Learn Advanced Japanese: 10 Tips to Power Through Plateaus
After several years in Japan, I hit a plateau.
I figured, “Okay, I can speak enough Japanese to get around, follow conversations and make friends, so that’s good enough.”
It’s true that my Japanese had come a long way, but there’s no finish line to learning a language.
Here are nine ways that you can keep improving your Japanese skills when you feel like you’ve hit a wall.
- 1. Use a Japanese Dictionary
- 2. Work on Weak Skills
- 3. Keep a Journal
- 4. Do Activities in Japanese
- 5. Use Japanese at Home
- 5. Try Online Japanese Immersion with FluentU
- 7. Take a Class in Japanese
- 8. Take Part in a “New Vocabulary” Challenge
- 9. Learn New Kinds of Japanese
- 10. Create Daily Japanese Speaking Time
- Learn Japanese the Japanese Way
- The Plateau Is All in Your Mind!
1. Use a Japanese Dictionary
If you’ve been using a Japanese-English dictionary, now’s a good time to switch to one that’s only in Japanese. When you need to look up a new word, look it up in Japanese instead of English. This presents a nice challenge for your Japanese skills and you’ll also learn some new words and phrases from the definitions. The more advanced you become, the more useful this will be for you. By learning what a Japanese word means in Japanese, you can catch nuances you won’t get from a Japanese-English dictionary definition, which is really a kind of translation.
2. Work on Weak Skills
No matter how long you’ve learned Japanese, there are undoubtedly things you struggle with. When the learning seems to be going slowly, focus on these weak points and dig deeper into the words and phrases that cause you trouble. It’s not always important to learn new things. Sometimes we need to focus on the things we know in order to learn how to use them in a more appropriate way.
3. Keep a Journal
Start keeping a journal in Japanese. It can be electronic if writing isn’t your thing or would slow you down too much. Every day, sit down and write about the things that happened to you that day or what’s going on in your life. As you write, you’ll stumble upon words, phrases and ideas that you don’t know how to express in Japanese. This is a good way to learn not only new words, but words that are useful and relevant in your life.
4. Do Activities in Japanese
Take an activity that you currently do or want to do, and do it in Japanese. It could be playing a sport, playing music, cooking, hiking or any other free-time activity that you have. This is much easier to do if you actually live in Japan, but if you don’t, try hooking up with your local Japanese community or exchange students. Remember that you can also do some activities like playing video games online.
5. Use Japanese at Home
Make Japanese part of your everyday life at home. Perform the routine things you do each day—like brushing your teeth, watching the news or cooking—in Japanese. Narrate to yourself what you’re doing. It’s very awkward and strange at first, but you’ll learn a surprising amount of vocabulary your textbooks didn’t teach you, and this is stuff you can use in your daily life.
5. Try Online Japanese Immersion with FluentU
We all know that immersion can really catapult your learning. But what are you supposed to do if you’re not in Japan?
There’s a way that you can experience Japanese immersion without jumping on a flight: FluentU.
With FluentU, you don’t have to waste time looking for good content, looking up words in your dictionary, or managing your flashcards. It’s all in one place so that you can focus on just learning Japanese.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
7. Take a Class in Japanese
It may sound crazy, but taking a Spanish language class in Japanese improved my Japanese more than my Spanish. Try taking a class in Japanese. Again, this is much easier to do if you’re actually in Japan, but there are online options. You could also watch YouTube videos teaching how to do something in Japanese. If you’re interested in Japanese culture, this is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. You can learn about Japanese traditions in the actual language itself, rather than through an English translation. This is a great challenge for your brain, and like the tip above, you’ll learn a surprising amount of new vocabulary.
8. Take Part in a “New Vocabulary” Challenge
Challenge yourself to learn X number of new vocabulary words per day. No matter how far you get into a language, you should never stop learning and drilling vocabulary. After all, you’ll never know every word in the Japanese language. Creating a challenge and setting a minimum for daily new words is a great way to make sure you keep learning new stuff.
9. Learn New Kinds of Japanese
Try learning a new type of Japanese. You can study keigo, a polite form of speech used to show respect. Try studying a dialect like Kansai-ben or Tohoku-ben. Study older dialects of Japanese speech from historical dramas and learn to talk like a samurai. Learn the latest slang used by the kids in trendy Harajuku. There is a huge variety of Japanese registers, dialects and manners of speaking, all of which help you improve your standard Japanese as well.
10. Create Daily Japanese Speaking Time
The real danger of hitting a plateau is that, like me, you think you’ve got it all figured out and then you quit studying altogether. In my case, even though I’d been living in Japan for five years, my Japanese started slipping! How could you be such a moron that your Japanese ability actually starts to decline—while living in Japan!?
There’s nothing moronic about it. I just stopped studying or spending any time at all focusing on Japanese. I thought it was enough to just hear it and use it casually every day.
Even if you’re immersed in Japanese, it’s good to spend some time each day focusing on it. Decide on 30 minutes a day (or whatever you can spare) and speak only Japanese, preferably with someone else. This is a very simple way to keep your skills from slipping and make some improvement.
Learn Japanese the Japanese Way
Now that you’re an advanced speaker and can find your way around using the Japanese language just like a native speaker, try learning the language like a native speaker. Japanese students study kokugo (国語 – こくご), which is what we’d call English or Language Studies; in other words, studying your own language.
There are lots of books, websites, apps and even TV shows that are designed to help Japanese people sharpen their native language skills. These present a particular challenge to non-native speakers and can really help you improve, no matter how advanced you are.
The Plateau Is All in Your Mind!
During the course of learning a language, you’ll hit plateaus where you feel like you’re not learning anything new.
But here’s something that’s important to remember: The plateau is imaginary.
During all of the time you spend exposed to a second language, you’re always either learning something or becoming more familiar with it.
So start using these nine tips today, and make it a habit to keep studying and learning—even when you can’t feel the steady progress you’re making.
You’ll advance off of that plateau. Upwards and onwards!