). I can, however, carry on conversation with Japanese people fine. And I can also understand the morning news and get through 80 pages of the Japanese manga version of Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms  三國志.  I also apparently knew enough vocabulary to pass the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), and I prepared for it only by studying for the grammar section (the other sections are vocabulary, reading, and listening).

4. Finally, I started speaking Japanese.

Some language learners like to dive right into speaking from the start. That’s a great way if your goal is to achieve conversational fluency, and is essentially how I approached Korean- I signed up for 2-3 hours of free 1:1 speaking practice a week at Yale.

However, if your goal is to become near-native fluent in a language, simply hanging out with friends is not effective. Before you speak, you need to scrutinize how the language is spoken and after you speak, you need corrections. Hyunwoo, in the picture at the top, when he was learning English, would not say a thing in English unless he knew it was perfect (한국어를 팝니다, p. 51). Language-learning gurus will tell you that’s the WORST THING TO DO when learning a language. But it’s not a bad attitude to have if you want to learn how to speak it like a native speaker. Both Hyunwoo and I relied on innumerable kind souls on online forums and chatting rooms to check the natural-ness of the sentences we made.

So basically, I didn’t start speaking Japanese until pretty late in my language-learning game; I started learning Japanese in 8th grade and didn’t speak until I got to Yale. There, I placed into the highest level of Japanese, but still didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I was finally inspired to speak when I saw complete beginners eagerly talking away at weekly language tables. Fortunately, since I had already spent so much time studying the structure of spoken Japanese and practicing it online, the Japanese that came out of my mouth was natural-sounding. The Japanese teachers at Yale are also super good at correcting students, which made my Japanese even better!

I also realized that my Japanese was more natural-sounding than students who had studied in Japan for one year. Similarly, Hyunwoo–without ever stepping outside of Korea–had won 1st place at a high-school English speech competition, beating competitors who had studied abroad. And I also have a ton of friends who speak excellent English even though they’ve never lived in an English-speaking country for an extended period of time. Especially with the internet, you don’t have to go to a country to learn how to speak it well. You just need the determination to do it.

To be honest, I wish I had studied more Korean before coming here. I hadn’t done that because my original goal was just to become conversationally fluent in Korean, but once I came here, I felt frustrated by my foreignness. And since I have the luxury of being here for a year (thanks Light Fellowship!), I felt that it would be a pity if I didn’t become near-native fluent.

During my first semester (Level 4, Korea University), I learned lots of useful vocabulary. This semester (Level 5), my goal was to study how people speak. I got side-tracked by Hyunwoo’s book (I don’t regret reading it, as I learned a lot about a life I would like live. I just wish I hadn’t taken so much time in the process). But I really need to get back on track and focus my studying on how people speak, so I can stop sounding awkward!

2 thoughts on “Near-Native Fluency: How I Learned to Sound like a Native Japanese Speaker

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