Hello! I’m Nancy Tumbarell, a senior at Michigan State University and current Gilman Alumni Ambassador. This past academic year I studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as a Gilman Scholar.
Learning a new language is hard and retaining it even more so. That may be a given, but it was a lesson I only learned after returning home. Learning a new language is extremely hard when the environment around you is not constantly pushing new interactions and vocabulary your way. I can say with all honesty that I learned and spoke more Japanese in my seven months abroad than in the three years I took classes and self-studied. Going back to the books and trying to keep up with the me from a few months ago was daunting and somewhat demoralizing. Not only did I have to find motivation to continue learning on my own, but I also had to find ways to use the language in challenging ways.
The first thing I did was let go of all the guilt I felt for not practicing, not watching enough content or having enough interactions in Japanese. This part was the hardest and it helped to reach out the friends I made while abroad. People who were going through a similar situation as me or had figured out how to keep up with their studies. Finding both solace and motivation from friends helped put things into perspective. Study abroad may be over but the memories and skills we picked up while in Japan would stick around. Then I got to work, slowly but surely, I began to assess what I knew. Assessing your language ability can be hard considering the vagueness of words such as beginner, intermediate, and so on, but it helps to start at the beginning. I looked back at tests, quizzes, and notes from previous classes and tried to make sense of them. And not all of them made sense. I made sure to note which ones I had simply forgotten, and which ones weren’t relevant for daily life. The distinction between the classroom and “real life” version of a language is one of the most useful things studying abroad taught me.
Knowing where I stood and where I wanted to go (fluency!) was great, but I still needed some idea of how to get there without leaving my house. I confess that this is when I realized that learning a language is hard and there isn’t always a narrow path. Just because you know A doesn’t mean you’ll understand B. I found myself with bits and pieces of knowledge gathered from books and conversations that didn’t fit neatly together.
As a kid I moved to the U.S. and was placed in an ESL class. My teachers taught me vocabulary, grammar, and let my peers do the rest. Within a year or so I was fluent in English and devoured books. As an adult learner I am far slower and yet more impatient. So, I decided to go against every single one of my instincts and slow down. No binging movies without subtitles or trying to have Japanese-only conversations over Zoom. I started reading and writing in Japanese. It has been a very slow and sometimes time-consuming endeavor but that’s the beauty of studying a language outside of the classroom. You have all the time in the world. Going at your own pace and making sure you’re actually retaining the information is more important than setting an arbitrary deadline for fluency.
Writing has been a great way for me to practice Japanese because I can use (and learn) grammar and vocabulary more on a consistent basis. It has helped me see the gaps in my knowledge that people would usually fill with hand movements or English during conversations to get the point across. Meanwhile reading has helped me write and has been a great way to learn vocabulary organically. I would recommend focusing on these two things if you don’t have access to many speakers of your target language or need to re-familiarize yourself with the language.
I don’t have it all figured out and some days I don’t pick up the pen to write or open up a story to read. On such days I will usually find myself listening to bilingual news podcasts to work on pronunciation and the like. I find it important to have a mix of mostly proactive learning (such as using grammar and vocabulary when I read and write) and a bit of passive learning (such as podcasts sand youtube vlogs). The most important part of retaining those skills after coming back from study abroad is knowing just how much your language ability improved and where it falls short. Only then can you map out a study regimen that works for you.