Getting past that early "in the dark" hump

I’m about three weeks into studying Japanese in earnest (though, given I only have so much extra free time each day, I can’t devote as much time as I’d like) and despite having my kana down and spending some time with Memrise, Pimsleur, and now LingoDeer, and getting through Level 3 on WaniKani; and despite a lot of interest and motivation and years of enjoying and being fascinated by Japanese art and culture, I’m still, unsurprisingly, very much “in the dark.” Japanese as a language still feels almost entirely opaque to me. It’s frustrating but I try to remind myself this isn’t like when I started learning Spanish, where it being a Romance language leaves a lot of sign posts for an English speaker. With Japanese … I don’t have my sign posts, or little lights in the dark.

I knew tackling Japanese would be a lot tougher than Spanish, but I guess I could use some encouragement. For those who broke past this early stage of everything still feeling so cryptic, how long did it take to start feeling some ease? How did you push through in the meantime?

It’s funny, I feel like I’m falling in love with this thing (Japanese) that is still almost entirely a mystery to me. I go to sleep at night with Japanese syllables flying around my brain, like its babbling to myself, but right now, it’s almost all darkness. And yet, I’m very motivated. And frustrated. All at the same time.

Others were here too, right? :smiley:


One thing that I’ve found helps is to keep going until you recognize something. I started reading Beastars (in English) a couple of months after starting WK, and when I was finally able to make meaning out of simple phrases written in kana with maybe some simple kanji, I was hooked. That first jolt of adrenaline you get when you read/hear something and understand it is incomparable to any other feeling I’ve felt while learning Japanese.


English speakers actually get lots of loanwords for free in Japanese. It’s a small percentage of all words, but many are used frequently. Of course, these are very rarely written with kanji, though some do have kanji associated with them.

Additionally, some words from other languages that are close to English are also fairly easy to understand.


Actually come to think of it, I’ve finally been watching Neon Genesis Evangelion now that it’s on Netflix and the other night I was distinctly recognizing all the number words. Seems like such a small thing but I was very happy with myself, given how little else I was picking up! I’ll take it!


Literally everyone has been there with at least one language. As in, that’s probably pretty much exactly what infants go through with their native language.

Look at it this way. At WK level 3, you’d know about 200 words. It feels like a lot, and it takes a lot of work to get there… but in your native language, you probably knew that many words before you could even walk. You’re looking at Japanese with an infant’s level of understanding, so it’s not surprising at all that it feels like nothing but babble to you.

The average four-year-old English speaker, according to one source, knows about 5000 words. That’s not that far short of the total number of words you’ll learn in all sixty levels of WK. In other words, going by vocabulary count alone, it takes a whole lot of work to get to even a four-year-old’s level of understanding. It’s intimidating to think about it that way, sure… but it’s also a good reason to be gentle with yourself. Learning languages is hard. It was hard the first time, and it will be hard subsequent times too. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well.

And, on the other hand, look at it this way. It probably took you about eighteen months to learn 200 words in your native language. Learning 200 Japanese words in three weeks means you’re doing pretty good by comparison, right?


Probably after a few weeks of solid Japanese beginner classes when I was studying in Tokyo in 2011 as an exchange student. We (myself and four other exchange students from the same university) started from scratch, absolute zero! (We were all Finance and Business Majors). We were taught entirely in Japanese by a lovely Japanese lady, she taught us hiragana and katakana - FAST!!, then we were hit with small readings or short dialogues. Like there was one ‘at the convenience store’ with a dialogue between the staff and customer. It was about 1.5 months-in and were all like, damn, I can actually read this stuff and understand it, and then go out and use it, and be understood. It was very powerful and a strong motivator.

After that, I remember plateauing, the sheer number of kanji meant zero reading comprehension outside of the class. The disappointment of not being able to understand the adverts on the train during the 45min-long commute back to our dorms really frustrated us. We’d be like, katakana, something, something, something, hiragana…what the hell does that mean?

