December 15

Guide to Breaking Japanese Learning Plateaus

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Google anything remotely related to learning Japanese, and you'll immediately find yourself waist-deep in blog posts about quick tricks, top 10 tips, and insider secrets about how to succeed in the endeavor. Most of these are obvious at best, redundant at worst. We won't waste your time. We won't even sugar-coat the process and tell you it's easy. It's not. It requires consistency, and a lot of hours. You want to learn Japanese? It takes commitment.

That said, it's not hard either -- at least, no harder than you make it. There's obvious pointers that we could give you:

  • show up for at least 45 minutes no less than 5 times a week
  • use XYZ textbook, study tool, or course
  • learn hiragana and katakana before anything else (duh)
  • b'lieve in urself
  • set ACTUAL targets based on measurable results (probably the best tip of the bunch, but...)
  • other milquetoast 10 cent tips wrapped in gold leaf marketing jargon

We'll spare you, and leave that to the other guys, because the truth is, there IS no shortcut to fluency and competence in Japanese. Everyone behind the Risu Press curtain has toiled for hours in their own time on the language, and we all have our unique stories, frustrations, and so on. We all know what it's like, and we can all confirm that it just ain't easy. If you see some product saying it is, run the other way, cause you're bein' bamboozled fren.

Truth is, most language learners fail. They don't fail because they're unintelligent, or because they're just "not good at foreign languages". They fail for a multitude of reasons that they wouldn't even think of, apart from something obvious, such as "a lack of consistency". And let's face it, you know you should be studying more. You don't need us to tell you that.

No, today WE'RE GOING tO EXpOSe tHe TOP TEN ReasOn$ WhY yOU W!LL fAiL @t NihOUndgow if YOU DoN't – 

Just kidding. Sorry... I had to.

All joking aside, we're going to share a few strategies often overlooked that will help you to bust through plateaus. See, plateaus are tricky. They’re the silent killers of any skill set. They set in slowly, and wear away our motivation by suffocating our progress. Kind of like getting lost in a fog, we often don’t even realize we’re in a plateau until it’s too late. If you’re not prepared for one, you could easily get frustrated and bored, and fall off your practice. But plateaus are unavoidable if you’re going to become truly competent at something. They happen to all of us, and they're good. They force us to get creative, and they test how bad we want something. 

The strategies in this article will help you bust through your plateaus, and greatly minimize the time you spend in them. They're strategic, actionable, no-nonsense things that gave us the slight edge along the way to fluency.

(YOU WON'T BELIEVE #4!)

...Ok for real, we're done. Here they are:

Plateau Breaker #1: Learn about the Japanese language within its historical context

This is a massive post on its own, but Japanese and English actually have more in common than you might think. Ok, not grammatically. They're oil and water grammatically. But they're both chimera languages with rich historical roots. They both draw on the native words and word roots of other countries, adapting them to become something unique and local. English draws on Romance languages such as French and Latin, as well as old Scandinavian and Germanic languages. Japanese has at least half of its roots in Chinese, which are expressed through kanji, and "onyomi" (the localized Chinese readings which hail from different regions and trading ports).

Even the written languages are more similar than you'd think. While English uses 26 letters from the Roman alphabet, Japanese takes a similar approach applied to a different grid. Even the most complex kanji symbols can be broken down into smaller parts called "radicals". You might think of these as letters. Although their pronunciation may be independent of these radicals, and is never affected by ALL of the radicals present in a word, they still often provide useful hints as to either the pronunciation or the meaning of the kanji.

Let's use the kanji 焼, which means "roast" or "grill" - something we do to all these fake MCs. It's kind of a mess at first glance. but break it down, and you get less complicated kanji:

焼 (roast) = 火 (fire) + 卉 (obscure kanji meaning "grass") + 元 (the start / origin)

or

roast = fire + grass + origin

See, we know that the meaning of the word has something to do with "fire", and if we break it down, we can even make a story out of it, called a "mnemonic". Maybe something like:

"To ROAST (焼く) something (such as fake MCs), start (元) by setting grass (卉) on fire (火).

It's kind of silly, but if you understand how kanji itself started in China a few thousand years ago, and how it came to Japan later on, you'll know why it's so silly, and how to make sense of it. Again, this subject is a big can of worms to be tackled in another post. But the point is, there's a lot to learn just by looking at the history of the Japanese language. it gives your study context, and your experience depth.

Speaking of mnemonics, our next item dives right into the realm of linguistics:

Plateau Breaker #2: Learn how humans linguistically acquire language

I know it sounds lofty – and cumbersome... but just hear me out. Our brains are the computers we use to process and store new information, such as the thousands of words and myriad rules of a language. Anyone who's able to read and understand this article has a brain that's successfully picked up a language at least once, with English. The only difference is that it probably happened when you were really young (excluding our ESL crowd). It's not that we can't do it again with a different language. It's just that most of us haven't reverse engineered the learning process to optimize it for a second go. To make matters worse, we carry around unproductive myths and misconceptions about language learning.

