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When it feels as though you’re getting nowhere…

Posted April 6th, 2012 by Enrico in Learning Japanese

I’ve been studying Japanese for a long time, when I add it all up. Even though there have been times when I’ve really been on it and times when I’ve been kept away from it, I think I can confidently say that I’ve put as much time, energy, and resources into studying Japanese as almost anything else in my life. I remember when it began, how it began, precisely what I felt back then that propelled me forward, but the person I was then is very different from the person I am now. My motivations and goals for learning Japanese have changed as I have grown. But though there have been times when I’ve slowed down in my study of the language to give attention to other priorities, I’m still about as passionate about it now as the day I started, more than a decade ago.

That’s the thing with language learning. You can start whenever you like, and you can stop whenever you like, too. It can be a life project, or you can stop at hello, goodbye, and asking for directions to the train station. It’s really up to you. But if, like me, you’re in this for the long haul, or if you’re just getting started but can imagine yourself studying Japanese for many years to come, then you need to know how to keep yourself moving forward, come what may. This post is about my personal philosophy which has kept me going without fail.

Before I get into that, my first piece of advice is to have goals. We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. An ideal goal is just outside your grasp, but not so far that it feels impossible. It’s something concrete, something you can actually work your way towards day by day, little by little. Often, people will say their goal is to become fluent in Japanese, but what does that actually mean? The question you want to answer, I think, is what do you want to do with Japanese? Once you know what you want to do, you can break that down and figure out what you need to do to get there.

For example, I want to be able to comfortably read light Japanese novels. To do that, I need to build a broader vocabulary by reading a lot of material, including the books I like to read, review that vocabulary (Anki is my tool of choice for that), and also review and learn more kanji, which will help me become less dependent on my Japanese-English dictionary when encountering new words. It’s a tall order, but in my mind it is doable, and I know what I need to do to keep myself on course.

Armed with your goals and your daily study regimen, you’ll get far. However, there will be days when it feels as though you’re getting nowhere at all. And it’s precisely then that you must keep going. This isn’t just any old motivational speech about how you have to push through the pain to attain your goals (though that’s definitely true). Unless your study regimen is lacking, that feeling that you’re spinning your wheels and making no progress is actually deceiving you. You’re in a plateau.

It’s sort of like the way that water changes state from ice to liquid to gas as you apply more and more heat. There are periods when the temperature of the water doesn’t go up even though you continue to apply heat. But it isn’t that the water isn’t absorbing the heat. It’s just that at that time, more energy is needed in order to loosen the bonds between the molecules and fully change the state. Once there’s enough energy in the molecules of the ice, their bonds loosen and they start to flow around. Now you have water. If you’re cooling water down to make ice, you’ll also notice that just before the liquid turns to ice, there’s a plateau; the temperature stays constant for a while until the molecules lose enough energy to slow down and start forming the rigid bonds of solid matter.

I think language learning is just like that. Those times when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, the knowledge is still building up but you just don’t feel particularly better at the language than you were the day before. During those plateaus, you are accumulating the bits of knowledge and skills that will form your foundation for the next level. And here’s the best part: it works in reverse too. Even after spending a couple of years literally not studying Japanese at all (save for my exposure to it in my hobbies), I was surprised to find basic Japanese come back to me like riding a bike. As I continue to study in earnest, I’m noticing my skills start to rise rapidly to their original level, almost like a rubber band snapping back into place. Once something enters your long-term memory, it takes a long time for it to leave.

Rather than feeling like you’ve leveled out, you might actually feel like you’re getting worse. That’s a natural result of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As you become more skilled in Japanese, you start to become more and more aware of all of the things you don’t know. Your reaction to this might be to feel like you’re staying at the same level and aren’t going up, or you might feel instead like you’re steadily slipping down. The solution is the same. Steadily bring in new material, review it, retain it, bit by bit, day by day.

You’ll know when you’ve gotten over the plateau. You’ll do something with your Japanese skills that surprises you. I didn’t know I could do that, you’ll think, but the truth is that now you can. With your new foundation you can now attack more complex material and you’ll feel the pleasure of making steady progress again. But none of this is possible unless, when you feel like you’re struggling and your efforts are futile, you keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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