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.