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

First of all, apologies if what I’m about to say overlaps with things that others have said so far. I started reading this on my phone, and I just couldn’t force myself to finish reading all the replies. It’s nice to see everyone coming together as a community with suggestions and encouragement.

OK, my impression, both from reading your post and from reading others’ comments, is that you’re someone who’s fairly driven with high standards, and who is often hard on himself/herself with regard to attaining those goals. I believe I can empathise with that, because we share those traits. In my case, however, you might say I had the good fortune of starting Chinese when I was a child, meaning that kanji pose me very few problems, and certain features of Japanese are familiar to me, because the two languages are similar in certain ways, even if they are fundamentally quite different in terms of overall grammatical structure. Nonetheless, I know how consternating it is when you want to improve and you just can’t seem to get anywhere.

Please don’t see things this way. I’m pretty sure that you’ll find my post even longer than yours by the time I’m finished. I literally write essays over messaging apps each time I have a discussion with my best friend, because I always feel the need to give more context for the sake of helping others understand my experience and point of view. I believe that’s what you’ve done here, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You could of course have said, ‘I constantly feel stumped while tackling native Japanese material, even though I usually understand the gist, and I find that depressing,’ but without all the details you provided, none of us would know what you’ve already tried and exactly how you feel. It’s alright to express the full extent of your thoughts.

Analysis of the situation

Returning to the issues that you’re facing… to start with, I understand that 10 years is a long time, which doubtlessly exacerbates the impression of not progressing despite making substantial effort. However, I don’t think your native language is similar to Japanese, and so there’s really no reason to beat yourself up over it. People learn in different ways and at different speeds, and some people just happen to have a default mode of thinking that’s more suitable for a certain field. There’s no shame in getting stuck, and there certainly are plateaus in language learning, particularly as you hit the intermediate or advanced levels, where the knowledge required for further progress becomes increasingly broad and sometimes complex. Perhaps you just haven’t found a method that works for you.

Separately, I feel that you’re placing too much of a burden on yourself. That is, you’re expecting your learning and progress to be driven entirely by the effort you actively make, and you’re choosing methods that require you to put in extra effort in order to learn. You can’t expect your efforts to yield immediate results (again, I know it’s been 10 years, but hear me out), and more importantly, you often need to reach a certain ‘critical mass’ of language knowledge before you’ll start finding certain materials easy to absorb. I studied French before Japanese, so I speak from experience. You may need to accumulate several pieces of knowledge before a single concept becomes clear to you. As for my statements about your choice of methods requiring you to make additional effort, my evidence is the fact that you said you’re not having fun. The ‘studying’ aspect of learning any language is tiring by nature because it requires mental effort: on a typical day spent on an anime which I attempt to watch without subtitles (but with a Japanese transcription open in another tab), I probably go through 50-100 dictionary definitions. When I was studying French, I tapped at least 5 hyperlinks per dictionary definition in an attempt to understand French words that I didn’t already know in the definition of the word I was looking up. I would spend three hours a day on newspaper articles and only get through maybe 3-5 per day, even though the estimated reading time for natives was at most 5 min per article. Language learning requires effort – a lot of it. However, I enjoyed myself because I was passionate about the French language and found it rewarding to understand new words. Plus, the content of the articles interested me, so I didn’t get bored. Another thing I learnt from my experience was that different sorts of material require different amounts of effort: newspaper articles require me to find out what words mean entirely on my own, unless the meaning obvious based on context. Watching Mythbusters in French, on the other hand, allowed me to understand new words fairly easily because the setup was familiar and scientific terms are often similar in English and in French. Certain other videos and movies I watched contained subtitles in English that helped me understand slang or unfamiliar accents. As such, my question to you is, are you picking material that you enjoy? Also, are you choosing material that helps you learn, or are you using only media that places the burden of learning on you? (By the way, to illustrate what I meant about effort not necessarily yielding immediate results: it’s only after a lot of running through transcriptions while using a dictionary and watching anime – even with subtitles for almost everything – that my reading speed began to approach fluidity. The jump came out of nowhere: I decided to reopen my copy of the Tobira textbook in order to polish it off so I could move on to more advanced material, and I discovered that I could suddenly read about twice as fast as I used to, and that’s in spite of the fact that the only Japanese practice I’ve done for months is watching anime and looking up words in transcriptions. Your progress may not always be palpable, but your next big break might be just around the corner, and you may be moving forward without realising it.)

