July is the month of Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and if you’re taking the exam, I wish you all the best! Now if you’re not terribly gifted in linguistic like me, you’ll realize that the first learning curve will be extremely steep–you will soon be able to ask for services, order food and navigate public places without any help. As soon as you start to go deeper like watch Youtube videos and actually understand it, express emotions and not merely facts in conversation, or just simply connect with people, you realize that you don’t progress as fast as you did. You get quite comfortable by only understanding about 20% of what’s going on, you get used to ignore everything that’s written in kanji, and unfortunately you risk also feeling complacent that you’ve made enough effort.
Being an “upper beginner” or “intermediate” language learner sucks and unfortunately, it took me a while until I found a system, a “method to the madness” that helps me to work my way into fluency. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. These steps work for me, but they may not work for you. However, if you have tried other methods without success, you could try these steps too and let us know how it goes in the comment section!
5 Steps I took to Improve my Japanese Language Fluency
- Set your goal, write down both your goal as well as your plan to achieve it, and execute it with surgical precision.
Half of the battle is fought before you pick up any textbook. Learning a new language as an adult is tough, there’s a trade-off between the time spent learning the language and the time spent on other commitments like school, work and personal arrangements. In the beginning, it might be fun and exciting, but you need more than excitement to continue until the end of your learning journey. Ask yourself, what motivates you to learn? Why is life better when you progress in your learning? What are you prepared to give in order to get the return? Write them down and stick to it. The more urgent and tangible it sounds, the easier it is for you to mentally commit to it.
- Build long-term habits, starting from the “low-hanging fruit”.
Learning a new language is an experiential journey, it is very useful to recreate your everyday reality in that language. My commuting time to central Tokyo is roughly 1 hour one-way, so instead of scrolling Instagram aimlessly I try to read the notice board or ads in the train. My Facebook’s official language is Japanese. I start googling things in Japanese–because of that Youtube starts pushing contents in Japanese to me. I now follow people in Youtube & Instagram who post in Japanese, which definitely helps me to speak casual and everyday Japanese. I love checking out new services and apps, so that it would force me to learn how to use simple commands in different languages.
- Forget long-term habits, make conscious, deliberate effort to add new input.
Yes, I know. Why build long-term habits if you have to forget them immediately?
What I’m trying to say, is that language acquisition has multiple aspects such as listening, reading, speaking and writing. For example, as you get better at listening and speaking, you no longer progress from tackling the “low-hanging fruit” as increasing time/energy/money/effort you put into it actually results in decreasing benefit (diminishing returns). Rather, make extra effort to write down which aspects of listening and speaking that you still have room for improvement. In my case, I wanted to be able to paraphrase something I didn’t hear or understand very well. Instead of saying “Huh?” or “What do you mean?” I practised the phrase “Oh, do you mean ABC instead of DEF?”. Once done, paraphrasing became part of my long-term habits, and I moved on to expressing doubts and hesitations. (Check out this article for further details, it explains this concept better!
- Always know where you stand, both from others’ and your own evaluation.
This is one of the things that are theoretically, obvious, yet I didn’t do for the longest time. There’s no map, no race track, no path to language fluency. There’s no line, no shape, no checklist unless you create it. Without knowing your strength, your weakness and your peculiar habits, it is impossible to find out the most efficient learning method.
Since I do have private, online classes from time to time, I try to stick with similar teachers. We both keep a mini journal of our lessons, so I always ask them if there’s anything they notice about me. Do I make one or two particular grammar mistakes all the time? Do I overuse certain phrases that could be made variant? Is there anything I improved from our lesson a month ago? It is very helpful to get others’ evaluation, particularly from your teacher, but even without such evaluations, you could also ask yourself questions to personally track your progress.
- Never forget the love that brought you into the journey.
I am saving the biggest cliché for the last. My first three months in Japan were exciting and I made huge progress with my study. In the next 10, 11 months I plateaued because those months were the hardest for me. I felt like I was stuck with my life, I kept thinking about the life I left just to start a new chapter in Japan and most importantly, I didn’t feel connected to the place I call home. At some point, I snapped out, gradually worked on a whole new mindset, and I’m blessed to say I’m in a very good place in my life. For instance, I started to avoid pessimistic-borderline-fatalistic people and conversations about social issues in Japan. There’s no perfect place on earth, so the best I can do is to be part of the solution and start to connect with like-minded people. It feels better as if a big rock is finally lifted away from my shoulder, no longer holding me back to my fullest potential. I now enjoy meeting those people, read up articles about community efforts, use products/services which are aligned to my values, and everything’s all done in Japanese. Find something that just brings you pure joy and satisfaction–movies, cultural activities, songs, anime, anything and just indulge it. A little goes a long way in your study.