How To Conquer the Intermediate Plateau of Japanese

At one point or another in learning anything, we will frequently reach a plateau in our ability. This intermediate plateau, or “okay plateau” is where many people tend to get the most discouraged with their studies and believe it to be too much work to conquer this level. This plateau is probably the most important time in the study of anything, language or otherwise, and conquering it really separates the dedicated from the casual.

Reaching the Intermediate Plateau

Reaching this plateau when learning Japanese occurs most frequently after you’ve learned most if not all things related to sentence structure, grammar, and conjugation rules. It is usually at this point where kanji and vocab become more of a focus than ever before. And who likes learning kanji? That stuff is complicated and difficult and gross. Ew.

At the beginning of learning the language, everything is new and fresh and you feel like you’re learning so much at such a rapid pace that you’re just tearing through the knowledge like some sort of Japanese genius. But eventually, you’ll probably find yourself feeling like you just aren’t learning as much anymore once you’ve covered all the basic stuff. When you feel like you just aren’t learning as much as you used to, it can become very discouraging.

This plateau level will usually creep up on you after a few years of self study or classroom education. For me it happened once I graduated from college and stopped getting classroom style Japanese lessons and had to take matters into my own hands more than I had in the past. I had to start teaching myself the language, deciding what to learn next, what to focus, and what to put off until later.

Undoubtedly, you too will reach a similar plateau somewhere in your Japanese studies where you will believe yourself to be “good enough” or “competent” in the language, but definitely not where you’d prefer to be ultimately. Here I hope to share with you some tips I’ve used (and still use) to get off this plateau and start climbing the mountain once again.

Focus on Vocab Now More Than Ever

Like I said before, once you cover the basic groundwork of the language, kanji and vocab become more important than ever. But where should you get all these crazy new words from? Find something you enjoy. Find something you know you’d already enjoy in English (or your native language) and take it on in Japanese. Even if you’re watching a Japanese dub of Star Trek, a healthy amount of the language used will be regular Japanese that you can make use of in everyday conversation. And if you want to learn how to babble on about space nonsense in Japanese, hey, that’s okay too.

So get your favorite Japanese book, manga, TV show, movie, drama, video game, or whatever, and take the time to experience it slowly, with a dictionary in hand so you can learn all the new words it has to offer. Once you learn all the new words from the material, you can go back through it again and understand everything. Can you imagine how rewarding that feels? Experiencing something you love in Japanese and totally understanding everything that’s going on? Believe me, it’s awesome.

Undoubtedly, the best way to go about learning and keeping up with vocabulary is to use spaced repitition system (SRS) programs such as Anki, and keep a schedule with them. You can (and should) check out Anki and our review of it here, and while you’re at it you should check out our posts on how to study and learn with Japanese dramas and Japanese video games.

Identify and Focus on Your Goal

Do you want to be better at the spoken language? The written language? Both? Ultimately you should be going for excellence in both, but there’s no harm in focusing on one a bit more than the other at first, but of course there’s nothing wrong with giving them both an equal amount of attention if that’s your bag. Remember, different people have different ideas on what fluency really is.

Some of you may be better speakers than writers, and some of you may be better writers than speakers. I’ve always felt about the same with each, but my immediate goals of using Japanese in the “real world” are to be able to read manga and play video games. Manga is all written language, but some video games have voice acting which helps out with focusing on the spoken language. It works for me, but you need to find out what works best for you.

If you want to get better at the written language first, read all the manga, short stories, and newspapers you can get your hands on. Children’s stories and younger age group manga are great places to start. If you want to get better at the spoken language, listen to Japanese whenever possible. Watch movies, TV, dramas, and yes, even anime can be beneficial. The more exposure you get, the better.

Most important, though, is sticking to it. Do you want to be able to play your favorite RPG all the way through in Japanese? Spend at least 30 minutes each day working on it. It doesn’t matter how slow you feel you’re going, eventually it will all pay off and you’ll be amazed what you’ve accomplished by the end of it. And 30 minutes a day is much better than no minutes a day, but feel free to study for longer if you have the time and are still enjoying yourself. Remember, studying should be fun. The more fun you have, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll remember.

Be “Yourself” In Japanese

One thing that I’ve noticed through my Japanese learning adventures is that I used to have a really tough time expressing myself fully in Japanese. Having a limited working knowledge of the language, I felt like my personality was being limited as well. I felt like people weren’t getting to know the real me because of this. I feel this is true for most languages and not just Japanese because the less words you know, the less eloquently you can express thoughts and ideas.

