My English Learning Journey
– Poof That You Can Also Be a Fluent English Speaker

Categories How I Learned English

These days when Japanese people see me talking in English, they often say things like this – “I wish if I could speak in English like you do. It must be fun.” “If I want to speak in English fluently, do I have to study abroad?”

As much as I am grateful that they are so nice to say these things, I also started worrying if they think I can speak in English because I am special. Because that is NOT true at all!

I truly believe that anyone and everyone can learn English, and will be able to speak in English – if they really want to and work hard.

I am the proof of that theory. No matter how clumsy, lazy, and ignorant person I am, and regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in Japan, I could gradually be able to speak in English. Of course my English is not perfect (as you may already know), and I still have tons of things I should learn, but my English is already giving me so much more opportunities and experiences which I would have never had without it.

And for that reason I really want to encourage as many Japanese people as possible to learn English, because they can definitely be able to be a fluent speaker, if they really try. Because that is something even I could do!

Even with all that said, I think there might still be someone thinking, “No Risa, I still don’t buy it. You must have always been fluent English speaker from the start! …But I’m not like you.”

In order to prove that you’re wrong, here are my embarrassing stories of myself on my journey of learning English. Trust me, they are embarrassing enough to convince you that you are also capable of doing this, and probably that you can do better than I did!

I was just a recording/playing machine.

As soon as I started learning English in junior high school, and I was hooked. From the very beginning, it was so exciting and interesting for me to learn different language and culture. (Not that I was good at it though.) However, I barely had chances to meet and talk to foreigners who speak in English, in my rural, small hometown.

When I entered university, I moved to Kobe, which is allegedly international, more open-minded city in Japan. I was so excited about this new environment.

I started to join meet-ups held in university, where Japanese students and foreign students come and chat in English over coffee and snacks.

However, regardless of my excitement and the high scores I could get in English exams, I ended up realizing that I could not speak. Even worse – I am not proud to say this, but I even got nervous only by sitting together with non-Japanese, non-Asian people, because it was almost the first time for me to meet someone who have very different appearance from myself, my family, and most friends back then, in real life. No matter how beautiful the differences are, I felt overwhelmed simply because it was completely new experience to me.

In order to overcome the nervousness, I always had to plan ahead what I was going to talk about. And during the meet-up, I even had to think of the exact sentence I was going to say, and memorize it word to word in my head before I open my mouth! Otherwise I really could not speak.

I was just like a recording/playing machine – I memorized sentences in my head, and all I could say out loud was what I remembered beforehand. I could not improvise at all!

I tried to act cool and calm, but I was so stressed and pressured throughout the whole event. The worst thing of being recording/playing machine was, when people were nice enough to be interested about what I said, and asked me questions. I could not really understand what they said, or even when I could, I could not improvise the answer. If I tried to answer without “recording”, I mumbled and rambled, painfully slowly. That was the worst feeling.

Being like that, I became so self conscious and could not fully enjoy that environment. Some people can get away with no English and make tons of friends, just by being fun, hilarious, confident, or cool. But I was none of those – back then, in such environment, it was too hard for me to open-up and make new friends.

Even though my measure was (kind of) English, I could not write Emails in English.

In university I took survey course about cross-cultural communication. The classes were held only in English, because the professor did not communicate with us in Japanese at all (I do not know if he speaks any Japanese. If he does, he is amazing at keeping secrets!).

Recently, by chance, I was browsing my social media posts of back then – and I found my tweets saying (in Japanese), “No way, I just received an Email about the course, but it is written in English…” “I have no idea how to respond.” “I replied but not sure if my Email makes any sense…”

The university I went was specifically for learning foreign languages, so I was supposed to study English really hard. I had a perfect environment that encourages and allows me to learn English as much as I wanted. However, even when I was in such a good environment, which is not too long ago, English Emails were that big deal to me!

This story clearly tells you how lazy I was as a student back then – but I think (I mean, I hope), taking this course changed me, and I started studying harder after these tweets.

Now I write emails, texts, reports and other documents in English every day at work. Seriously, people can change.

I could not buy a train ticket in London.

I was lucky enough to study abroad in London for 6 weeks, in the last year of the university. In Japan most university students finish job hunting months before their graduation. Since I got a job in spring, I decided to spend my last summer vacation learning English in London. (My Italian friends I met in London told me that is not right way to spend a vacation.)

On the very first day, in the morning on my way to school, I tried to buy a train ticked (I mean Oyster card!) at the station. At the ticket booth, I told a station officer the name of the station closest to the school, but he responded, “Sorry?”

I though I was not loud enough, so I said it louder. But again, he said, “What did you say?” That made me think, “Okay my pronunciation was not clear enough…” and I tried to say it again, more “clearly”. But unfortunately, he responded “Which station?”

I was doomed. After repeating the same conversation several more times, he ended up saying “I don’t know that station.” and made me write down the name on a paper! Fortunately, that worked and I could finally get my Oyster card.

