In 2012, I was doing an exchange program in Japan. I met a ton of nice people and hung out with them daily. Each time, I had fun and learned a lot about the world.
One night, we were at a bar we often visited. An all-you-can-drink party was the plan and we were rocking that plan. A whole bunch of foreigners in the corner, having fun.
One of them was a French guy who couldn’t handle his alcohol much. He did like to drink but often let himself go a bit too far. That night? It went way too far. He started vomiting and passed out in the middle of the bar.
As we dragged him outside for some fresh air, he kept on waking up to vomit before passing out again. Not a beautiful sight to see.
We got outside and started trying to wake him up. As I was the only other French around, I talked to him and saw his response timing get better. At first, it took him 5–6 minutes to reply just a single word.
By the time the police arrived to check on him, his replies took him 2 minutes. Not great. But definitely an improvement.
Of course, I was far from being sober, too. And yet, as the only person who could speak both French and Japanese, I ended up in charge. Waking him up in French. Turning around to explain in Japanese how he was getting better. Going back to him to ask him to open his eyes. Explaining to the cops how he got to that state. Not a fun end of an evening.
It took some time but he got better and the police left us to be on our way.
A critical situation pushes your skills to the edge
At the time, my Japanese was stuck at an intermediate-ish level. I seemed to have stopped showing improvements and I was discovering the plateau. That long and painful stage.
And yet, that night, my Japanese skills rose to the occasion to help a friend in need.
“Who cares if I make mistakes? All I need is to find a way to get this figured out!”
I was against the wall and had no time to think in either language. I could say things to him in French and to the police in Japanese. But adding “translation stages” in my brain was out of the question. I had to think in Japanese.
For the first time in my life, I had reached a new level in Japanese. I had become a Japanese child. Someone who can speak without a problem and makes mistakes all the time. Someone who didn’t see the language as an extra skill, but as part of himself.
The connection “(French ->) English -> Japanese” was severed and the Japanese language had become its own thing.
I believe this was the trigger for me to start not being able to explain certain Japanese concepts in French or English. Before, I found a connection between languages and could translate “any” term. But from that day onwards, I noticed that some parts cannot be “translated”. They just exist within the language.
Am I telling you to get a friend drunk and deal with the cops in a foreign country? Oh no, I’d even advise against that. It’s not the definition of “fun”. It’s scary and risky.
And yet, you need to find situations in which you will be cornered. Experiences during which you have no other choice but to find a solution.
My Korean skills improved a lot when I spent 2 weeks living in a school in the countryside of Korea and nobody spoke English. Why? I had to survive somehow.
Push yourself. I can assure you, you will discover new heights. You will understand how much you limited yourself until now.
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Mathias Barra is a French polyglot living in Japan and who has learned 6 languages and dabbled in numerous others. Being a curious child full of wonders is how he keeps on learning and can’t stop sharing about every tiny idea, even non-language-related.