Furthermore, I think that the material you’re using to study Japanese is also contributing to your impression that you’ve reached a plateau, because text-heavy materials like light novels and story-driven games are very broad in their use of language and will require a fairly deep knowledge of Japanese, at least in areas relevant to the story and its setting (e.g. fantasy, sports, science, the Japanese school system), if you want to feel like you’ve ‘fully understood’. The only reason I can read certain pages of the Shield Hero and Konosuba light novels with relative ease is that I know the story and relevant terms well (and in the case of Shield Hero, I’ve read those pages once before). It’s more or less impossible otherwise – I can’t read the vivid descriptions of scenery in Kiki’s Delivery Service without a dictionary, even though it’s grammatically quite simple, because I don’t have the relevant vocabulary. Sure, I have an advantage because I can already recognise almost all the relevant kanji thanks to Mandarin, but that doesn’t change the fact that familiarity with the kind of language used in such a genre of books is necessary. (By the way, having kanji knowledge sometimes handicaps me, because I have a hard time recognising words when they’re not written using kanji.)

Finally, as @Saida has noted, your methods are mainly input-based. I understand that this may be due to your social anxiety, which is something I may not be able to fully appreciate – I’m often rather anxious when communicating in France in spite of my fluency because I’m afraid of being ostracised as a foreigner, particularly if I make mistakes. However, I’m aware that a lot of my fears are unfounded since most of the people I do need to communicate with will forgive me for making errors, and it’s not as though my French is bad. (I shan’t provide evidence of proficiency because it’s not relevant.) Also, my anxiety doesn’t cause me to freeze up all that much, so it may not affect me as badly as yours does you. What I’d like to point out though… is that even natives frequently make mistakes: there are rules that everyone is supposed to follow in French that few people bother with/master (e.g. verb conjugations are one of the biggest headaches for learners of French, including natives), and even Japanese people have trouble with things like kanji or the proper use of keigo.

