Can't understand how to retain what I've learnt


Part of the reason I’ve stopped and started learning Japanese is that when I learn something I worry that I’ll forget it later on because I won’t be revising it as much because I’ll be learning other things.

This is the real big barrier with language learning for me and I can’t seem to understand how one can learn something and then get on with the next thing and continue to retain it…

I don’t think I’m learning right. I did beginners Japanese in a classroom setting and we would go through a grammar topic and then the next week do a brief roundup and go onto the next thing. I found that counter-productive.

Even one-to-one Japanese lessons feels counter productive for the same reason.

It’s a really big barrier in my head and causes confusion and angst. I don’t feel motivated to study because I can’t see how one gets from one level to the next.

In short, I don’t know how the transit from beginner to intermediate happens.

What are your ways of learning to ensure that the things you learn stay retained whilst you get to ‘next level’?


I’d stop worrying and just accept that you will forget some stuff.

If you encounter something you’ve forgotten you’ll have to look it up again, and when you do, you at least have a better chance of retaining that information the second time round.

But, generally, you need to keep using languages to retain and keep that knowledge accessible to you. So, reading, listening, talking, writing, all the things that involves making use of words and grammar, helps you keep that knowledge fresh to you.

Still, there is no way to retain everything, as I initially said. You’ll just have to accept that some things you’ll have to learn more than once.


You say you worry that you will forget stuff, but you don’t say whether you actually forget.

In school you did learn one thing after another, and not just Japanese grammar. For one thing you have learned how to read and write English so at least there is this that stuck in your brain. Perhaps the learning process works better than what you suggest

Wanikani is not a classroom. Trust the SRS. You don’t just see an item and move over. Some reviews get scheduled weeks and months ahead. If you fail a review more reviews are scheduled at shorter intervals. This reinforces and solidifies your knowledge.

@ekg advice is good. Don’t fret about forgetting stuff. Often you will read in these forums the advise to consume Japanese content to reinforce what you have learned. When you read Japanese material you will get a refresher of some of the stuff you have learned. If you had not retained it you just study it again.

This is life. Sometimes you forget what you have learned and sometimes you don’t.
Repetition is key. If you use what you have learned it has a greater chance to stick than when you don’t use it. And if you never use it you didn’t need to learn it in the first place.


The forgetting curve is very real, but yeah, it applies to all learning. You’ll definitely still be retaining things. Forgetting is basically a part of learning in the end, and I’ve found anything that I forgot usually easier to remember when refreshing myself.

You’ll find that at the beginner levels you mentioned, most everything either builds on each other or is just seen so constantly in Japanese that it’ll naturally reinforce itself constantly.

Especially when it comes to this feeling, there are going to be a lot of times where it feels like you’re plateauing or just not getting it, but if you stick with it, learn more and read more (once able), you pretty much can’t fail. Understanding language is the kind of thing our brains are perfectly suited for – that’s not to diminish the amount of work this task is going to be, but given enough time and effort (and yes, we’re talking a LOT of time), I’ve frequently heard it said that really anyone can learn any language. It’s not a matter of being “good enough” at it or anything, it will happen. I’ve clung onto that piece of information a lot in the more frustrating times.

Really all you can do is just start doing it, and shut out the overthinking to the best of your ability. I’ve had basically intrusive thoughts in the past that I’d somehow forget it all too, but I tried to remind myself that that isn’t how it works, and I’ve certainly remembered plenty up to this point. Just get out there and make some progress and it’ll get easier to stop those thoughts, or at least it did for me.


I can sympathize with this feeling. Last year I got really, really sick, and I couldn’t bring myself to go on WaniKani. Once I stopped reviewing regularly, I felt sure that I’d forgotten everything, and I gave up completely on learning Japanese.

Once I started to get a little better, I was bored one night and happened to crack open an English-Japanese dictionary, and I was shocked by how many words I knew and recognized. So the next day I logged into WaniKani, and I had almost 1000 reviews. I started working on them, and I was absolutely stunned by how many I remembered! Of course I had forgotten some, but that experience really showed me that it’s not so hopeless after all.