Here's a meta example:

There's a myth floating around that children learn languages faster than adults. Ever heard this? Makes sense, since kids' brains are so young, and fresh, and malleable, right? Think again! Adults have a MUCH higher capacity to take in new information and process it at a much faster rate than kids. We have more life experience, brain size, and self-awareness than every child on the planet, and our capacity to focus is much higher.

This isn't just a feel good affirmation either - it's been proven over and over in the fields of linguistics and neuroscience. This pesky myth only has truth in that the human brain weeds out any sound pronunciation it doesn't hear between the ages of 6 months and a year old. That's why Japanese people above the age of one struggle with their R's and their L's, while we English speakers struggle with their hybrid Swiss army knife equivalent of the L-R-D sound. (That's right, the Japanese “L-R” sound has a subtle D mixed into it. *Grumbles*.) Children are also fearless, and by the age of five have 15,000 hours or so of exposure to their native language. Compare this to adult learners who are lucky to get 500 hours of exposure. (Wyner, Gabriel, Fluent Forever)

Point is, most language learners are swimming upstream because they don't know how the brain actually absorbs new languages. It's like trying to code new software onto an operating system you've never read the user's manual for. If you're not using methods like spaced repetition, mnemonics, and personal reference experience mapping, then you're leaving a lot on the table! One of the best resources to learn more is a book called Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner. It's a quick, fun read that's easy to digest and doesn't overcomplicate itself using too many specialized terms. Check it out!

In any case, don't compare yourself to a 5 year old Japanese girl's command of Japanese. She has home court advantage. Rather, as the old saying goes, "if you can't beat em', join em'!" We're talking about immersion, people, which leads us to our next point:

Plateau Breaker #3: Immerse Yourself in Japan

If you want to learn to fight, then you have to get in the ring and take a few hard blows. If you want to learn to swim, eventually you gotta jump into the deep end. Whatever it is you want to learn how to do, to get really good at it, you have to test it in the field that will give you the most immediate and honest feedback. Immersing yourself in the Japanese culture by moving to Japan puts you in that field.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: language is a living, breathing thing. How it behaves in the best textbook or study app is very different from how it expresses itself in the wild, through its native speakers. You could spend years studying Japanese from the comfort of your own home country. Yet, unless there's a surplus of native Japanese speakers on hand to practice with, your command over it will never be anything more than theoretical. In other words, no matter how much Crunchyroll you watch in your parents' basement, you can't really call yourself a Japanese speaker until you've lived abroad in Japan and tested it with the guy standing next to you at the tachi-nomiya. HE'LL give you honest feedback, and you'll absorb his drunken slang.

It's a jarring experience, and a massive blow to the ego the day you bust out your Japanese to ask how to get to Shibuya station, and you're either misunderstood, or you can't tell your migi's from your hidari's. But it's this process of immediate feedback and iteration that'll separate the fluent expat you from the former basement-dwelling you with all that cheetos dust on your shirt. You know, the guy / gal LARPing about how sick your Nihoundgo skillz are cause you understand words like "baka" and "kawaii". (Just... we get it.)

Two quick caveats before we move on:

First, don't read me wrong. If you're still in high school, or you're locked into a life situation that'll take time to escape, then don't wait to start studying Japanese. Putting it off for "until you move out there" is just an excuse. On the contrary, if you put the time and effort in at home, you'll probably be more motivated and comfortable with the idea of eventually uprooting. There's no doubt that having a solid background of how the language works will give you a massive leg up once you move here and start using it. Just know that the map and the terrain are very different, and it's something you have to experience for yourself.

Second, our drunken friend we mentioned above will undoubtedly give you false signals and pump your ego up quite a bit at first. There seems to be an inverse correlation between how good your Japanese ACTUALLY is, and how good the locals will tell you it is. It's annoying, and patronizing, and not really one of Japan's finer traits. But mixed in with their hospitality and their "omotenashi" is the tendency to patronize people they view as naïve. The new-to-Japan-you testing out your Nihoundgo for the first year or so is very naïve, so you're gonna get a lot of "日本語上手ですね!!!” from your single serving conversation partners. Translated, this means,

"Ermahgerd your Japanese is soooooo good! You’re like the little gaijin that could!!"

And is emphatically pronounced,

"NiHOngO jOOUzu DESU nE!!!"