Suggestions

  1. You may want to consider using material that might be more enjoyable and easier for you to absorb new words from. I believe that you will enjoy anime, since many popular anime are based on light novels and games, including visual novels. Just a few examples of such anime (admittedly not all of them were super popular in their day): Konosuba, Re:Zero, The Rising of the Shield Hero, Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor, Fate/Grand Order (and the rest of the Fate series), Hyperdimension Neptunia, Problem Children Are Coming from Another World?, My Teen Romantic Comedy Was Wrong as I Expected (aka Oreigairu – you may be able to appreciate this story since the main character is a loner who initially has a hard time seeing a point in social interaction and tolerating other people), How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? and many more. Anime is, I believe, a good medium for learning new words, especially when the learner has a decent grammatical foundation, which will allow easy conversion between slang and standard forms, and between casual and polite forms. That seems to be the point that you’ve reached in your journey, and so I think you could give anime a try. I suggest you try watching it with English subtitles (or subtitles in your native language if it isn’t English and if such subtitles are available) so you can get the gist of what’s going on even if you can’t catch all the words in Japanese (which is perfectly normal). Don’t be ashamed or worried if you run into new grammatical structures while watching anime. It happens to me all the time, and I think the main reason I know a good amount of N3 and N2 grammar is the fact that I’ve come across such structures while watching anime. If you run into a new grammatical structure, you can try googling ‘[structure/quote from anime] grammar/meaning’. If you’re not able to figure out what’s been said based on what you hear (again, perfectly normal – no pressure), you can attempt to look for transcriptions on reaction blogs: ‘[anime name] [episode number]話 感想’. (The kanji are read ‘wa’ and ‘kansou’. The whole block means you’re searching for ‘[anime name] episode [number] comments/impressions’.) I usually look for transcriptions on Anicobin (I’m certain of this one) and Gno.izumi (I think that’s what it’s called). Anicobin is usually easier to use. In either case, not every single word is transcribed, and transcription quality varies from anime to anime, but I’d say at least 90% of the dialogue turns up, which is more than enough for a good watch-and-study session. These reaction blogs only show up for anime that aired after 2013 (based on my experience), so you’ll have to rely on your ears and subtitles for anime older than that. If you need a dictionary, I suggest you use https://ejje.weblio.jp (Yes, the webpage will show up in Japanese, but you just need to put something into the search bar in order for it to work. The definitions are in English, and example sentences are usually translated.) in addition to Jisho.org. You can move on to monolingual dictionaries (here are the main sites: Goo辞書 (‘jisho’), Kotobank, Weblio) when you’re more advanced in order to get used to thinking in Japanese alone, but you don’t need to worry about those for now if you don’t feel ready.
  2. An alternative to finding a tutor, if you decide you’re not ready for one (though I think it really is worthwhile to give it a try – I personally benefit from regular exchanges and practice with my good friend, who is a fluent speaker of Japanese), is to find forums on which you can write and receive corrections. WaniKani is one such possibility on which you can create practice threads (here’s an example of a practice thread created by another user: [Beginner non-staff activity] 日常の日記) or join writing activities, like the thematic threads in the beginner’s Japanese section. I’m pretty sure you can do the same thing in the intermediate/advanced section if you prefer that. Other options include the HiNative forums. The advantage of WaniKani is that exchanges can go on for much longer, meaning that it’s easier to have meaningful discussions and to receive clarification. The reason output is helpful is that it allows you to actively retrieve words and structures you already know from your memory, improving your retention and strengthening your sense of how the language works. This will allow you to move structures from the realm of academic ‘book knowledge’ into the realm of deep, intuitive knowledge, since they’ll become familiar to you as you see and interpret them more often.
  3. This final suggestion is based on personal experience and my preferences. It may not work for you, and so I only ask that you consider trying it while being prepared to cast it aside if it is of no help to you. I have a feeling that, like many people who use flashcard systems (I’m not saying that flashcards are necessarily harmful – WK works well for many people, after all –, but I think it has a tendency to make people accustomed to such a mindset), you may be relying on memorising translations and bits of knowledge wholesale. That is, you have a tendency to learn each new structure as a block, together with its translation (e.g. some people memorise 〜ていられない as ‘cannot afford to ~’), relying on repetition alone to drill it into your memory, instead of breaking it down into more manageable chunks and attempting to find links between new knowledge and what you already know. Please don’t take this as a criticism or accusation – that is not my intention, by no means; I’m simply attempting to point out what might be going wrong, especially since flashcards have a structural tendency to atomise knowledge with the aim of creating separate units for easy acquisition. After all, you said that you’re afraid of ‘forgetting everything’, meaning that your current methods leave you with the impression that retention is going to be a lot of work, and perhaps that you’re just going to need to constantly cram an ever-growing pile of information into your head. What I’d like to suggest is that you start looking at Japanese the same way as you probably see your native language: as a set of units of meaning that combine to form more complex, but equally meaningful structures. The question to ask is, why do these phrases and expressions mean what they do? To return to the example I mentioned earlier, there is often no need to mindlessly memorise structures and constantly review what they mean – their meaning can be derived from context and from their components: 〜ていられない (which is a so-called N2 grammar point, making it seem quite advanced) is simply a て-form + the negative form of the potential form of いる. In other words, it’s just a form of 〜ている, which indicates a continuous state, to which one adds an idea of possibility (‘can’) and a negation (‘cannot’). Thus, it literally means ‘cannot be in a state of 〜’, meaning that one cannot stay in such a state, and thus ‘cannot afford’ to do so. This sort of analytical breakdown can be applied to a whole set of complex expressions, meaning that there is often no need to memorise new structures by rote. I may, however, be preaching to the converted, since I suspect you’ve already seen such breakdowns due to your background in linguistics. In any case, I thought it might be a good idea to bring these ideas up, since people sometimes do not apply such knowledge to tasks such as learning kanji, even though they are themselves composed of meaningful units which can facilitate comprehension by being broken down to the intermediate level in order to make use of known connotations, without necessarily requiring a complete breakdown (e.g. it has been suggested on these forums that 帚(ほうき), which appears in 掃除 (そうじ)=the act of cleaning up, be registered as a ‘broom radical’ instead of being broken down into multiple components such as 彐 and 巾 in the construction of mnemonics). Associative memory is a powerful tool, and so making such links should help you on your learning journey, if you haven’t already attempted to make use of them.

I hope my post wasn’t too wordy for you :stuck_out_tongue:, and I wish you all the best. Please don’t give up if you find Japanese interesting – the world’s most prolific polyglot, Alexander Arguelles, was no great shakes at languages in high school. We all have the ability to acquire new tongues, and we simply need to find out what works best for us.

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