Feeling Stuck in learning Japanese

Feeling Stuck In Learning Japanese? 8 Ways to Escape Your Language Rut

Sometimes when learning a language, you can feel like you’ve hit a wall. It’s incredibly frustrating when you feel like you can’t make progress. Fortunately, there are things you can try to do to overcome this situation.

There are various reasons you may feel like you’re in a rut. Your strategy for getting out of it, then, will depend on the reason(s). This article will discuss the most common issues and some effective ways to address those. 

Feeling Stuck with Conversation

Possibly the most common rut people experience is: despite studying so much, you don’t feel like you can actually have conversations in Japanese. You may find situations to interact with Japanese people, but when it comes time to speak, you find it overwhelming.

This is completely normal.

Those situations may require you to be advanced, but you may still be at an intermediate level. These suggestions will meet you at that intermediate stage. 

1. Talk to people one-on-one

One reason you may feel you can’t speak Japanese is because you’re in group scenarios. In groups, especially if the other members are native speakers, the pace of conversations usually goes quickly. This both means that it can be difficult to follow the conversation on a listening level, and that – even if you understand – by the time you are able to think of a response, the conversation has already gone ahead. 

One-on-one, it’s much easier to slow down. The cues for you to speak are more obvious, and if the other person has asked you a question, they’ll give you time to respond. It’s also easier for them to recognize when you’re struggling, and so they can go back and clarify or even prompt you with suggestions.

If you’d like to find a language exchange partner, I recommend Conversation Exchange and Mixxer. They’re both excellent for language learning exchange, and we give more detail about each in our article, “A Huge List Of Japanese Language Resources.

A Huge List of Japanese Language Resources

2. Talk with Japanese teachers/tutors

Have you spoken with non-native English speakers before? If so, did you ever unwittingly use English that was difficult to explain, such as a complex phrase or an idiom? Did you then go back and try to simplify your English? Were you able to slow your pace down? It can be challenging to do those things!

Speaking your native language in a more simplified way is a skill in itself. Anyone can learn this skill, and it comes fairly naturally to some. However, many people have not developed this skill, so it makes sense if you struggle to have conversations with them.

By virtue of their job, teachers will inevitably gain this skill; they’re frequently talking with students, who are non-native speakers, and they’re familiar with what their students do and don’t understand because they’re the ones giving them the material. Good teachers will see it as their responsibility to make sure their students are able to understand. Good teachers also want to see their students grow, and will be thinking of how you can get to that next level.

What to Expect At Your First Japanese Lesson

To find a Japanese tutor that will be a good match for you, check out Wyzant.

3. Find other non-native speakers

If you want to speak Japanese with a group of peers, try to find other people who are not native Japanese speakers. Since they’re also learning Japanese – maybe even from the same textbooks – there will likely be more overlap of which words you know and tend towards (compared to a native speaker who has much more to draw from, and most likely is not as conscious of what is beginner vs. advanced Japanese). 

While these don’t detract from the huge benefits you can get, there are a few issues to keep in mind when talking with non-native speakers:

They’re more likely to make mistakes

It’s still definitely worth it to talk and make mistakes rather than not try at all. However, you should be careful not to repeat their mistakes and make it a bad habit, so don’t be afraid to check things when you’re unsure. Depending on your relationship, you may want to correct them. That will be beneficial for you both!

You may have to keep each other accountable in speaking Japanese

If you’re in the US, most other people who are studying Japanese also speak English. Because of this, it’s easy to fall back on using English. You need to mutually decide that you are going to stick to Japanese as much as you can.

If you want to avoid the problem of switching to English, there is a way around it – speaking to people from different language backgrounds. When I was living in Japan, many of the friends I spoke Japanese with were from China. It was natural to use Japanese together, since that was the only language we shared. The difficulty here is finding such people. In Japan this isn’t an issue, but in the US it’s rare. 

To find a group of Japanese-speaking peers, consider taking a Japanese class or looking for groups on Meetup. To try to find someone of your Japanese level who doesn’t speak native English, check the profiles of people on Conversation Exchange.

Getting Unstuck with Comprehending Japanese Media

Many people start studying Japanese because they want to understand media they enjoy in its original language. When you first start recognizing individual words you understand, it’s exciting!

However, it’s not unusual to reach a plateau where you feel you’re not getting any better at comprehension. You might keep rewinding or rereading to try to understand, and the thing you enjoyed starts to become a chore.

While you probably can’t completely avoid those problems, there are some things you can do to try and mitigate them.

4. Choose something shorter

It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you’re trying to understand a video that’s longer than 20 minutes – that’s only going to get harder if you’re trying to watch longer drama episodes or even movies. 

For listening, a good short-form media to start with is songs. They’re not only short, but it’s normal to listen to a song several times. The more you listen, the more you’ll be able to pick up on.

Children’s songs will naturally be the easiest to try to understand, and they can give you some cultural insight. If there are some Japanese songs you already know and enjoy, those would be great to study from! It’s easier to remember words or phrases when they’re associated with a context, and doubly so if they’re related to something you like.

Many Japanese songs are on lyric websites with both the original Japanese and the English translation. You can also often find romaji (the alphabet equivalent to Japanese characters) lyrics, which can help you more quickly recognize words. It’s a nice challenge for yourself to learn how to sing the song!

For reading, some options are: short stories, articles, and “yonkoma” manga. You can find free children’s stories at Tadoku and Hukumusume (on Hukumusume, try any of the options under まいにちの昔話). News Web Easy features simplified news articles from a famous broadcasting company, and Watanoc is a web magazine. Some Watanoc articles are framed as a conversation between friends, and those tend to be easier to understand!