The goal here should be achieving the ability to express anything you could in your native language, but in Japanese. If you feel like you could express your thoughts and ideas about a certain topic better in your native language, you know you have an area you need to work on.

Once you start to learn how to express yourself better in Japanese, you’ll no doubt start to feel closer to your Japanese acquaintances and friends and you’ll start to enjoy your time with them even more than ever before. Being able to talk naturally and without frustration for lack of phrasing eloquence is always a good thing. Be yourself. Become yourself in Japanese.

Hone Your Native Japanese Accent

I don’t know how many of you have had this experience before, but it is always much more impressive when a learner of English knows how to pronounce things correctly. Even if two foreign learners of the language have the exact same vocabulary and speaking ability, if one of them has a more natural English accent, they are instantly more impressive in the eye of an observer. We want to become this impressive.

At this point in our learning, we’ve most likely ironed out most of the common pronunciation mistakes that Japanese learners come across. Now, it is time to focus on the fine points and really become awesome at speaking the language. It’s always a good idea to study and imitate the speaking patterns and intonations of native speakers.

One thing you can focus on (if you haven’t already) is how to act and respond when be spoken to in Japanese. Hashi touches on it quite a bit in his post here, but the main thing is – there’s a lot more confirming sounds and nodding in Japanese than there is in English conversations. But once you master this skill, you’ll look much more awesome in the eyes of a Japanese native.

Don’t Give Up!

Conquering this intermediate plateau is likely one of the hardest things you’ll have to do in your quest to learn the Japanese language. In the beginning, the results were immediate and frequent, but now that you’ve learned all the easy basic stuff, your gains are much less noticeable and can seem sluggish and slow. But you must not become discouraged.

And if you haven’t quite reached this level or the intermediate plateau just yet, you can always improve your Japanese abilities in other ways like with these great tips from Koichi that can improve your Japanese skills in as little as two hours. You can always keep the tips from this post in mind and be confident that you can tackle the plateau once it arrives. Just don’t get discouraged and keep at it. Remember, you don’t have to be a genius to learn Japanese.


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  • aderow

    Wow. Its almost as if this was written for me as this is basically where I am at.
    Nicely written.
    I’m definitely spending more time now on reading and speaking the language so I spend my time on vocab and grammar.
    Luckily I have someone I can talk to in Japanese on almost a daily basis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19509501 Matthew Olson

    Great post, John! As an intermediate learner myself, I’m starting to stagnate and study is really losing its appeal from the complete lack of sense of improvement. This article popped up and I thought, “Finally, a post about me!!”
    Your advice is really helpful, and it’s really consistent with what I’m doing now and with what sounds like logically what I should be doing! Thanks for that. In a way it’s been able to keep me focused.

    Although, I’ve always been told that Japanese is easy to learn, but difficult to master (probably exactly related to the “Intermediate Plateau”). Do you agree with that? Also, do you have any suggestions for people like me, who still are struggling with things like grammar in the intermediate stage?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1567001652 Jamal Antonio

    Great post John, some good info in here, for me it is speaking, I’m a self t teacher, with no friends or family that are also learning, so finding a speaking partner is quite hard for me. I talk to myself in Japanese a lot though, and I have a few anki decks with sounds on that I repeat etc.

  • Rin

    Loved this. This is exactly where I’m at in Japanese and this article really, really helped. It’s funny since I started focusing on vocabulary and improving it through various media. :) Guess all I’ve gotta do is just push on forward and try my best not to give up!

  • Jess

    great! i hit the platue a while ago and got so frustrated that i subconsciously gave up. Im determined to pick up Japanese again, and i believe this will help when the time comes! ^_^

  • Stroopwafel

    すごい!!
    Wow John, you really blew me away with this post. This is so true! You have described every problem I’ve encountered when I was learning English. Especially the ‘Be yourself in Japanese’ paragraph (ところで、 awesomely written my good sir). It’s so frustrating when you are having a conversation and can’t seem find the words with the correct nuance to clarify your opinion. (Usually, Koichi and Hashi write these type of posts, and up until you mentioned Hashi in the third person, I actually thought he’d written this.)

  • Nanook

    Thanks for the encouragement. My problem is that there are few Japanese speakers in my community, so I have no opportunity to practice what I’ve learned on my mp3 player and sources like Tofugo.

