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Tips for Overcoming Your Language Study Rut

We all get stuck when studying a language, but it's how you get going again that is key to success.

By 3 min read

To any of you studying the Japanese language with aims to someday be fluent, I’m sure you know the struggle that is studying the language. With tons of context specific words, several phrases that have no English counterparts and around 2,000 or so kanji to learn in order to be able to read any book aimed at adults, the task can be daunting to say the least.

Perhaps you are already aware of these facts and have even made some significant strides in your Japanese study; however, you might feel stuck in a rut to the point where you feel like you aren’t getting any more proficient in the language.

With the exception of the well accepted idea that it is difficult to gauge your own day-to-day progress, perhaps you truly are stuck. If this is the case, here are a few of my tried and true methods for getting out of your rut and back into your language learning groove.

These days, being able to read kanji on a computer is a simple browser extension away. Unfortunately though, unless they are used correctly they can end up being more of a crutch than a help for your kanji study. In other words, what are you going to do if you come across a kanji you can’t read in a book?

部首 (bushu), or the individual radicals which make up kanji, were unfortunately not taught to me in any of my Japanese language classes back in America. It was only until I studied abroad in Japan that I learned them at a Japanese school, and my kanji study became a lot easier.

Even if you come across kanji you don’t know, you can use resources like jisho.org’s “kanji by radical” section where you can select each individual bushu in the kanji ordered according to stroke count. The iPhone app “imi wa?” also provides a similar feature for bushu lookup.

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It is my recommendation to make bushu a priority in your kanji study if you haven’t already, followed by practicing writing them and implementing them into your Japanese speech as much as possible (without forcing them or using them out of context, of course.)

You may come to find that at a certain point grammar study begins to take the back seat and you will realize that vocabulary knowledge is by far the most important in understanding and speaking Japanese with a decent level of proficiency.

While I fully acknowledge the importance of using textbooks and similar study materials as a means of aiding in language study, I consider this but one type of resource—having multiple resources at your disposal will only maximize your success.

I will tell you what I usually tell me Japanese students learning English from private lessons (except in this instance, for Japanese study of course): for both listening practice and increasing vocabulary, watching Japanese dramas (or really any Japanese programming with commonly used speech) with Japanese subtitles will help immensely.

You should use a DVD for your television or a video file on your computer that you can pause and seek with. For each sentence, phrase or word you don’t understand you can simply pause, rewind and listen to the phrase again while reading the subtitles. After that you can use an electronic dictionary to look up the new vocabulary and write it down with your native language’s closest meaning.

After doing this a couple times with the same episode, watch it again with no subtitles. You may come to find that you now understand words and phrases you didn’t know before, and you can begin integration of these into your daily Japanese conversation, be it in Japanese society or a Japanese language class. The kanji from the subtitles should also have been valuable for your study.

What are some of the methods you’ve used for getting past Japanese language learning plateaus?

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  • Michal says:

    Thanks for the tips Kyle, as a fairly new learner of Japanese it’s important to remember to have a few different types of resources to learn and pull from. Kanji is a brand new thing to me, I really appreciate you taking time to write on ways to work on it. I really need to find some good dramas to watch. Can you recommend any?

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      Hmm… the two that immediately come to mind for me are Doctor X and “Furin” (Adultery). They’re two dramas that both ended fairly recently.

      While I haven’t visited there in a while, asianrice.tv might have something up your alley if you want to check some of the categories.

  • Bani says:

    When I studied as a kid in China for a few years, they taught me the radicals first, and back then I knew a decent amount of Chinese kanji. When I got into a Japanese language here in Tokyo, they didn’t teach me the radicals first and I thought that was a really dumb way of teaching. In Chinese at least, each radical has its own meaning and origin, and they’d teach us how it’s derived. I remember at least some radicals even had names of their own (e.g. pang bian). I want to relearn that kind of thing, but for Japanese, but I haven’t been able to find any resources for doing that, really. Jisho has the radicals listed, but not the meaning or w/e.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      I was fortunate enough to have a teacher from the United States that was fluent in Japanese and was something of an expert in kanji and bushu. He made his own texts describing the meanings of all of the radicals.

      Have you ever heard of wanikani.com? It is still in beta and you have to sign up to get on the list to use it, but it has meanings available for kanji and perhaps bushu as well. Other than that, I have been unable to find a good bushu resource online myself that I can refer other people to.

  • Bani says:

    Don’t suppose anyone knows any Japanese sites for subtitles? 😛 I don’t have a TV, so…

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      As I mentioned above, asianrice.tv has a lot of choices, though I have not visited it in a while. I do remember there are subtitles for most if not all of the dramas, so that should help!

      • Bani says:

        No, I mean like actual Japanese. In kanji. I said “Japanese sites”. Those are limited to dramas, too. I’m looking for Japanese anime subtitles. In Japanese. (Obviously, mkv files with .ass subtitle files with furigana isn’t a thing… 🙁 )

  • Kyle Von Lanken says:

    As studying a language has never been as easy as it is now in this more technological age, you have my respect for having studied with much less convenient methods than what are available today.

  • Kyle Von Lanken says:

    I’ve thought about doing the same, though not being brought up in the school system and having it force fed to you as is done with Japanese kids makes the dynamic a lot different. Even using the texts they use, I’ve come to find that having discipline as an adult with a day job and all is the hard part. But if it is something that has worked for you in the past I would be glad to consider it a resource for effective study.

  • Kyle Von Lanken says:

    It definitely takes a lot more efforts when outside of Japan to study the language in an immersive way. I’ve also come to find that studying any kanji in a sentence leads to different words, kanji compounds, phrases, etc. More than anything, passion for the study of the language is what gets your proficiency to higher levels and it sounds like you’ve got it.

  • Kevin Kato says:

    Living in Japan makes learning Japanese easier of course but still, it’s easy to hit that plateau. I have a (good) habit of remembering/writing down Kanji I see on billboards, in newspapers (lots there) and even in junk mail, then looking them up and finding a few words they appear in. This helps in reading, speaking and listening. My writing still seems to stink though… Ganbarou ne!

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      Agreed, being around Japanese all the time is great for study! Your study habits are admirable. Sometimes it is hard for me to drop what I’m doing to jot down a kanji or word in public. Keep doing what you’re doing!

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