 “Yonkoma” is a genre of manga that literally means “4-panel”. They are usually comedic, and should have a full set-up and joke within the 4 panels. Many do have a continuous narrative, but it’s at least easier to break reading into chunks by nature of their structure. You can find a large list of yonkoma options here, and may have luck purchasing them at Kinokuniya by searching the Japanese name.

5. Choose something easier

Perhaps you already feel comfortable with the shorter media I’ve mentioned, and you’re ready for something more challenging! Just because two options are the same length, however, doesn’t mean they’ll be equally appropriate for your level.

Try looking for slice-of-life shows. Since these are centered on everyday conversations, they tend to be easier to understand. In general, shows aimed at children are also good options, although they can be difficult to find outside of Japan. 

It’s always a good idea to sample something first and see how you feel with it. If you’re getting lost, it may be that the series uses more difficult vocabulary or nuanced speech. Or maybe they speak too quickly for you, in which case many media players nowadays allow you to reduce the speed.  

Also consider that many options are not only audio – they’re also visual. Sometimes with the visuals alone you can overall follow the story, even if you don’t get all the details. When trying out a series or movie, check how helpful the visuals are to you, and how entertained you feel even if you’re not understanding every word. Learning Japanese may be work, but it shouldn’t be a chore!

Two possible series to start with are Dino Girl Gauko, available on Netflix, and Polar Bear Cafe, available on Crunchyroll.

Another good option is to rewatch something you like. Since you’re already familiar with the story, you’ll be able to follow along even if you can’t catch the details. You also already know that you’ll enjoy it, and it’s fun to get more insight into a property that means something to you! If a manga series you like has an anime, or vice versa, that’s also a great choice for the same reasons.

6. Give yourself a break

It’s understandable if you easily feel overwhelmed when immersing yourself in Japanese. You’re being hit continuously with unfamiliar words, and when trying to read Japanese – since Japanese does not use the same alphabet as English – there’s no characters that your brain can “relax” with. It takes extensive reading practice and exposure to really become comfortable with hiragana and katakana, much less kanji

Kanji Explained

Sometimes you need to give yourself a break – both in the sense of letting yourself relax, and not being too hard on yourself when you’re not “where you want to be”. In my case this meant allowing myself to sometimes watch anime with English subtitles. 

For a time I stopped watching many series because I felt like I had to do so in Japanese, but I couldn’t do that and relax. Therefore I stopped doing it altogether. I came to realize, however, that while it is better for your Japanese to immerse yourself in the language, you don’t want to pressure yourself to the point that you neglect to enjoy things. It is also possible to pick up on Japanese vocabulary even when watching with English subtitles, if you keep your ears peeled. It’s better to interact with Japanese using a crutch rather than not doing so at all. 

Feeling like you’re not making progress

It’s possible you’ve just vaguely been feeling like you haven’t been able to improve your Japanese. You haven’t necessarily decided on an area that you want to improve. If you don’t know what you should specifically focus on, that could be the issue that’s getting in your way, and is the first thing to address.

7. Make specific language-learning goals

Your goals can be general, such as wanting to improve your speaking, listening, or reading (in which case, the previous sections will give you ideas of what to do next). However, the more specific you can make your goal, the easier it is to make a plan of attack.

A possible goal you can have is to pass the JLPT test. The JLPT is the most common standardized test for Japanese and has 5 levels; N5 is for beginners, and N1 is advanced. Unless you’ve already passed the N1 with a high score, there should be plenty of Japanese material for you to study by looking into JLPT resources. (For JLPT grammar, I recommend the Try! series.) Attaining certain levels of JLPT certification can also open up opportunities for you, both in education and career.

If you’d like to get an idea which level would be good for you to aim for, JTest4You has several practice quizzes. 

Your goal could also be to complete a certain Japanese course. This can be an actual Japanese class, a digital course, a textbook, etc. – anything that has a clear progression. If you do so, even if you don’t necessarily “feel” like you’ve made progress, you can look back at what you’ve done and objectively see that you’ve learned a lot! 

8. Find accountability

Having a set course gives you direction, and that does typically help with motivation. However, you may need an extra push, especially in order to be consistent. 

Many language apps will send you email reminders to study – Duolingo is notorious for this. Since those aren’t as personal, the feeling of accountability is not as strong, but it may be enough. 

The best way to find accountability is to study with other people, and do so on a set schedule. If you have the time to do a Japanese language course at a school, that’s great! Your teacher and fellow classmates are going over the material along with you, and quizzes and tests will incentivize you to study seriously. 

There are two main problems with learning at a school, though: time and pace. Especially if you’re working full time, you simply may not have space in your schedule. And even if you have time for the classes themselves, you may not have enough time to study in order to keep up with the material – that’s a pace issue. 

You might also find that the pace of the class is too fast or slow for you. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to adjust that. While having structure is important for the sake of consistency, having so little flexibility can become a problem.

If you think it’d be great to have someone hold you accountable, but aren’t able to learn Japanese at a school, a great option is to get a tutor. You can still have regularly scheduled sessions, but with less time commitment than a school course. Since tutoring is typically one-on-one, it’s also easier for your tutor to recognize when the pace needs to slow down or increase. A tutor can also better customize the material to you and your goals.  

There are various strategies to overcome your language rut, and hopefully you have some ideas now of what to try next. You definitely don’t need to stay stuck there, and you also don’t need to deal with it alone! To look for a tutor who will be a good match for you, check out Wyzant.

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