You’ll probably go through various peaks and troughs as you continue on your learning journey. The signposts get easier to navigate, and more light is shed upon them, however, the feeling of being lost is always around the corner, simply reading a difficult passage can often do that due to me now, not being to read/understand the meaning of kanji/vocab. So start with material at your level and make sure you get exposure outside of WK which will help solidify your learning. Good luck!


I watch TV Japan and I get so excited when I see a sign in Kanji I have just studied. It is so motivating. One night I had just learned the kanji for west exit, and not 20 minutes later, I saw it on a TV show at an arena.


I totally felt that way with Japanese and it hadn’t happened to me with other languages either.
I’d say now that I’ve been at it for a little over a year I’m starting to not feel completely lost, to understand more than just some loose words and basically feeling a little more comfortable with it.
I guess it depends a lot on how much work you put into it though. I do wk and bunpro everyday and then some other things when I have time.
I’d say it’s normal that you feel this way and that you’ll totally get out of it even if right now it might seem like you’ll never be able speak a word (;


The first way I started noticing any progress was by listening to music in Japanese and every once in a while going, “I KNOW THAT WORD.”
I found it really motivating to listen to music and have my understanding expand gradually.


I’m about two months in and I’m starting to get to the point where sentences make more sense. Personally I’d say accepting that the start will be slow is the easiest way, and after a while you’ll just notice things coming together more.

Edit: I started Bunpro about a week ago and that’s certainly helped. Don’t regret not starting it earlier though. I think knowing quite a few of the words it’s using helps.


tl;dr: It’ll take a couple of months to feel more at ease (you’re already moving faster than I did), but engaging w/people/materials in Japanese will help you get through. You’re making more progress than you think!

You’re in a pretty good spot for going from 0 to 漢字 (kanji) in 3 weeks! sorry for the difficult kanji in the word kanji; it’s a little ironic
I started WaniKani about a month after I came to Japan being able to read (most of the) hiragana and say the most basic of introductions/sentences. After gwtting down both kana, WaniKani felt like a breath of fresh air as I started to make sense of the world of kanji around me. Once you start learning more kanji and listening to Japanese, you’ll better understand how the language works and flows.

But, I still struggled for a few months. Japanese is very different from English in many ways: word order, particles, vocabulary, etc. It took a lot of effort to get to a point where I felt comfortable getting around Japan with more than just the absolute basics (I’d say at least 4 months). All that said, I’m a slow leveler and was working full time, and once I got a Japanese teacher, it only took about 2-3 months from that point to feel much more comfortable.

To piggyback off of @Leebo, there are a lot of foreign loan words that will help you get around (for example, many things about electronics, Western things in general, トイレ). It’s kind of like when you start learning Spanish and people try to say an English word w/a Spanish accent or add -o/a to the end - sometimes it’s a word in Japanese, sometimes it isn’t. If it doesn’t come from a language you know, though, it can even be confusing for very advanced Japanese speakers, like the time a friend and I went to an Italian restaurant in our city and almost all of the pastas/types of pizza were filled with tons of Italian loan words.


Rant warning! The main advice is at the bottom in the block quote.

Learning a new language is a life time journey. I started out by self studying for a few months and then I started uni. At uni I took first year Japanese and was feeling on top of the world since I was ahead of everyone else and it helped solidify my current knowledge at the time.

During my sophomore year I studied in Osaka for a year. Once again feeling on top of the world. I was picking up Japanese daily and learning a lot of things really fast. I was talking to people and having conversations with them in Japanese. Of course at times I would be hit with some weird Kanji or grammar point and be absolutely lost. But I kept trucking a long.

My junior year I was back in the States and I was way ahead of my peers so I didn’t need to study at all and was the shining student in the class as I knew everything already. My senior year was mostly the same. But I lost a lot of Japanese by not using it during this time back in the States. Knowledge that I once knew was fuzzy or gone.

Now I am back in Japan, working and studying everyday. My Japanese is getting a lot better than were it was before I moved back here. I get to practice everyday and I am also forced to use Japanese due to the people around me not speaking English. It is a struggle at times but it only helps me improve.

Why I tell my story is because it is how I view learning something. You have periods of you can only go up. At some point things can plateau or even fall down slightly. But with some perseverance you can continue to improve.