SPOILER ALERT: they don't mean it. They're trying to be nice, but they're being patronizing. They just don't know it. The truth is that the better you get, the less forgiving they are, and the more they'll show when they don't understand what you're saying. THAT'S the sweet spot. THAT'S where you wanna be, because it's where the real work begins. As you get even better, eventually those pedantic Nihongo jouzu desu ne's will turn into genuine "えっ、やばっ。日本語うまっ!何年日本にいる?", and by the time you understand what THAT means without me having to translate it, you won't have any need for anyone to tell you that your skillz are sick. Cause you know they are. You put in the time, and took a whole lot of blows to the ego to get there.

Bottom line, put down the cheetos and move out here. If you can't yet, then make an action plan to tie up loose ends where you live now, and handle the logistics of beginning a life here. We can help you with that, but it's a topic for another post.

Incidentally, regardless of where you're learning, you're going to need a strategy. That's the focus of our final point for today:

Plateau Breaker #4: Choose the right learning environment and strategy

There's no right or wrong learning environment. It's an individual thing. Some people learn best in a structured class with a whole group of fellow learners, led by a teacher. Others function best in one-on-one tutor sessions. Online apps suit the needs of those who prefer to go it alone and take a solitary approach to studying Japanese.

People will spend countless hours and moneybags banging their heads against a wall trying to learn in an environment that doesn't suit them, in a way that will never work for them. Just because your friend learned Japanese 101 in a classroom doesn't mean that you have to, or that it's the right way for you.

This doesn't just stop at an environmental level either. Different tactics suit different learners. What you're looking to do here is to build your own custom learning strategy that works for you. Yes, there are commonly held rules and practices which merit paying attention to, especially regarding kanji. But these are guidelines; they're the map, not the terrain.

When I began studying Japanese, I sat in a school library with nothing but a textbook, an open notepad, a dictionary app, and a chillhop lo-fi playlist. Embarrassingly, I leaned heavily on romaji (oh the shame...). It wasn't "ideal", and many fellow gaijin would insist that I not use the devil's letters, but instead that I learn to read and write before learning how to speak. But I was young, and outgoing, and I wanted to make Japanese friends fast. So I used the Roman alphabet as training wheels to memorize basic words and grammar points, stringing together clumsy "nihongo no bunsho" in my notebook until I had a solid framework of how Japanese worked. (It helped that this library happened to sit tucked into the side of a Japanese mountain town in Nagano prefecture, with no other foreigners for miles. See the immersion happening here?)

Eventually I hit a wall, of course – my first true plateau in my Japanese practice. In response to my plateau, I reluctantly took up practicing the 2000+ kanji I had been putting off, and immediately realized what all the hullabaloo was all about. But you know what? At that point, I had a personally customized learning strategy that I had used to become conversationally fluent enough to make friends. This strategy I had built for myself made learning a new dimension of the Japanese language a hell of a lot easier!

Was it the most efficient way to learn? Probably not. Was it tried and true standard practice? Definitely not. Would I recommend anyone else do it like that? No - learn the kanji first. Do as I say, not as a do. But I would recommend every single person to find his or her own sweet spot. Again, learning a new language is a highly personal and customizable endeavor. You have to test what works, disregard what doesn't. If you're serious enough, well as they say: all roads lead to Tokyo... er, Rome. Point is, if turning the book upside down and learning kanji and grammar helps you remember it faster, then do it. The end goal here is to learn the Japanese language - spoken, written, and read. Do what you gotta do!

The Plateau Breaker’s Guide

The trick to overcoming a plateau is to catch yourself in one before it drags on too long. Feeling less motivated to study? Overwhelmed by a certain aspect of the hustle? Getting bored easily and find yourself fingering your phone when you should be crunching Kanji? These are all signs that you’re in a plateau, which means you need to shake things up. It’s OK to interrupt your regular study routine if you find yourself getting diminishing returns. The road to mastery is never a straight line.

When life coaches and other self-proclaimed smarty-pantses spout pablum like, "The secret to success isn't to work HARDER; it's to work smarter," this is what they mean. Again, there's no secret. There's no magic pill that'll make you fluent. Remember, you see those words, you run the other way. Truth is, you could probably manage to get pretty good even without these tips as long as you put in the hours (maybe with the exception to #3... you kind of have to live in Japan to get it).

What's more is that even if you cover all the bases above, you'll STILL get plenty frustrated, and have moments of mental overheat as you study. But even so, if you:

  1. Learn Japanese in its historical context
  2. Learn how we as humans naturally acquire language
  3. Immerse yourself in Japan (and actively use the language)
  4. Find the learning environment and strategy that best suits you

Then the hours that you DO put it to learn Japanese will really start to count for something, and you'll be greatly insulated against failure. So do yourself a favor and look into each and every one of them!

What's your personal experience learning Japanese been like? Have you experienced the "learning plateaus" that plague so many Japanese learners? Let us know in the comments below!

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