Feeling disheartened at lack of progress (10 years and going, but feel like giving up)

I’m not really sure where exactly to post this, but I figured since this is largely related to the language, it might as well go here.

I’m usually pretty bad at explaining how I feel about something, but I’ve been pretty disheartened about my progress in Japanese recently. I always have periods like this, but it seems recently, I’ve been more discouraged about it than usual. Now, I’ve been more or less attempting to improve bit by bit over the past 10 years. I learned kana pretty quickly and then soon after started reading Tae Kim’s guide, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Theoretically, I managed to absorb the logic of Japanese grammar pretty well, but it wasn’t until I started Wanikani that I managed to properly learn kanji recognition. Now, most of my improvement focus has always been that: recognition. Reading, listening, etc. I’ve always been pretty isolated, and social anxiety issues prevented me from finding classes and people to help with on the production end of the learning curve, so I focused on recognition. It’s been slow, but at around 2016, after already feeling like I was completely hopeless on my goals, I found some renewed vigor and realized that focusing on textbooks and theory would only get me so far. I figured I’d move on towards immersing myself in the language as I figured I would gradually pick things up from there. Thanks to Wanikani and the occasional grammar refresher/note-taking, I thought it was working. I’ve began following tons of Japanese people on Twitter, played games in Japanese as much as I could, tried reading light novels and manga, that sort of thing. Visual novels specifically have always been a special goal of mine, since I really admire the medium. It’s been slow, with ups and downs, but I figured I was making progress. When I played a game, I more or less got the gist of the story and instructions.

Thing is, I always feel like I could do better. And my reading speed is still painfully, painfully slow.

I know this isn’t enough, even for my own personal goals. There are several times when I want to, say, read someone’s twitter thread or go through a news article, and I find myself oddly stumped. I should know the words. The grammar makes perfect sense. But I’m reading so slowly. Am I even getting this stuff right? What if I’m wrong? I’ve ever exchanged a few tweets with some basic. Basic stuff. But I always feel like I’m lacking. I try to pick up a light novel to read, and while I more or less get the basic gist of what’s written (and I know on an intelectual level there is nothing wrong with just ‘getting the gist of it’), I always feel like I’m lacking. I should know these words. I should be better. But I sometimes find myself having to read sentences or paragraphs repeatedly before I can get what’s being said, so that only adds up to my already slow reading speed. I feel discouraged, and frankly, I just don’t have fun. And that’s thing. I don’t know how to have fun with it. I always force myself into having to try and read something, even when I don’t have fun, because otherwise, I’m wasting the day away. I could be getting better, but I’m not. I’m doing something wrong, but I have to try and immerse myself or it’ll be for nothing. I don’t know how to improve, but I have to do at least a little to maintain my progress. And what if I lose it? What if I forget everything? These are the thoughts that are always in my head when I immerse myself in Japanese.

And of course, it’s not fun. And that often means I go days without proper ‘immersion’. Or I look at my whole backlog of light novels and visual novels and think “I have to read these in Japanese… but I know I won’t understand everything even though I should.” So I don’t read anything. To be honest, I forgot what it’s like to have fun with these things. It’s seriously disheartening. There was this VN I wanted to check out, but I ended up just getting it in English to see if I can at least have fun with it. But I just feel defeated. Honestly, I feel like giving up, but I know then all my 10-year, slow, slow progress would’ve been for nothing. And that’s if I ‘progressed’ to begin with.

Does any of this makes sense? I’m sorry, I’m just terrible at expressing myself, so I often end up being wordy. I studied linguistics in college so I know the importance of immersion when it comes to language acquisition. But I always feel like I’m not doing enough, even when I don’t know how I’d go about trying to find new methods. Simply put, I don’t know what to do. I wish I could have fun with this thing and appreciate the journey, but sometimes it feels like my goals are just unattainable delusions. I guess I just want a little pick-me-up? Is there anything I could do about this? I don’t want to give up, but if I’m just gonna beat myself over it, is it even worth it in the first place? That’s what I keep thinking.

What should I do?

42 Likes

I get what you’re going through, up to a point. I’m not sure I have any direct recommendations for you, but let me tell you about my experience and maybe it’ll help.

For some background, I’ve been studying Japanese for about 4.5 years. I’ve read 7 books in Japanese and dozens of volumes of manga. I’ve never played any games in Japanese, nor have I seriously tried watching anime without English subtitles.

