I was staring into the bottom of my glass of green tea today lamenting the frustrations of language learning. You can spend hours studying but find it takes ages for the results to show. This is particularly so with speaking the language. Here is the best simile I can think of to explain what learning to speak Japanese, as opposed to reading, or writing or listening to it, is feeling like:
It is like sailing a boat. The sails and the rigging and all the tackle are your vocabulary, grammar, general understanding of the structure of the language. The wind in your sails is your confidence.
So you can have a pretty extensive understanding of the language - a real tall ship, with acres of sails and rope - but, if you can't get the wind in your sails, you can find yourself stumped in really quite basic interactions. On the other hand, you can be a real buck egit - a tiny little boat with a single sail - but, with a gale force wind of confidence whipping you along, you can do quite well. When you are a real beginner, one phrase can sometimes feel a bit like a spinnaker. You can move. Even with absolutely no language at all, you can make yourself quite extensively understood using the equivalent of getting the oars out and rowing (body language, smiles and a lot of sweaty enthusiasm).
Don't get me wrong. I am not even close to being a tall ship yet. More like a small family boat. But I was a much more basic vessel when I was last in Japan and often did quite well on the communication front. The frustration is, now that I am adding more rigging to a boat that I am expecting to carry more weight, I often find my sails hanging limply when called upon in real conversation. Infact, trying to select the right rope from all the knots lying all over my decks can leave me mumbling in situations which, in the past, I might have breezed through.
If speaking is like sailing, what of the rest of it? Listening comprehension? Similar to surfing. A lot of lying about on the board waiting for a wave that I can catch but, once I am moving, I can get quite a long way if I don't panic.
Learning to read and write Japanese is more directly related to effort. A bit like bicycling ...
... up a 1 in 3 incline!