I’ve found @Daisoujou 's advice very true. Just stick with it, and you WILL learn it. It’s not so much about aptitude or skill or speed. It’s about constancy. Try not to be discouraged. I know it’s really hard sometimes (especially when you feel like you’re forgetting more than you’re learning!), but stopping and starting because you’re afraid of forgetting may actually be contributing to the problem and the discouragement :confused:


You don’t forget everything because it like building blocks. You need the basic grammar or basic vocabulary to understand intermediate texts. So you continuously work on retention it just doesn’t feel like that anymore. When you learned how and when to multiply numbers in math class in primary school you didn’t forget that in high school because you still used that knowledge regularly. Just in a different context/ as part of a bigger calculation. The same thing happens with language learning. Of course there are a few things that you forget over time but then you just look them up again and they should usually feel somewhat familiar so memorizing them will be easier the second time around.

Where do you get the idea from that things don’t build upon each other but different “language levels” are completely separate things?


I‘m seeing two (main) ways of this issue which, like others said, is real and natural:

First, you can use an artificial method, i.e. an SRS system. If you’re afraid of forgetting stuff after you burned it, why not use a system that doesn’t burn things (e.g. Anki)? It will ask you periodically for the rest of your life if you want :slight_smile:

Second, you can use a natural method, i.e. use Japanese for what you actually planned to use it when you set out learning it. In my case it’s reading books. Of course I often come across words and grammar points I‘ve forgotten, but then I look them up again to refresh my memory, no problem. This works the same whether you like to watch anime or chat with friends or write a diary or whatnot. Look up stuff you don’t remember right now, and the stuff you will encounter/need most will stick best.


Classrooms are a terrible way to learn. I used to think I was bad at learning languages as well until I started self-studying. Lots of immersion + being diligent with your SRS reviews is the key to mastering a language (just make sure you’re having fun and enjoying the language!).

Check out this video:


If you really think about it, it is a mystery why things really are working at all in a very fundamental way.
Why is the sun going up every morning and how is it possible to have a supermarket full of things to eat every day?
Life is such an entirely impossibility, I mean just look at the sky in the night and think about the universe. How everything is moving in a perfect beautiful order and continues to evolve.

Compared to that learning Japanese is quite simple actually.
If you don’t question it (never) and just do it every in small steps (everyday).

You just need to trust.

Listen/read every day. Of course you can’t retain arbitrary and effectively meaningless information if you don’t engage with it. (Classroom work is not engagement). If you engage with the language daily then it’s impossible to forget core aspects of it because they come up constantly. The more fundamental something is, the more frequently you’ll see it. If it occurs rarely enough that you can’t remember it right now, then it’s not something you need to know yet. You can learn it later no sweat because the more you already know, the easier it becomes to learn even more.

This works all the way down to the very earliest levels. I’ve watched Vtubers every day since before deciding to learn Japanese, and even from day 1 it was extremely helpful to me to just pick out individual words like ()って、and やばい as those were the first ones to truly be seared into my brain. I even sort of pre-memorized certain words. I kept hearing (みんな) and いいね a LOT but didn’t know what they meant or what exactly to look up to find out. Later when I learned their meanings, it was impossible to forget because I already had strong subconscious mental notes about them with an open slot to fit their meanings into.

I think traditional language classes are very nearly the most perfectly inefficient structure for attaining language proficiency that one could reasonably conceive of. I strongly recommend reading through and using a method of that nature. It baffles me that nearly every human on Earth becomes downright masterful in at least one language, yet when trying to learn a 2nd language most of us, (including myself in the past) decide not to build upon but instead completely throw out the methods used in acquiring that first language, methods which our brains are uniquely and specifically hard-wired to employ.

I’ve tried both extremes myself. I took 3 years of Spanish classes in high school. It was actually my favorite subject and I did alright in the classes, but I got no exposure to normal use of the language whatsoever. With Japanese I’ve only “studied” the absolute barebones grammatical concepts, and the ‘conjugation’ - only once, without review or production practice, in order to shortcut my way to comprehension. The rest has been Kanji SRS, listening, and recently some proper reading finally. By my estimation, I am now learning more Japanese each month than I learned Spanish in all 3 years.