First, it’s okay to do things in English. It’s not giving up. I recently played Steins;Gate and Steins;Gate 0 (my first VNs), and I played them in English. Because I wanted to relax and have a good time, rather than struggle reading this complex sci-fi narrative in Japanese. Also, the main reason I’ve never seriously attempted to watch anime with Japanese subtitles or without subtitles is because anime is one of my primary means of unwinding. I don’t want to have to think too hard. Should I try to watch more without English subtitles? Probably. But I don’t really care because I’m enjoying myself.

Now onto reading. I can certainly relate to the “I understand all the grammar and words, why can’t I make sense of this” thing. I read a light novel late last year, and I constantly felt lost. I’d read the same sentence over and over and just not be able to make sense of it. It was so bad that I had to read the book in English in parallel in order to follow the story (I’d read each chapter in English after reading it in Japanese). However! I don’t relate to the thought that Japanese is never fun. I sometimes find a book where I can read pages at a time without feeling lost. Yes, I have to look up a lot of words, but if I can read several pages without feeling lost I consider that a win. Additionally, I can truly say that I read manga for fun and not for studying now. Again, I still have to look up words, and yes I sometimes get confused or miss the punchline. But overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and something I look forward to.

So do I have any real suggestions? I suppose it sounds like maybe you’re trying to read the wrong stuff. Maybe you’ve jumped too far into the deep end and haven’t given yourself a chance to ease into reading native material. I can’t really say. It sounds like you need to find some interesting but easier manga/books/VNs to motivate yourself while still having a good time. And as always, I recommend joining a book club, which is a great way to read something while being able to ask for help and discuss the story with others.

40 Likes

Wow, if I were able to do that, I’d consider it job done! What you are able to do now is what I am aiming for! Seriously.

15 Likes

Thanks. I’d say that when it comes to my inability to have fun, it’s not just restricted to Japanese, so I guess I need to work on something deeper in me. I’m often told that I have a ‘spartan’ way of doing things, i.e, either you force yourself to do it, or you won’t do it at all. Which, well, isn’t that effective. Or kind to oneself. Force of habit, maybe? If I could at least have fun with the idea of discovering or enjoying something harder without beating myself up over it, that would be great. Maybe that’s my next goal. A change in mentality? ^^;

7 Likes

Honestly, I would say don`t be too hard on yourself. Dedicating 10 years to anything takes a lot of grit and willpower. Even if it is slow progress. Progress is still progress at the end of the day.

I am no expert and my Japanese has a long way to go.I can only speak from a level as a learner.

I think you should just re evaluate the fun part. What made Japanese fun for you to begin with? Why did you start? Remember that learning a language is a continuous journey. There is no race or need to compare length of time. Find what makes it fun again for you!

Ultimately, I think you just put to much pressure on yourself. Remember everyone’s journey is their own. Be proud of how far you have come and how much time you have already dedicated! You have done so much more than most! Keep your head up and enjoy the journey again!

Im sure some more qualified people will post and give you advice!

I just want to say I admire your dedication thus far and I hope I can stay committed with my language journey as long as you have! Keep up the grind and hope to hear good things from you in the future!

12 Likes

Hey OP, can I just ask, why do you always keep writing “I HAVE TO”? Why do you have to? Because you are holding yourself to a very high standard? Why? Could it be that this standard is the main reason you don’t have fun anymore? Have you ever tried to just not care about your language proficiency and just enjoy whatever it is that you are reading?

20 Likes

I think the first thing that is helpful in such a situation is to acknowledge that many learners experience similar feelings of frustration. There’s quite a bit of research that has been done on how affect influences language learning. Your post reminded me of a case study of students learning Russian through independent study by Brown and White (2010) in which the authors describe the following results with regards to negative emotions (p. 441):

The case studies showed students’ concerns that negative emotions consumed their cognitive resources: powerful negative emotions were experienced as all-consuming, canceling out any ability to focus on the language, to remember target language forms or to process the language in productive ways. The negative emotions were also experienced as being deeply unpleasant, and something to be avoided at all costs, in some cases, with the result that study of the language was avoided, delayed and in the end dropped. […]

Furthermore, the study points to the way emotions are specific to particular domains of language learning, including features of the target language, relationships with instructors, assessments, one-to-one interaction, and the student’s sense of progress. Importantly this finding runs counter to a view of students as having particular, fixed emotional characteristics and reveals instead how emotions arise in relation to particular tasks, settings and learning opportunities, and are mediated by cognitive appraisals of those antecedents.