After that on a train, I was in a shock and all I could do was blaming him. I was thinking, “He was probably being mean because I am a foreigner!” or “He seems to be also a foreigner working in London, so he could not catch what I said because his English was not very good!”

But I ended up realizing how rude and ignorant I was, later at school – I found out that it was me pronouncing the name completely in a wrong way! The name of the station is “Gloucester Road”, and I was calling it “glaw-ses-ter” the whole time. However, it should actually be pronounced as “glos-tuh” (You don’t pronounce the “uce” in the middle.)!

Well, station officer, I am deeply sorry that I bothered you in such an early morning, and that I even blamed you in my mind. I am sure you already know, but it was my fault. I did not my homework…

For those of you interested, in London there are many other stations which have names hard to pronounce correctly if you don’t know the rules. You can learn about them on this web site.

I gave the worst speech in English at a contest and cried over it.

When I was in junior high school, I was totally overestimating my English, so I decided to participate in a English speech contest. Since it was a “speech” contest – not “reading” – not just how fluent you can speak or how correctly you can pronounce, but also the content of your speech was also a crucial part.

I cannot forget what I talked about back then – it was about my memory, about how fun it was for me to speak in English for the first time in my life. The topic (or the way I put it) was too light and simple for a “speech”.

I vaguely remember how I did on the stage – the only thing I recall is me keep forgetting the next thing I should say, and trying to cover that with a big smile. Of course that did not work, and I was feeling that it was the worst speech given that day. It was painful.

I could not admit this back then, but now I know it is clear – that the reason why I failed was not just because I was so nervous and overwhelmed being on the stage, but also because I was not prepared enough.

After the judges announced the result at the end of the day (of course I got no prize), I ran to the lobby or the parking lot (I don’t even remember), and cried so hard like a little girl (I was still a teenager, but I mean, like a child). My English teacher at that time found me crying and kept telling me all the nice things possible – he even told me that he was sorry that he could not give me better advice about the content of the speech. I remember he was almost crying, too.

But I knew it can never be his fault – that was when I learned, probably for the first time, that you can’t get what you want unless you work really, rally hard. I was young, cocky, and not hardworking enough, and while crying, I was learning all of these things.

I could not get a job I was dreaming about.

When I was job-hunting for the first time in my life, I was naive enough to ignore everything but English. Everything I asked for about my future job was to have opportunities to work globally, internationally, by using English.

However, looking back now I know that I did not have any proof or fact good enough to convince all the interviewers that I am capable of the jobs I was applying for. My TOEIC score was about 800, which is not high enough to compete with graduates from more well-known, popular, famous universities known as “good university”. Also I had no experience living in abroad at that time, because it was before I went to London.

Finally I got a job in an apparel company which is “aiming” to expand their business in the US, but I ended up being stuck with their domestic business. Since I did not research enough, I had no clue that their main business is actually the domestic one, and since it is not selling well, they cannot focus on the projects in the US very much, hence that project does not need many people in the team.

Now I can say that I was still very lucky, because the business I was engaging was very big and I learned so much from it. (It was a tough job with a unique boss, but that almost transformed my personality in a good way. You can find the post I wrote about that experience here.)

Since I was always dreaming about working together with people from different countries and cultures, that was very frustrating situation to me. But the silver lining was that motivated me study so hard, harder than I did when I was in university. This was also when I officially made a habit of using TV series and YouTube videos from overseas  to learn English. A while later, I took over 900 score at TOEIC (This is simply the easiest way to prove that your English is good enough when you do job hunting in Japan.) and got the job in a trading company, which I am still currently working for.

With my current job, I use English every day, and I get chances to go to other countries (mainly to Europe), in order to work on projects together with suppliers and manufacturers in overseas. Writing this makes me feel that I should be more grateful about this job… I tend to forget that sometimes.

With all that said, I know that there are still tons of things I have to learn.

Sometimes I realize that my English is still not good enough for English-speaking friends to listen to and understand without being stressed, especially when they are too busy or tired.

My social media posts and even this blog may content some mistakes that I can’t even realize even if I read and check it repeatedly and carefully.

It is possible that there is someone who is not a fan of me trying to spread information and messages in English. There could be someone who is silently making fun of me. Not that someone have ever told me something like that, but I just think it is possible.

But I don’t care. I am not going to stop doing this. My motto of learning English is, “Stay optimistic, have fun, and never quit.” These are the only keys that brought me to where I am now.

And, I am still in twenties! Life is long. It should be long enough to be able to speak and write in English as if it is my first language.

I am optimistic, don’t you think? I think that is a key for learning second language. I highly encourage you to relax and have fun, so that you can keep learning for a long, long time. Never be hard on yourself. It takes time.

And since it is going to be such a long journey, I need friends to support and encourage each other! I really hope this post could help you somehow to be motivated and be a little more optimistic about learning English.


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