Anyway to close it out:

You’re onto something with this not being right. You can’t just pick some arbitrarily selected set of information, somehow ‘learn’ it in a meaningful way, master it, then move on to add more information to your collection. The idea of clearly distinct “levels” is an emergent artifact of this bizarre method and it can potentially lead to thinking that immersion in native material somehow only becomes useful at a more ‘advanced level’ which simply isn’t the case. There is no universal linear chain of distinct levels which must be traversed in order like some linguistic gauntlet. Incomprehensibility is like a murky fog which is gradually cleared by language acquisition. The only way I can even notice that I’m learning really is to rewatch/reread something from a few weeks or months ago and acknowledge how much more I’m understanding now compared to then.

I also recommend Matt Vs Japan (creator of Refold) for more ideas and advice about learning (any) language and the late Cure Dolly as the only grammar study you should need.

Ahh… I see someone linked a video about Matt as I was typing this. :thinking: He really has a lot of great experience and ideas to share.


I strongly disagree. They aren’t for everyone and some classes as well as some teachers are better than others. I self-studied for awhile and now that I’m in a classroom setting I’m retaining much more because I’m forced out of my comfort zone and actually speaking to people. I like seeing other student’s make the same mistakes I do. I appreciate the schedule that keeps me moving forward.

Combining class work with out of class studying has been a strong combination for me and I’d recommend to others.


As long as it contributes to you having fun while learning a language, that’s the most important thing above all else! If you want to sound like a native speaker though, the only way is through loads and loads of input.

I think classrooms are terrible, but also that your experience as described here is valid. Staying in your comfort zone is a futile method to learn a new language as they’re two fundamentally incompatible concepts by definition.

So even if classrooms are terrible, a terrible method is still much better than one which is hopelessly futile.

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Without producing output for someone to provide feedback against, how do you actually know you ‘sound like a native speaker’? Just because you think you sound like a native doesn’t mean you actually do. Even if you are shadowing, you would necessarily need to record output to compare against the native speaker, no?

Seems to me that getting proper pronunciation requires more than just input.

For example, people used to claim that Mila Kunis learned English just by watching The Price is Right yet she had to later clarify that was not true.

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His attitude is perfect for learning Japanese.

There is a certain danger in being too good though (for him) and I think he will experience that problem when he lives in Japan for the first time.
Looking also at the reaction from the Japanese girl, she is very impressed especially about his non verbal communication.

He builds up a very strong expectation from Japanese to be that one “perfect foreigner”. (That’s not his fault, but there is a certain Japanese tendency to do that).

First of all he is very handsome, he is obviously very intelligent and he is able to play a Japanese.
But that puts a lot of pressure on him to perform like this always (because in the end as he also says he doesn’t think like a Japanese in every aspect), and nobody can do that.
The expectations from Japanese having found the first “perfect foreigner” can be pretty intense and tiring.
And it backfires sooner or later at the point where he cannot keep up that perfectness.
Unfortunately Japanese can be quite cruel to people who don’t act like they expect them to do.

Living in Japan and seeing many foreigners attitudes and their level of happiness I have to admit that it is actually wiser to build in intentional ruptures in your performance in order to break that expectations to a level that is still manageable to you.

Don’t ever try to be perfect in Japan, because you have to live up to that standard.
And that easily damages your mental health.

You can actually see many people in Japan who try to visibly signal others, what they can’t and shouldn’t expect from them.

What I am really being aware of more and more is, that learning something puts you in a field of energy connected to the subject and there is something in the field of learning Japanese as a “white” person that goes along the line: “I was not one of the popular kids. I was looking for a new identity…” And seen in retrospect, it is now very fascinating for me, who just HAPPENED to study Japanese because I happened to fall in love with a Japanese and moved with him to Japan (I could have just met another foreigner and learned another language) I have come to define myself exactly like that for the first years of studying even if I have to say that I don’t think I fall in that category and it makes me kind of frustrated to be always confronted by people who fuel that energy into that field.

So I am going to change that.
I learn Japanese just simply because I live here.
Yes the culture is different but so are other cultures!
There is nothing nothing nothing special about a white person learning Japanese.
There is nothing special about being a white person because that is just a construction.
There is nothing special about producing a correct pitch accent, you just needs to know that it exists from the beginning.

Has anyone ever had that intensely clever idea, that the Japanese (and “white” people who master Japanese (not Matt actually of course) are mystifying their own language in order to be confirmed again and again how special they are (and that specialty should rub off a bit on the “special white people” who are able to learn a bit - but not a lot because that idea is very limiting???)

