Hello from the Intermediate Plateau™. Has anyone got a map out of here?

I’ve been living in Japan coming up to two years this September. I was at a Japanese language school from the time I moved until August last year, and I passed N2 in December. The marks suggest it was a comfortable pass - though I did not feel very comfortable about passing it at the time.

Since that time, I don’t really feel like I’ve made any significant process. I work a job with exclusively Japanese colleagues, I have two native-speaker language exchange partners, I’m watching TV shows in Japanese (with Japanese subs) and playing JRPGs in Japanese as well (Dragon Quest XI and Skies of Arcadia at the mo). I’m also plugging away at a shadowing textbook and, of course, WaniKani too. But I still just… don’t feel like I’m getting any better.

Worse, I feel like I’m not enjoying those activities as much as I used to because I’m frustrated at my lack of progress. I feel like I miss all the significant plot points in the shows I watch, understanding only the basic conversation that occurs around it. I have to check my phone dictionary constantly while playing games; reading in general is still a massive slog. And my exchange conversations are still stilted to hell and back. (Let’s not even consider my workplace language use…)

Am I a slow learner? Am I being misled by the lack of a structured curriculum to measure progress against? Am I doomed to spend eternity in this frustrating limbo of ‘almost kind of not really’ understanding?

What tips have others got for getting out of this slump?


People are saying that keeping up at consuming native material plus a right amount of deliberate study is what will get you through the plateau. I think I agree with that. Note that you wrote yourself that you “don’t really feel like” you’ve made any significant progress - that doesn’t mean there’s no progress. It’s just harder to notice and measure since now you already know a lot (learning 100 words could mean doubling the knowledge for a beginner, but for you it’ll just be a fraction). I think that at this point progress is not something that you’ll feel but rather something that you’ll realize at some point.

Maybe trying defining some measurable goals that will indicate your progress? Another option could be trying something that’s out of your reach now and keeping coming back to it, say, once a month while continuing your studies? There will be a time when that thing will turn out to be just challenging :slight_smile:


I’m far from even being intermediate in Japanese, but yeah, constant exposure DOES help.

I was REALLY bad at watching English shows without subs, but I forced myself to do it again and again and again. And it kept getting better in the long run.

There is no reason for that not to work with Japanese, you’re on the absolute right track :slight_smile:


Well, first things first, great job on getting to where you’ve managed to get. In my experience, I’d say you’re past the hardest part, but it’s not like I’m done with my journey either so maybe some real scary shit awaits us towards the end.

One thing I want to mention just in case you didn’t know is that if you want to improve your listening I would turn off the JP subs. You can flip them on and off to check how well you’re hearing whats actually being said, but I would call watching shows with jp subs closer to reading practice than listening practice honestly. If you want to improve your reading more, then by all means keep them on though.

I’m going to focus more on this because reading is one of the things I feel more comfortable giving advice around. So in my experience and opinion, vocab is like a huge killer around this area. If we are going to call a single word something that has a unique dictionary entry, then I would plot the timeline as looking something like this

As you can see, going from roughly where your at to comfortable reading is really like 14,000 words and a bit of grammar apart, but the actual benefit is just looking up stuff less. In terms of actual “feeling”, thats not a huge jump for that amount of work so a lot of people feel like they plateau.

What I did and recommend people do to get over this feeling for reading is focus on one series at the start. Learn a lot of words from that series and get used to the writing style. Individual series and authors tend to stick to similar words and writing styles, so you’ll notice more improvement quicker. Personally by like the third book with like a bit over 2000 words learned from that series I noticed notable improvement


Just keep doing what you are doing. The more you hear native speed language, subconsciously your brain will pick up on it. If you can see whenever a certain topic is being talked about, people tend to use a particular set of words. Listen and take it all in, at the end of the day it is all practice.

The biggest benchmark will be your progress over time. Let me try and give you an example. I play BJJ probably 4x a week. I train with the same black belts day in and day out. I do my best to survive, occasionally getting in a good lick or two. I had a friend I train with who had to go out of state for work for a year. When he finally came back and we had a chance to train together I could easily best him although we were training the same amount of time. He said I was so much better and almost seemed like a completely different fighter, yet me who trains almost everyday felt like I was on the same plateau and was not advancing. This is you, although you feel you are running in place, if you keep at it in a year, or 6 months the things you are struggling to read or listen to will just kind of make sense. Keep up the good work.

I hope that helps.



I agree with this as well. For me, it was really hard to see my progress day to day, week to week. But then I realized that two years ago it was difficult to read 15-20 pages of a book per week and now I can read 100+ pages per week. Looking at it that way, it’s easier to see the progress I’ve made. It’s probably the same for you @danstan21, even if it’s a bit hard to notice.

@Vanilla That graph you made is super scary! I think I’m still solidly in the intermediate section though. I feel like my reading ability is definitely more than just “doable”, but it’s definitely not “very comfortable” and I still use a dictionary a lot (in technical terms, it ranges from “a bunch” to “a ton” depending on the book :laughing:). My grammar is also still a bit shaky. I only formally studied through N3 grammar. I probably have seen most N2 grammar, and a bunch of N1 grammar, but there are a lot of gaps and nuance I’m missing. Not to mention a handful of grammar points I see all the time that just won’t stick. At some point I need to change my learning strategy for both grammar and vocab, as my current approach is too slow. But I just don’t have to time to work out a new routine right now, so I’m sticking with slow and steady for the time being. Hopefully later this year I’ll be able to change things up a bit though.


