Overcome the Language Plateau

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We all hit it.  That point in our lives where the fast growth suddenly comes to a halt and we run right smack into a wall with no exit.  We just can’t seem to escape and find a way to start moving forward again.  You feel trapped, you feel helpless, and no matter what you do you still see yourself at the same place you were a mere few months ago.

I’m not talking about a mid-life crisis.  I’m talking about learning Japanese and Chinese.

There’s always a point in language learning where you feel comfortable, but you’re not feeling the growth.  You find yourself studying, pushing yourself to the brink in trying to chat up the locals, memorizing your flashcards–but the amount you’re learning and the rate at which your language ability is maturing is far slower than when you first started.  I think all languages learners, whether it be French or Spanish, encounter the dreaded language plateau and feel stuck. How can I get better ? What can I do to improve my language studies?

Just Follow These Three Steps:

1. TAKE A TEST

I remember living in Niigata, Japan and speaking Japanese everyday.  I used it at school, the grocery store; hell, I even chatted up the delivery guy when he came to my door with a package.  I was on the prowl for learning, and I was a language monster when it came to practicing Japanese.  Yet while I was forward and persistent in my language learning, as the months passed by I didn’t really feel myself grow.  Yeah, I can talk to the postman and gab with my student’s mom about how much I love Japanese food, but I still felt myself lacking.  I couldn’t FULLY express myself.  I didn’t speak Japanese like I did English; rather, I was merely trying to communicate the message.

For example:

English Mary: “I think the difference between Asahi and Kirin is in the way it is brewed, because Asahi has more of a heavy and frothy flavor while Kirin is a bit watered down, but still it retains that traditional, Japanese beer taste.”

Japanese Mary: “Asahi and Kirin are made differently.  Asahi is heavy.  Kirin is light.  Kirin is more Japanese.”

I mean, both of these sentences are saying the same thing, but when I was at the plateau stage I couldn’t express myself eloquently, and my Japanese was still in the “I get by” stage.

People always ask me how I blew up the plateau and managed to speak Japanese like a 14 year old instead of a 4 year old.

The answer?

JLPT 2.

I hate standardized tests.  Really.  I’ve met a horde of Chinese people that get full marks on JLPT 1 and speak the language terribly.  It doesn’t necessarily prove that you’re fluent in a language, but for some reason it is still recognized by most formal institutions as an indicator of how good you are at Japanese.

But while I shed blood, sweat and tears learning JLPT 2, I also learned a ton of words that I never even imagined I’d learn in a foreign language.  And I often noticed the night after cramming my brain with JLPT 2 vocabulary, I’d hear that same vocabulary the next day in a conversation between co-workers.  While studying JLPT 2, I catch myself recognizing kanji in newspapers that I used to swat away before.  It was like slowly being enlightened.

Whether you fail JLPT 2 or not, the energy you put into studying will definitely pay off in overall language ability.  There is no way that you can study JLPT 2 two hours a night and have your Japanese suck even more than it did before.  Also, the JLPT wasn’t made by a group of Japanese people that merely want to torture foreigners: They actually selected words that are necessary not only to everyday living, but in order to speak proper and ‘intelligent’ Japanese.

Plus, the test is A GOAL.  Having a goal gives you motivation, and motivation allows you to study.  Telling yourself to ace that goddamn mofo, and making a plan to implement said goal, is what makes you get better at a language.  There’s really no way around poring over kanji for hours at a time to learn Japanese; but when you make it into a goal–and you succeed at that goal–well, let’s just say you’re going to feel pretty damn good when you see that 合格 (pass) on your exam card after studying so hard.

Just as a note: I have passed JLPT 1, and I honestly didn’t think it was that useful.  It was just ridiculously hard grammar that no one uses anymore combined with ambiguous listening and reading sections. Whereas JLPT 2 content is actually the kind of Japanese that Japanese people speak in this day and age.

(*note: I think HSK isn’t as useful as JLPT, but for the sake of giving you motivation to study Chinese, then by all means try and take it).

How to Study for JLPT? (HSK)

I have two words.

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Kanzen Master.

Just don’t look at any other language materials, they suck.

As for HSK, it’s more about mastering how to take the test rather than the content of it.  Just do a bunch of mock tests and you’ll be fine.

2. READ READ READ

Change the link to your homepage.  I want you to change it to www.yahoo.co.jp or www.mainichi.jp or www.asahi.com.  Like, right now.  I hope you did that.  I don’t want to hear any excuses.  I also want you to read at least one article a day, but probably 3 will be necessary since the Japanese write their news articles so darn short.

In addition to reading Japanese news on your computer, you’re going to start reading a book in Japanese.  Yes, you heard me, an honest to god book cover to cover.  Don’t start with something ridiculously hard, like some sci-fi story or a political scandal–and for god’s sake don’t read Harry Potter or something in Japanese.  Can you imagine all the katakana in there for all the weird, made-up, Hogwarts language?  That’s what I thought.

I wanted to learn more about economics, so I bought this book.

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I’m already Haruki Murakami, so I’m reading this.