I’m citing this study first and foremost to illustrate that this is by no means a singular experience. That doesn’t make it less disheartening per se, but I always think it’s helpful to recognize that it’s an issue in language learning that occurs regularly and with all different types of learners.

While that realization may take some of the personal pressure off, it obviously doesn’t solve the problem itself. I agree with the previous posts that the next step could be to find something that is enjoyable first and instructional second – and perhaps it would be a wise choice to go for something new entirely if, for instance, looking at the “backlog” of books you own elicits negative feelings. Although I would like to add that you shouldn’t consider it a “backlog” in the first place – most people’s bookshelves are backlogs of sorts whether the books are in their first, second, or third language.

This may sound simplistic, and is only one of many options, but if you don’t feel like reading, don’t read. You can’t practice all competencies at all times. Pick the one that you think could be most fun, try not to turn what you just identified as potential fun into a “task”, and engage with the Japanese content as best you can rather than attempting to “extract” knowledge from it right away. When I taught a foreign language to adults, I saw learners who had started learning that language 30 years earlier form new, more enjoyable (and ultimately more effective) learning habits. It’s not done in a day, but it’s possible.

Brown, J., & White, C. J. (2010). Affect in a self-regulatory framework for language learning. System, 38, 432–443. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2010.03.016

21 Likes

Hey, that’s me. :slight_smile:

What I’ve done to deal with it is give myself a pass on things sometimes.

Like, when I’m cooking, I’ll have a clip of Japanese TV going on in the background and I’ll just let myself listen to the sound of the language. No pressure to learn or understand, just chopping vegies and listening. Or I’ll watch something like 日本人の知らない日本語 and just listen to the accents without worrying about comprehending or remembering things. The first episode is pretty cool just to hear them talk about the different counters for Tuna and the different kinds of pots.

4 Likes

Metaler, I’m curious about how you tend to use your Japanese outside of books. For example, do you live in Japan? If not, do you have Japanese friends that you regularly interact with, either in person or via video/voice chat or even through Line messages?

2 Likes

Make clear what your goals are. Becoming ‘fluent’ is not a realistic goal unless you live in Japan and make a very serious effort to become so.
You have put a lot of time and effort into this, but don’t trap yourself by falling into the Sunken Cause Fallacy. Just because you’ve spent ten years learning Japanese doesn’t mean you need to spend another ten.
What do you get out of this study and why would you want to continue? Do the costs outweigh the benefits?

As for how to improve. The key, I think, for you right now is to watch LIVE ACTION Japanese TV shows with Japanese subtitles. Stop with this anime stuff, it doesn’t help a lot in my personal opinion. You want to see real people speaking real Japanese, not mouths that don’t match with over dramatic and unnatural language (I’m generalizing about anime).
You should watch Dramas, not movies. Something long, that will keep your attention and where you can get to know the characters very well so you can pick apart their dialects or certain ways of speaking.
I recently watched the first series of Kamen Rider. That’s 100 episodes of live action with Japanese subs, and I understood the vast majority of it (it is geared towards kids after all). I began to see how my favorite characters spoke and why, and I could mimic and talk along with them as I read the subs out loud. This is useful; it is called ‘shadowing.’

Sci-fi materials are largely a waste of time, as are period pieces. The native Japanese novelist/writer has something that Westerners don’t have and that is the power to evoke concepts through the use of intentionally unknown/obscure kanji. We can use science-y words or old sounding words, but it just isn’t the same as when a Japanese person finds an obscure kanji that the reader has never seen in their life. This allows the writer to create new words and to evoke a feeling of ‘other’ that strikes hard to the native reader. For this reason, sci-fi is very bad for learning the language. You want to focus of real words so you can understand when fake or obscure words are popping up.

On another note though: reading 7 books in Japanese is very good and more than a lot of people can or ever will achieve; it is nothing to scoff at. Japanese is one of the most difficult languages in the world for a Westerner to learn, and there is no shortcut to learning it (besides WK ;)).
So…what is your goal?? Do you want to read novels with ease? Do you want to have easy conversations? Do you want to play video games?