That’s why you can’t learn Japanese in a school.

Sorry, thank you for listening to this rant.

In order to prove my intensely clever thought - this is the best Jodlmeister in my home country, an art that can only be mastered by locals because of genetic and cultural reasons:


Thank you for all these responses and taking the time out to help.

Part of issue is also being overwhelmed by the magnitude of resources online. I find it hard to know where to start, but I’m building up a structure slowly but surely.

One thing that annoys me a lot is when it’s suggested to listen and watch Anime and shows as a beginner. How (on earth!) is that possible if I’m just a beginner?? Considering that shows like Terrace House are real life and therefore fluent Japanese, it doesn’t make sense that beginners are advised to ‘learn’ from these kinds of things. Isn’t it impossible? You’d need to know a lot of grammar and vocab first to even put a dent into that…

I remember coming across a Youtube channel where the Japanese guy spoke to the camera and spoke slowly. It was the kind of thing I need. It was specifically geared at beginners. Does anyone know who he is?


Yeah. People who learn from that stuff devote some time to intensive immersion as part of the method, basically pausing each line to work to decipher it with online lookups and the like. While probably technically possible at any level, that’s harder the more unknowns there are, of course. Generally I think some degree of first studying the grammar and learning some common words on its own does wonders to make immersion open up (even the heavily immersion-focused methods like Refold do advise spending some time acquainting yourself with how tenses work and some of the stuff you really need to just go learn). Just keep in mind that any direct studying is a method to make immersion more comprehensible; the immersion should always be the target ultimately. At this stage, you can get a better feel for the sound of the language phonetically and how it flows, but it’s going to be arduous to try to totally skip at least a small studying period.

This isn’t the one you are referring to, but I’d highly recommend this one, which provides the same thing.

I was personally less into Asami, but she does something similar:

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Everything is the same level of difficulty so everyone watches what they like and think it is easy.
I would die if I would have to watch anime.

The only recommendation can be, do what you like.
Because only you knows what you like we can’t recommend you anything other than watch something you know already in your own language, then you already know what it is about, maybe. But only if you really enjoy watching it.

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Ideally listening and reading won’t be your only approach, but they will be the core of your activities with grammar and vocabulary study wrapped around it, rather than the other way around. At first you’re literally just trying to pick out words that you recognize. It could be several minutes or more between instances of this. Over time that will gradually shorten until it’s happening every few sentences, then nearly every sentence. Then you start to entire expressions or sentence fragments, and then the situation shifts from islands of comprehension, to more of a shrinking set of holes in your comprehension. This all goes way smoother and faster alongside a bit of study of basic vocabulary and grammar, but with a focus on that being a powerful supplement rather than the main course.

That’s what’s happening consciously. The conscious aspect feels painfully slow in the initial stages, but particularly with listening, the subconscious mind is working overtime. It’s learning to actually hear and recognize the native sounds of the language, speech patterns and intonation, learning to recognize certain expressions even if you don’t know what they mean (びっくりした and 成程(なるほど)ね are coming to mind for me as examples while reflecting on this.) There’s so much subconscious work going on to acquaint you with the language which actually makes things much easier later on. I strongly suspect that these benefits are severely crippled by content intentionally designed for foreign learners.

If you’re willing to try content meant for natives, which I really think is the best choice by far, then the most easily comprehensible input I’ve found personally for listening is Inugami Korone, while she’s playing a game (i.e. not just chatting with her viewers). She tends to not discuss much with chat during gameplay, keeping the visual context relevant as she almost exclusively barks (no pun intended) simple reactions to exactly what is happening in that moment on-screen, or just panic and shout simple phrases. It’s all unscripted natural native speech, and potentially very entertaining and engaging even without Japanese comprehension, at least if you’re into it. Here’s a sample:

Maybe you think she’s annoying or boring, but this is still a great example of some traits to look for in your search for input media in regards to increasing comprehensibility without sacrificing authenticity.


Do exercises that involve you composing your own sentences, if you USE something, you won’t forget it. Moreover, if you use a textbook like Genki and its workbook, the material builds up. Grammar you saw in earlier chapters keep coming up in later chapters…