Lol, well to be fair keep in mind that the 20k word estimate is for any word that has a dictionary entry. So that means every katakana word that you don’t really need help with and other easy to know words that you don’t have to actually study. Although at the same time, knowing 20k words is a lot harder than having studied 20k words anyways since you forget a lot.

But yeah, a lot of words you end up learning past like the halfway intermediate mark realllly just are maybe used once a book on average if even that. So that feeling of progress really slows down since you’re not using what you recently learned as much. Personally, I’m always amazed when I learn a word and see it within days after nowadays. In fact, its so rare and memorable that I can tell you the three times its happened in the past 8 months or so: 豹変、犬歯、卑猥.

But…learn 10,000 things that are occasionally useful and you’ll come across one of those 10,000 everywhere you look.


To be fair, if I have to stop and sound out the katakana word, it’s still a hindrance to a smooth reading experience. Maybe that doesn’t count as “don’t really need help with”, but I feel like I have to sound out the majority of katakana words. :sweat_smile: Could just be a bias there though. I’ll have to watch out next time and see if I’m overstating the issue.

Others have touched on this a bit, but one thing I do to gauge progress is have something easy to read that I refer back to every so often. For me it’s the Momotaro story.

It’s been easy to read for a while now but whenever I feel like something is particularly tough, it’s nice to read through something with ease to refresh.

Haha so true.

Just yesterday I was hit with カリキュラム, シチュエーション, and エスカレート all within a few pages of each other. :joy:


Any advice for figuring out katakana words I don’t know, even if it is a loanword from English? I feel so dumb sometimes, saying the katakana word over and over out loud and still not knowing what it is until I throw it into a translator and it is blatantly obvious. Do I just need more exposure, or is there something I’m missing?


Nah just look those up. Honestly, it happens to all of us lmao.

Like with time you’ll definitely get better as you get used to how they japanezify stuff, but there will always be some katakana words that you won’t get until you see the translation. The good news is that usually when you look them up, they become pretty easy to remember the next time you see it. Its really worsened by the fact that there are plenty of katakana words that you would never be able to guess anyways, so you may be sitting there trying to think of what it is when you don’t actually know. Like I came across ハイビスカスエキス and have never heard of hibiscus before so it would just be a waste of time to try and think it through.


The meaning of katakana words is sometimes really hard to guess. My teacher once wrote フィードバック and I read it as fight back. :rofl:


I’d look them up just in case. Some words have unexpected meanings. For example ナイーブ means sensitive, not “naive”. Dogen mentioned that he had a fight with his girlfriend because he thought she called him naive, while she actually meant sensitive.


I remember that! Right as I saw ナイーブ I knew what you were about to say, hahaha. That’s a good point. Looks like looking up is the way to go.


This right here. I read manga in Japanese, but either with an English or Portuguese (my native language) translation nearby, so I can immediately compare the two of them whenever I don’t get something. The translation gives me hints and I think hard on the whole thing. If I went Japanese only, it would be way harder and slower. Think of it as training wheels.

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I recommend trying to take dictation. It’ll sharpen your listening skills to eventually start picking up on those things you missed. It’ll also help your production. When you encounter a new word/phrase you think could be useful, write an example sentence and ask a native speaker, a teacher preferably, for feedback.

Use a short YouTube video with good captions from a teacher or section off a few minutes of a movie or program, again with professional Japanese subtitles.


I’m sure that I’m just repeating what other people put better but the way I see it there are 3 points to keep in mind.

  1. You are not actually on a plateau, it just feels that way.
  1. The intermediate stage is going to be where you will spend the most amount of time in your japanese studying process, depending on how you see it. The way I see it “advanced” stage, I.E reading fluently, isn’t “studying”. Of course you are still learning but it’s not a struggle in the same way. So get comfortable and buckle up for the longest and possibly most frustrating part of the journey.

  2. If you really do feel like you are stagnating and not improving in the pace that you want, maybe consider picking up the WaniKani pace? I’m racing right now and I see the new kanji I study constantly in my immersion and that is really rewarding. I’ve taken a look at your profile and I’m just guessing but it looks like you don’t level up at max pace?

Having a bunch of native speakers in your surroundings is great for a beginner, but eventually they will know what words and grammar structures you know and don’t know. At least in my experience people try to speak to you in a way that will make you understand the message (of course). Thus they’re not really saying anything new and it doesn’t teach you anything.**

**Of course the interaction will teach you some things, but not as much as it used to and not as much as more difficult immersion would.


Wow, thanks everyone - some really great advice here. I could definitely be a little more structured / proactive with using my current immersion materials for learning, so I will take on board the practices recommended here. More than anything else, it’s reassuring to know that this is a recognised stage of learning - and I’m not (necessarily!) doing anything wrong.

Guilty. :shushing_face: I got burned out on WaniKani towards the end of last year, so I resolved to stop lessons for a while once I reached level 30 to focus on consolidation / leech-squashing. As of about two weeks ago I started lessons again.


Currently in this plateau, and has been for the last 2 years at least.

As other said, one thing that really helps me stay motivated is tracking the number of word I know. This way, even if I feel like I made no progress at all for the last few years, I can take a look at this number and have a proof that’s not the case.

Started at 8k words, currently at 13k, 7k to go I guess. But reading does get a tiny bit easier over time.

TLDR: just keep doing what you’ve been doing and be patient.

This graph is super interesting, thanks!

I know it’s probably different for everyone and all that, but how long do you think it takes for the average Japanese studying person to get from that “everything is still kinda hard and feels like studying” point to the “light novels are comfortable and easy to read” point?

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