Learning Japanese is like climbing a mountain. In the beginning you can only go up. You may not be able to see the top from the bottom but you have to start somewhere. At times you may come to a peak and be happy about where you are to only see that it is a false summit and some new grammar throws your previous knowledge around a little bit causing you a slight slump down. Now, even though you may have gone down you are still up in the mountain and you can continue climbing until you reach the true summit.

Also learning a new language can be very humbling as the more you know the more you realize how much you don’t know, and that is ok. Keep trucking along good buddy.


This is exactly the sort of shared experience and encouragement I was hoping for. Thanks so much everyone! Great reminder to be gentle with myself, and that this “in the dark” phase is just how it has to start. Thankfully, it’s also been a lot of fun so far. :grin:


I distinctly remember being at a phase probably a bit further along than you but feeling something similar: I felt that while I was learning new words all the time and could often read short sample sentences, texts of any actual substance or length felt insurmountable to me.

I remember reading a longer example dialogue in Tae Kim’s grammar guide where part of the translation was something like “even though I’ve studied a lot, Japanese still doesn’t make sense to me”. I was thinking that, yeah, this is how I feel too. It was worried that I might never get past this stage, since I couldn’t really see how at the time.

Well, I’m happy to inform you that there was no need for me to worry, nor was I doing anything wrong. I just kept on studying and eventually I could read graded readers, then simple manga, then video games, then novels.

So yeah, keep on ganbatting and the darkness shall pass! :slight_smile:


If you’ve got some free time I think the Japanese Ammo with Misa beginner videos are a really good gentle introduction to grammar. - free on youtube


Yes, definitely. Also, for me, Japanese From Zero (videos, and online version of their book) has been very helpful - it gave those very basic foundation/building blocks. I didn’t know about Misa back then. But wholeheartedly recommend both.


when i started, many, many moons ago, i decoded facebook posts (rikaichan ftw) and tried to answer in japanese.
yes, i produced lots of cringe worthy bs, but you have to start somewhere.

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I was watching Fairy Tail and one of the characters had kanji written on his face saying up down left right and I recognised it and was excitedly telling my husband who indulged my unnecessary exuberance. Also despite being super crappy at grammar, I could pick out familiar words in the conversations and could even picture the kanji that they used based on the subtitles of what they are saying. It’s fun at the moment for me because I can see genuine progression. To the point where I get irritated when I see furigana in my textbook because hey I know that word I don’t need no furigana lol.

I wonder how long it’ll last though…hopefully till I burn everything at 60 :cold_face::see_no_evil:


Having just started myself I feel pretty overwhelmed too, I’ve taken about 17 days on level 2 granted most of it was being stuck on Vocabulary of level 1. Living in an predominantly English speaking country makes it a little more difficult, since I can’t really expose myself to Japanese as much as I’d like to.

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This was a really great thread in which several folks spoke to the experience of when the japanese language began to take root in them.

I’ve been thinking on your question since you created this thread because I am trying to distinctly remember when I felt really in the dark and why right now everything feels really good. I’ve wanted to learn japanese since I was about 8, but only became really serious about it this august. And of course in that span of time I felt lost in relation to the language. But since I made learning japanese an integral part of my life, its been quite some time when I felt in the dark about it.

Even though i’ve only seriously been studying it for about 4 months now. I think the biggest change is my level of emotional involvement. The happiness I get when I hear a japanese word I just learned in a song, or the surprise & elation when I guess the meaning of a kanji before I put it in Jisho…or the silliness I feel for mistaking a kanji or mispronouncing words. I think for me, I found a way to be enchanted by the learning process so that it feels really enjoyable for me.

I don’t mind being lost in general…I think what I don’t like most is waiting. So as I wait for the SRS to do its thing I fill up my time with lots of japanese media, articles, culture, podcasts, travel vlogs, photos, japanese twitter, food, etc. I have an obsessive type of personality, so I think that’s why I pushed through the darkness quick.

But i’m still in the pleasant levels on WK so, you know, I could hate my life and everyone around me after level 11.