You need clear goals that are achievable. Then you need to take clear steps and know why you are taking those steps.
If you don’t see a huge benefit to improving greatly, then don’t. Maintain your Japanese and see it as a hobby that you engage with occasionally. There is nothing wrong with devoting your time elsewhere, especially if there is not a clear real-world benefit to learning the language. Outside of anime and games and travel Japanese doesn’t have a ton of use. I live in Japan now so its necessary, but otherwise it isn’t exactly a vital world language.

My goal is this:
1: I want to be able to read short novels by Tanizaki and Mishima without wanting to kill myself.
2: I want to be able to watch Showa Era movies with Japanese subs and understand most everything said
3: I want to be able to converse easily with strangers in Japanese and make friends without English

I am well on my way to achieving these goals. If and when I do get there, I will reassess, see if it’s worthwhile to increase these goals to something harder or if it isn’t. If I decide it isn’t then I’ll be happy with maintaining and reading those short novels. Its all about expectations and coping with disappointing. Languages are a pain sometimes.

7 Likes

I thought you responded to me instead of OP by mistake, but then you mentioned my 7 novels comment, so clearly you did reply to me on purpose. I’m not really sure why you directed all that towards me though.

9 Likes

Be kind to yourself OP. Instead of goading yourself painfully toward progress, find a happy place and say “I choose to” instead :+1:

4 Likes

Thanks for the replies, everyone. I really appreciate it. I needed a little pick-me-up, like I said. And words of wisdom. ^^;

That is what I’d like to do. I guess being older has made me come to that realization as well. Wanting to re-experience what was once joyful in life, but through the eyes of a more mature adult. Though I would hardly call myself a mature, much less exemplary adult. ^^; But yeah. I want to find joy in life again.

Yep. This is a big problem for me. It’s a viscious cycle, and it’s what I’ve been trying to break out of. It’s hard… I already suffer from pretty bad self-esteem, so a lot of things when it comes my attempts at immersion just roll back to that.

This looks super interesting. Language learning really is a mental struggle, aha.

I used to do that sometimes too. I would often leave a Japanese twitch stream on (I love fighting games, so I tend to follow a lot of the arcade-goers who stream from home) when I’m doing some other task. It’s surprisingly pleasant experience, though I do tend to slip back into the idea that I have to understand every little thing.

I don’t think even traveling to Japan is a feasible goal for me, so I’m just trying to focus on my hobbies and enjoying them on a deeper level. My fear is that I’m just falling behind or not progressing at all. At least on the subject of communicating, I’ve managed to exchange a few basic tweets with people, so I guess that’s something? I get really nervous and embarrassed.

I guess it’s sort of a ‘back-to-basics’ kind of thing, huh? I’d like to do that as well. Rediscover the joy of it. I did have a certain goal in mind, like I said, especially when it comes to reading and recognition. I know real fluency is a pipe-dream, especially with how socially isolated I am, so as I said above, I took up Japanese to try and enjoy my hobbies on a deeper level. Maybe I started seeing those hobbies as a job. It’s complicated. I suppose the real issue is I just wanted to be okay with my learning speed and level, and enjoy it. You mentioned live action dramas, which I’m not quite a fan of, but I do follow live-streamers, so I’ve been more or less exposed to ‘real’ Japanese, aha. =P Those were nice inputs though. Thanks!

Thanks. I needed to hear something like this, as silly as it sounds. ^^;

11 Likes

I wonder if I might offer a different perspective… I am in my 60’s, lived my whole life in America, have an advanced degree, and I’m still learning ENGLISH. Just last week, I had to look up “insouciance”. Learned “shambolic” last month (great word, btw). Several times a week I find myself saying “wait, um, what’s the word for, you know… that thing… uh…” Point is, even languages we are pretty good at we never stop learning.
My second point: I suspect with your history, you are a lot better at Japanese than you think you are. As has been said above, your challenge is to find a way to enjoy the process, and find comfort in the small victories that regularly occur when things (gradually) start to click.

13 Likes

I think I experienced the same thing in my native language, aha. You’re right about that, though. Low self-esteem can be quite hard to break out of. Enjoying the process itself would be a great goal. I’d more at peace with myself in many ways if I could do that, not just with Japanese, but with other activities as well… Which I had dropped before in a similar mindset, such as working out and drawing.

