Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s a Language Plateau!

When I tell people I’ve been studying Japanese for 5 years now, most of them expect me to be fluent. While this can be reasoned away with a short explanation of difficulties of Japanese for English speakers and my meager beginnings, there’s still a little voice in the back of my head whispering, Yes, but shouldn’t you be?

That voice has gotten progressively louder over the past two years as I’ve been taking proper (rigorous) courses in Japanese since freshman year of college and studying abroad in Japan. I took CET Osaka’s fourth year class last summer and passed with flying colors. While my conversational ability and listening comprehension sky-rocketed, my reading comprehension had not improved enough to land me in Yale’s fifth year Japanese class. However I did have a chance to audit the class and it wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the material, but it was that I couldn’t properly express my own opinions on more serious issues such as politics. So, sophomore year I took Yale’s fourth year Japanese class along with those who hadn’t studied abroad (ouch, my pride) in which I also performed relatively well because I invested so much time into memorizing kanji and writing example sentences like a good student. However it became pretty apparent that I was learning kanji and vocabulary to get the grade, not to dedicate those words to memory. I was reading to get the gist so I didn’t look dumb in class, not to deeply understand. I did enough to get by, but not  enough to make permanent improvement. To this I thought, “Well, my attention is so divided because I’m working on so many other classes/projects/clubs. I simply don’t have enough time right now…” It was easy to forgive myself when I was acing the class.

Now I’m studying abroad in Japan yet again and the error of my ways is glaringly apparent. Though technically I’ve taken fourth year Japanese twice I’m stuck in Nanzan’s fourth year Japanese class AGAIN. With people who just started learning Japanese two or three years ago (how do you like that cookin, pride?). I’m not doing poorly, but my performance hardly reflects the time and energy I’ve invested into Japanese thus far. In class I see kanji and grammar structures that I’ve seen before or that I used to know. If I have to learn how to present graphs and charts in Japanese one more time I think I’m gonna scream. I should be able to understand the news with high percent accuracy or give an impromptu speech on a familiar topic in class without it turning to gibberish halfway through.  My language learning experience now is one big deja vu: Haven’t I done this before?! Why haven’t I gotten it?

What am I doing wrong?

It’s sad that it took me this long to realize that I’d hit a language plateau and I’ve probably been stuck on one for the past calendar year despite taking more challenging classes. Thanks to our good friend Google, I learned that I’m not the only one who hit a brick wall in language learning. There are tons of personal blogs posts and academic-sounding articles (with graphs!) from people who have hit the same brick wall but after some self-reflection took a few steps back a deep breath, a nap, a bowl of Wheaties and vaulted themselves over it. I’ll spare you the inspirational details and cheesy motivations (if you want them, click here and here) but by surfing through these websites I’ve found a few useful things:

Japanese language learning has become routine. I have been stuck in a classroom the past two years taking kanji and vocabulary quizzes, reading short stories and articles aloud and answering reading comprehension questions. Sure, teachers are doing their absolute best to vary the material and projects (to include speeches presentations popular media, so on and so forth) and while it was challenging and new at first, once I mastered the motions to get through Japanese class, I figured my Japanese was good enough, so I subconsciously stopped trying to get better.

The general attitude during this “autopilot” mode is: My Japanese is good enough for the teacher and native speakers to understand the gist of what I’m saying, so that’s good enough. This attitude was only cemented last summer when I realized I knew enough Japanese to get by in Japan or watch a movie completely in Japanese. Wasn’t that the goal? No one in Japan expects my Japanese to be perfect and no one is going out of their way to talk to me about deeper topics like international politics, Japan’s aging population or social hierarchy, so why should I bother in the first place? I don’t even talk about those things in English.

Which leads to another good point mentioned in both articles: marginal benefit, and diminishing return: “The law of diminishing returns is actually taken from the field of economics, but when applied to language learning it means something like this: the more effort you put into learning a language over time, the smaller your increases in fluency become. The more time you invest, the smaller your returns on investment become.” (From Lingholic.com)

The Japanese I’ve been learning the last calendar year has been grammar, vocabulary and kanji found in newspapers or academic articles. As great as it is to learn these words for the sake of literacy, I simply don’t use the grammar in everyday conversations and especially because I don’t live in Japan, these are not kanji and vocabulary I would encounter on a daily basis. So I get less use (“return”) out of these words, and I’m more likely to forget them as opposed to basic vocab and grammar structures.  It’s like taking a step forward only to be pushed three or four back. And it sucks.

A lot of people give up at this point, apparently, and I certainly understand why. Every day I ask myself if I really want to continue. Is it necessary for me to be perfectly fluent to land a job? Can’t I just be happy with where I am now?

…But wouldn’t it be a shame to come this far only to stop? I don’t think I could live with myself if I did throw in the towel. I would probably run into this same problem with other languages (like Korean) so it would probably behoove me to learn how to divide and conquer now.

This requires some thinking, planning and re-assessment: I’ve got to rekindle my motivation for learning Japanese, isolate my weaknesses and tackle them one at a time. Find some new study methods. Keep it interesting. Hopefully there will be a series of posts mapping out my divide and conquer strategy. We’ll see.

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