    BTW, it should read above, “because the fewer words you know, the less eloquently you can express thoughts and ideas.”  When you can count (1,2,3) a discreet number, such as how many words, use few(er). When it is an indiscreet quantity, such as how eloquently for example, use less.

    You can cuss at me now.

  • Xsuna

    Remember, don’t talk to yourself, YELL to yourself!!!

  • lightroy

    Loved the article, and overall the whole website is great imho.
    Its content is pretty plain, but it is so well-explained and interpreted that anyone would enjoy reading it.
    Really.. great.

  • coldcaption

    I’ve only ever learned Japanese on my own, so by the time I got here I had already overseen myself learning kana and grammar. My entire approach to Japanese has been to shock myself with it; take on whatever can be found to get more of it. Learning songs is probably one of the best things I’ve done.
    I guess the “everything all at once” way wouldn’t work for everyone, though. The most complete single step I took was kana; after that I put the rest of the language on the table and learned anything that came up. It’s paid off in the coming months in that things are coming together; I can understand the weather reports on the morning radio show I listen to, I understood a complete message on Lang-8 without a dictionary, it’s really rewarding. Tofugu had been a great resource too, thanks guys!

  • howtwosavealif3

     here’s some hilarious japanese comedy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv9YUH0cFNg&feature=channel&list=UL It’s funny if you also know korean but even if you don’t know i’m sure it’s sitlll funny.

  • John

    The line you pointed out there was just kind of a limited vocabulary joke, but good job for finding it, lol

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    This is a great article. I’ve definitely reached the plateau, but recently I found something that should help me get through it. It’d be great if y’all at Tofugu would check it out. Maybe give it a review.

    I found this program called Learning With Texts. You add text (imagine that), as you read through it, you associate words and phrases with definitions and readings. It has a window that you can display your favorite dictionary in (I’m sure local ones will work if you reference the location correctly, but using jisho.org is easier) and you can even add an accompanying sound file to help you comprehend the text. LTW is public domain.
    If y’all are interested, more information is here:
    http://lwt.sourceforge.net/

    You have to use it as a local server, but it’s not too confusing to set up as there are step by step directions for Windows and Mac.
    If you don’t want to deal with setting it up or want to use it from anywhere on multiple devices, fluentin3months.com has an online version available. Here is the information page (you have to sign up to use it so that all the information stays separate from other users):
    http://www.fluentin3months.com/learning-with-texts/

    I’m not trying to turn this into an ad, but LWT is definitely an awesome tool for learning any language. The only thing bad I can think of is that it can’t parse Japanese text (or any other language that doesn’t use spaces). This doesn’t actually interfere with how it works though. There are two solutions, but only the second seems like a good one to me:

    1.) Add spaces between words before adding the text to LWT.
    You’d have to use a parsing tool to do this with words you don’t know and parsing tools aren’t very accurate. Adds too much extra work as well.

    2.) Just add the words like you would for phrases. This is really simple to do and is basically what you’d be doing if you were copying words from a book. This is how I do it.

    Anyway, check it out if y’all are interested. It is great for the intermediate phase of learning. Sorry if I sounded like an adbot. 

  • John

    Yeah, that’s great. Just keep at it and you’ll be off the plateau in no time.

  • John

    I dunno if I’d say it’s easy to learn, but it’s definitely difficult to master, lol.

  • John

    Haha, thank you for the kind words. I’m really glad you liked the post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    Earlier this week I bought a huge collection of short fiction about war in Japanese (戦争X文学 series) because it seemed interesting and planned on working my way through it this summer. This post came just in time to motivate me!

  • Peptron

     What I did was go on Steam, and install Skyrim in Japanese.

    俺は日本語が何とかできたと思ったが、膝に矢を受けてしまって・・

  • http://twitter.com/hikosaemon Hikosaemon

    Great blog as always.

    For what its worth, there are points here that I’m not sure I agree with, but that might come down to differing ideas of what “intermediate” is and the situation I was in at that point compared to most of your readers.
    I got stuck at second year college Japanese, probably around the level you are talking about. I think where I got hung up, and what led to me dropping out of Japanese was that it started to all seem to me to be endless lists of vocab and kanji without anything that I considered tangible context. Everyone is different, but what I craved, that I later found on my own to push ahead, was context – which is to say immersion.

    I think the way I pushed through from intermediate to advanced Japanese and beyond was immersion, while still abroad. A big part of immersion is de-focusing on detail, and putting down the dictionary and remote control, and being prepared to watch and rewatch stuff without understanding.