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While he’s a bit weird at least his novels are somewhat easy to read.  It’s usually conversations between two people, or how a guy stares at the moon for five hours.  Stray from manga, please, because not many people in the real world talk like Naruto or scream about how they’re going to kill titans ala Eren in 進撃の巨人 (shojo manga is ok, I guess, but still it’s better to read actual narratives to improve not only your reading, but your writing).

3.  LISTEN TO THE NEWS

Watching dramas is great for improving your everyday conversation skills, but when it comes to leveling up your Japanese and describing the process of how beer is brewed rather than ‘how it git made,’ (aka, speak Japanese like an adult), then the news will hep.  The news is hard.  It’s not a walk in the park.  And that’s why you need the challenge.

When I lived in Japan I watched 目覚ましテレビ every morning, and at night I watched NHK.  Since I don’t live in Japan anymore, I actually download the NHK podcast every morning and listen to it.  It’s going to be hard, but have your handy dandy dictionary ready and trust me–you’ll learn a plethora of new words you never knew before.

And I don’t cut a chunk out of my day to listen to the news.  I listen to it as I walk to work, or when I’m riding the subway.  Do it on your commute; and if you can’t look up vocab while listening to it (for whatever reason), then you can listen to it once in the morning, and when you come home from work speed through the podcast to try and get all the words you didn’t pick up the first time.

If you keep watching rom-com dramas on Japanese television, it will improve your Japanese (no doubt) but it will not help you overcome the plateau.  You already KNOW what they’re saying, and you’re not being challenged linguistically.  Step up to a harder drama (Hanzawa Naoki) if you dread the news, or try your hand at some TV shows in Japan that are actually somewhat intellectually stimulating (that last one will be a challenge to even find, but good luck).

And remember: No English Subtitles.

Supplement:

Properly learning keigo.  I think we kind of put keigo on the backburner when we study Japanese (just learning regular Japanese is hard enough); but after you have a grasp of how to speak Japanese, mastering keigo should be next on your list.  While some foreigners detest even the cold, harsh, emotionless tone of keigo; it’s necessary in order to sound like a proper and educated Japanese person–no matter how many barriers it might create.

There’s a billion keigo websites on the web, but usually searching “business Japanese” in google will be the most helpful.  Like websites such as this that list every office-email-situation you can fathom.

When I wanted to improve my Keigo, I actually found a language exchange partner and asked him/her to prepare work situations where I would have to write an e-mail.  After writing my sorry excuse for a business e-mail, they would whip out their red pen and tell me how it’s done.  This was not only crazy useful, but it helped me make Japanese friends in all realms of business: e-commerce, banking–even NGO!

3 thoughts on “Overcome the Language Plateau

  1. Richard says:

    Great post as always, Mary. It’s interesting to see the techniques different people use to learn languages, but I have to say, you’ve gone far above and beyond what most people do. I’m impressed to say the least. Of course, your job does require a higher level of expertise and technical vocabulary than most foreigners would need.

    Like you, I also noticed in the past that my expressiveness was much more limited in a new language, and this often led to frustration. Full story here: http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~rfguo/blog/?p=1176

    I’m also very lucky that I’m not in a rush to achieve full fluency in a language in the shortest time possible. Instead, I’m using tapes, news, and other tricks you listed to gain a little more each day.

    Actually, that reminds me of a story. I met a 50-60 year old American man in South America. He was a wanderer, never married, owned apartments in Argentina, and spoke pretty good Spanish with a terrible American accent (he didn’t even try to pronounce each word correctly). We were chatting with our host family one evening when the matron asked him how many languages he speaks. His reply was “almost one”. That I thought was quite profound. It shifts the mentality from a fixed predefined goalpost (usually a certifying exam) to that of language as a lifelong learning process. It keeps things in [incredibly humbling] perspective. And with any lifelong journey, it’s best to pace oneself lest the frustrations build.

    Mm, I have other stories about languages, learning, foreigners, etc, but I’ll save them for another time. I’m cluttering your blog too much as it is and long drawn out replies are a bit of a hassle for you to reply to. Anyway, hope to talk to you again soon.

  2. Shanghai Ronin says:

    Hey! Clutter all you like, I’m always happy to get your comments!

    I read your blog post, and I thought nothing was more true than this line you wrote here:

    “I boldly went ahead and used what I knew to build what I wanted to say. If I didn’t know a word, I’d sometimes talk around it using words I did know. I cut down on the number of complex sentences I used.”

    This is exactly what I did when I first moved to Japan. I think it’s the only way to really immerse yourself in a language–and survive. Cause really, when it all boils down to it, isn’t communication the main goal? I mean, even in English sometimes native speakers will over complicate things to the point where we’re not really sure what they want to convey.

    Interesting article about the host family! Living with a host family must have been a really impacting experience (and I’m crazy jealous you went to South America–it’s on my list).

    “Almost one.” What a perfect answer. I think when you learn a foreign language it gives you a new perspective on your native language, and just how much you haven’t even mastered that (especially when you go into interpreting/translating). Cause really, there’s no way you can learn a foreign language WELL unless you have a good command of your native language.

    Ah, it’s great to swap language and travel stories (probably the two favorite things in my life). Would love to hear more of your travels!

  3. Richard says:

    Would be happy to swap stories. Care to do so over email/chat? I think the last message I sent over has been languishing in your inbox for a while. It might be lonely!

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