I don’t get competitive language learning

The more I interact with the language learning community, the more I am convinced we are living through an epidemic of unhealthy competitiveness when it comes to learning languages. Maybe I’ve always been the odd one out when it comes to this stuff, although I know I am not the only one, but I have the feeling that the way most people approach language learning is just… incredibly twisted.

Since the first moment I decided to learn Japanese, I never questioned the why or what of it. I just knew what I wanted to do, and I did it. At the time, I just thought about how I learned English, how most of my English learning outside of school has been me just playing videogames and reading a lot of books, and I just applied the same process to Japanese.

The very first day I completed kana, I just sat there and grabbed a manga and started reading. I didn’t question it. I didn’t worry about stats, numbers, difficulty metrics, vocabulary knowledge, anki cards, none of that stuff. To me it always felt obvious: I want to read manga, so I will read manga. I can just look up the stuff I don’t understand, so where is the problem?

Obviously, after months and years spent into the hobby, I now recognize I was very naive at the time. I should have put more thought into the proper study of grammar and structure, vocabulary learning, and followed a more methodical approach. But still, I am aware that being driven by just the sheer interest in Japanese media got me where I am now, and I wouldn’t have taken it any other way.

And then, eventually, I started interacting with the larger Japanese learning community online. At the time I was already three years into Japanese learning. That’s when I realized most people don’t seem to be taking language learning the same way as I was. So many people treat it like an activity on its own, to improve on a skillset, to “level up”, to acquire knowledge, and to pad their own stats. I’ve been asked “How many words do you know?” as if that was a normal question to ask. How would I know? I never cared to count how many words I know in English, or in my native language, why would I do that for Japanese? How can you even tell if you know a word or not? I’ve been asked how fast I can read. How many characters per minute. How many books I’ve read, how many hours I have spent studying Japanese. “You guys measure all this stuff?” I thought.

This has always been completely alien to me because I’ve never really been in a real “language studying” moment, but rather I’ve always been in a “I need to understand this sentence because I want to read this book” mindset. I don’t care about the grammar. I don’t care about the words. I only care about the meaning and the enjoyment I can get out of it.

Now, it would be incredibly hypocritical of me to not address the fact that I now do keep a spreadsheet tracking immersion time, I keep stats on books and manga read, games played, and I write about several resources for grammar study, research papers, and all kinds of linguistic stuff. But I am aware none of this is directly related to me learning Japanese. It’s all orthogonal and I consider it a new hobby I picked up along the way while I was interacting with the Japanese learning community (rather than Japanese itself). The distinction might feel hypocritical and it’s a bit nuanced, but in my mind the two things are clearly distinct. Let me put it this way: I am aware how much me rambling on this site and on discord is a pure waste of time with regards to my Japanese learning journey.

And yet, I see way too many people fall into the same trap without realizing it. Too many people focus on studying how to learn rather than just… learn. Be it an issue with motivation or discipline, there is an actual epidemic of language learners who are only learning because they like the idea of being a language learner, rather than having a goal in mind through which the language itself becomes just a means to an end.

What’s even worse, I have noticed over time that there’s this weird notion that language learning itself is structured in a straight line, going from point A to point B. There are two major contributors to this misconception:

  • Many people get stuck thinking about JLPT levels (or CEFR levels for other languages) and feel the need to measure their stats against such certifications
  • Many people feel the need to compare other learner’s levels of skill, and square each other up as some kind of show of prowess. “I know more Japanese than you do”

The unfortunate truth, however, is that languages cannot be measured so simply. Someone might be a genius at reading but completely unable to speak. Someone might be incredibly charismatic and awesome at giving public presentations, but completely unable to read. I could have a very thick accent but an insane ability at putting together words, while you might have perfect native-level phonetics but your word choice is completely lacking and broken. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and there is no way to objectively measure each other up.

And yet people do it anyway.

This often creates feelings of negative emotions which in turn also end up affecting how well we can acquire language. Even people who seem to thrive in competitive mindsets (“I need to become better than him at phonetics so I will do more pitch accent awareness drills!!”), in my opinion, end up missing the forest for the trees. They think their eyes are on the prize, but they are not looking at what should be their prize. They aren’t building that sense of independence and detachment from language learning platforms and communities that they need to achieve in order to thrive in the real language.

I don’t really have any closure to this post, it’s been mostly just a personal rant that I wanted to get off my chest, but if there’s one thing I wish more people understood is to stop worrying so much. Just go out there and enjoy doing stuff. Don’t study the language. Ignore the language. The language is not what you should worry about. Find something you like doing, and do that. In the language you’re learning.

Only then will you achieve enlightenment.