    I think where things start becoming unhinged around intermediate level when you study based on desk work is that in spite of all the grammar and kanji and so on, there are so many concepts and expressions that don’t make logical sense – like when you are supposed to use “shitsurei shimasu” correctly, and so on. I got into a rutt where the issues were not just kanji and vocab, but a sense and growing awareness of helplessness using the vocab and kanji I had built up in a natural way.

    This is where I think the stay on target, be yourself, and work on your accent points are great advice, but to me – unless your target is scoring high on proficiency exams, I actually think de-emphasizing vocab is okay to do around intermediate level somewhat (perhaps this is more for advanced learners, but I feel this is when I started to really jump ahead) and working on honing the other aspects of language that gives you the skills to use the vocab and the like you have naturally and comfortably. Develop your skills at guessing what words mean without looking them up and reading context, and using phrases that are imitated from Japanese and used intuitively, not as conversions from English.

    Even there, Koichi kind of hits it talking about using first sources to learn. But I think in a way, it is a good idea to stop focussing on expanding vocab and to start really honing in on important vocab and context around this time. When you develop solid instincts in this way, it becomes easier to identify important new vocab when you find it, and makes it stick better.
    Peace

  • Spereira89

    I think it would help to read children story books in Japanese or any other language. Does anybody know where I can find them?

  • http://x-stei.tumblr.com/ x_stei

    Really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for the article =).

  • フレヂイ

    Feelin’ like I am reaching the end of beginner stage and this post definitely speaks to me and others it seems about where we find ourselves currently.

    I noticed it when I would look at sentences and I no longer needed to make sense of grammar, thought, there are still some surprises that arise, all in all though it’s the vocab and kanji that have me perplexed currently.

    Great post, one of the best I’ve read on here!

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    I agree mostly.
    I think that at intermediate level one should really focus on improving their input ability, their ability to listen and read the language, to where they can increase their vocabulary as easily as they would in their native language.

    Of course, that requires that one has a minimum vocabulary so that they can use context to improve.

    I’m personally at the point where I can understand grammar and sentence patterns, but my vocabulary is minimal right now and I only know about a quarter of the kanji. I actually know more vocabulary than I can read though, so that’s why I was talking about that program earlier. I feel I’m prepared enough that, once I finish learning the kanji meanings, it’ll all be downhill, but until then, I’ll constantly be looking at jisho.org if I want to understand a piece of text.

    That’s where I think the plateau is; where you know the sounds and know how sentences are structured, but so many of the spoken or written words make no sense to you. The plateau is more of a shallow grade in this case; even if you are making progress with vocabulary and kanji it feels like you still know nothing when you look at real text or listen to real speech.

    I can’t really speak about the output side of things though, as all I have available for output practice is a drafting pen and subvocalization (talking to yourself in your mind, but it sends the same brain activity that actually speaking would. This is the same as with any other thought of action). My location isn’t exactly known for it’s large Asian population.

    Anyway, I was basically saying that my idea of intermediate may be different than yours (or others’) because I haven’t run into frustrations that communication brings like when to use a certain phrase (‘shitsurei shimasu’ is mainly used when leaving work or excusing yourself from a more formal meeting right? Just wondering as, like I said, I haven’t had to deal with that yet. Every moment provides an opportunity to learn).

  • Oliver

     Ni no Kuni (2nd pic of this article) = Best RPG ever.

  • Cris

    Love your use of glitter. I think it really gets the point across.

  • Guest

    The accent part sucks though….I have studied several languages and been fairly good with accents. But my tones aren’t as good as they could be in Chinese. People make jokes or laugh at me. It makes me feel very frustrated and not like the language, even though I have worked very hard.  Native speakers should keep in mind that accents are an unfortunate part of learning a language as an adult and not place so much emphasis on pronunciation.  Understandable is enough for most learners (and unfortunately no matter how hard they try many can’t do more than this).

  • doremi

    すごいポスト!Great encouragement since I’ve been on that plateau for years and switched to French. 
    Since I am read Chinese, kanji is easy. But to truly delve into grammar and make Japanese ‘my language’ has been hard. Any suggests?

  • Mike

    I’m in the middle of the plateau now. The scenery is beautiful, and I’m enjoying it. ^^ I can see the end of the plateau and I’m looking forward to getting there. :D
    Useful post!

  • Emily

    This article is EXACTLY me. thank you ♥ I feel motivated