It happens to so many. You get started learning a language and those first few months feel like a rocket taking off. The jump from zero to anything feels like pure success—where once Japanese looked like a mysterious jumble of signs and pictograms, you start to make sense of it. You can read hiragana and katakana like a breeze. Your kanji is coming along smoothly. You can have conversations! In Japanese!
But then, it all kinds of…slows down. Stops. The feeling of progress turns into a feeling of stagnation. The study you’re doing seems tired and unhelpful. And worst of all… You can get by. Your basic needs are met. So, the urge to keep trying just kind of goes away.
This is it. The dreaded Intermediate Plateau
It’s a phenomenon that strikes so many language learners, regardless of what language they are learning. It has been known to last for years, sometimes, and for a few, it never ends.
And of course, it might not need to. For many people, an intermediate level of another language is enough to fulfill their needs. They can get by fine with an intermediate level. They might not be able to discuss deep topics or read a newspaper, but they can chat over coffee. They can visit the doctor, more or less. They can do what needs to be done. There may not be much need to go beyond that!
But for many of us, that isn’t enough. So much still remains out of reach, and yet the difficulty of getting out of the rut of intermediate language skill means it takes real effort to break out of the rut.
It is a complex problem, layering issues with motivation, learning style, psychology and just the natural learning curve of language.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can try to help kickstart yourself into a new arc of learning! So, let’s take a look and see what might work for you.
Update Your Plan
If you read my earlier article, you should know about SMART goals. For those that didn’t, briefly: SMART goals are a way to set goals that are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Goals that fit these parameters are more likely to keep you motivated and help you reach success. So, now that you have reached a more effective level of language ability, it might be a good idea to reassess your goals. Some questions to guide you in this might be:
What goals have you already achieved?
Are there new goals you should be working toward?
Does your timeline need updating?
What kind of new steps do your goals call for now?
And any others you can think of that might help with your reevaluation.
A part of understanding what goals you have achieved is assessing yourself. A concrete measurement of your current level can help you see not only how far you’ve come, but help you pinpoint areas where you still need work. The results of a test like the JLPT or JCAT will break down abilities in grammar, listening, and reading (but, critically, not speaking!) so that you can see the overall balance, and thus find the most effective place to readjust your focus.
Change your Style
One thing that might lead to a plateau is simple boredom. If you keep doing the same thing, you’re bound to get tired of it. Try something new!
At the intermediate level, reading is probably a good place to focus. You should be able to read some book-length works for younger readers, which are also great resources for natural vocabulary and grammar, especially through dialog, which will boost those areas.
Listening is generally easier to work on when living in Japan, but it might be a good idea to look for some alternative sources to what you‘ve been using. Talk to different people, or watch different videos, or just change up your attitude to listening.
Don’t Let it Get You Down
There can often be a psychological element to this plateau because it feels like learning isn’t just slower, it’s harder. It takes longer to remember new things. It’s harder to find new things to remember. And that all makes it feel like the burden of learning is greater than it should be.
Don’t give in to this feeling! Your progress might be slower, but it is still progress. And the payoff of learning more at this level is even greater, because the goal is richer, fuller participation in Japanese language and culture. You’re getting close to reading literature! You’re just a few steps from watching Kurosawa films without subtitles! Changing just a few things can help reawaken that feeling of progress, which is all you need.
Trying these might just push you upward off that plateau, and once that happens the feeling of success itself is often enough to keep you going onward and upward.
The most important thing is: Don’t give up!