2 Likes

Just as a word of encouragement, breaking through those nerves and interacting with Japanese speakers would probably be quite helpful for helping you progress and work through your discouragement. Also, learning a language, like so many other things under the sun, is sometimes along the lines of “the more you know, the more you realize you only know a little and there still is a lot to learn.”

I’m guessing that you may have improved more than you realize but that you are also realizing that there is more progress to be made.

Perhaps a running metaphor might help. Let’s say you’re running a marathon, and you’ve completed 15 miles! Congrats! You’ve run a 1/2 marathon and you’re well on your way toward 26.2… but you still need to push to keep running the race.

(btw, I’ve run about 1-2 miles of Japanese in this metaphor, lol)

3 Likes

To say I understand what you’re going through might be an understatement. I think a lot of it comes down to having a conscientious personality. There’s already a ton here to read so I’m gonna keep my reply short. My advice is, and this is what I do for myself when these feelings of defeat start to overtake me, to recognize that when we criticize ourselves for not making any progress we’re actually lying. The thing about language as a study, rather than as a tool for a profession let’s say, is that the material is endless. Even if your hobby is reading VNs and your main goal for Japanese is to be able to read a VN at a similar speed to English, the scope of vocabulary, grammar, cultural context and social nuance of what is written is pretty massive when you think about it. That’s why people usually plateau around the casual everyday conversation level when studying a second language. Not to down play that, because that’s definitely an accomplishment in itself, but consuming Japanese media made for Japanese people is a whole other ball game. And I commend anyone who has such a goal with Japanese :slight_smile: The fact of the matter is, it’s easy for diligent people like ourselves to get feel down and discouraged at thinking of how much we’ve yet to learn, but with time and steady commitment we progress. Even if we don’t fully feel like it. Do your best to try and enjoy Japanese when you can, progress is great but when it turns into aiming for perfection it becomes more counter-productive than anything else. So, if you’re making the effort there’s no way you’re not improving, it just seems like it because the more you know, the more you don’t know. Japanese ain’t easy, man. Keep your head up. これからも頑張ろうね!

9 Likes

I also studied linguistics at uni and, until recently, spend decades struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety.

From your linguistics studies, you know about plateaus in learning, about the need to use a great variety of study methods and materials to keep things fresh and dynamic, and about the difficulty of attaining fluency in a non-target-language environment.

I think the disheartened feelings you are experiencing are due almost entirely to your anxiety - it has put negativity blinkers on your understanding of the linguistic process, and is applying all of the rigorous expectations and none of the patience (been there, done that!).

I have come a long way in the last year or so with the help of a GP who actually listens to me, and the body-centred psychotherapist she recommended when I finally got well enough to ask about therapy. I’ve been to numerous therapists over the decades, but this is the first time I’ve really felt I’m getting long-term, sustainable improvement, because it is the first time the physical manifestations of depression/anxiety have been addressed.

I write this in the hope you live somewhere other than the USA where you would have reasonable access to affordable healthcare. If you are in the US or another country where such care is expensive or limited, you could try reading some books, such as Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method by Ron Kurtz, Activate your Vagus Nerve by Dr Navad Habib, and The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: the Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen W. Porges

I wish you all the best! :sunflower:

P.S. I’ve been studying Japanese since 1998.

18 Likes

Thanks for the heads up. ^^ I don’t live in the US, but I’ve been in therapy ever since I was 11 years old myself. I’m not gonna bog down the thread with this but growing up in a difficult, unsupportive environment where I had to pretty much learn the ropes of life (from an existential perspective at least) by myself hasn’t made things any easier. Thankfully, I’ve finally found a great therapist in the last few years and I’ve been whittling down that baggage bit by bit… Though I am slow as a snail, aha. ^^; Amazing how different intellectual and emotional acknowledgment can be. And how all of this gets in the way of language learning! Among other things. ><

12 Likes

I wouldn’t really call myself diligent. I’m just stubborn, really, and I often get stuck with unproductive bad habits. Maybe I’m just good at disguising it! :sweat_smile: I know if I didn’t feel the way I’d do I’d be even more productive and would likely be more willing to dip my toes into unknown territory throughout the learning process.

I appreciate your words though. I know this may sound silly, but reading about similar experiences can put a lot of things into perspective. ^^

4 Likes