Learning phases

I started learning Japanese as an adult (college sophomore) and became proficient in about 5 years (full story here). So I’d like to think I know the various phases you go through when learning a foreign language. There are different things to watch out for in each phase so let’s look at the long journey and how to successfully reach the end of the rainbow to find the pot of gold. Unfortunately, in real life, a rainbow is completely round so there is actually no end so good luck with that. Ha ha.

There are roughly 4 stages of language acquisition: excitement, depression, laziness, and acceptance. The excited stage is when everything is new and you feel a tremendous amount of progress everyday as you learn words like “to do”. Following that is depression upon realizing that no matter how much you learn, it’s still not enough. After you reach a certain level, you then become lazy because you can get by most of the time with what you know. If you overcome the lazy stage, the final stage is acceptance as you become resigned to the fact that learning a language has no end. You try the best you can and keep learning for as long as you use the language.

Phase 1 – It’s a whole new world!

Yay, you’ve always wanted to learn Japanese and now you’re finally doing it. Everything is new and shiny and you’re making huge progress everyday. Relative to what you already know about the language (nothing), every additional piece of information easily doubles or triples your knowledge of the language. Enjoy the feeling while you can but don’t get enamored with that artificial feeling of ease and progress because it has diminishing returns. As you learn more, each additional piece of knowledge will count for less and less as compared to the whole even though you need to exert the same amount of effort.

Phase 2 – The world is confusing

The more you learn, the more options you have to sort through. The sentences get more and more complicated and you don’t know what to use for what or when. You’ve learned a bunch of grammar and vocab, and you might even understand quite a bit of the language (perhaps once you ask the speaker to slow down and repeat several times). But when it comes to expressing your own thoughts, you just don’t know where to start. All the knowledge you have is just floating around in a jumbled mess and you don’t know how to fit it all together. You’re stuck in a very frustrating position which one can describe as a “language limbo”.

This is a very depressing stage because it feels like even though you’re studying and working hard, you’re not getting any better at the language. This is the most difficult stage to go through especially if you don’t know it’s a stage that has an end. Don’t worry, it will not last forever. It’s a very important step where you need to take your cognitive knowledge and train it to the instinctual level. In other words, even though you can technically learn a new word or grammar, you don’t really know it until you’ve trained yourself with many hours of speaking and reading practice. Language is not a cognitive process. If you need to think about what grammar to use or how to construct your sentence, you haven’t actually learned it yet.

Punch through and practice, practice, practice. Like a tangled wire, it’ll look like a mess for a while until you reach the end of untangling the mess. It’ll also help to meet new and interesting people to practice with (especially of the opposite sex πŸ™‚ ). Get out there and meet people!

Phase 3 – The world is not so different after all

There’s a certain point in your language studies where everything just starts to make sense. You get a feel for how the language works as a whole and you can start to pick up and absorb new parts of the language relatively easily. This is the point where you generally have at least a rough idea of how to say everything even if you don’t know the exact vocabulary or grammar. This is also the point where you can talk about and learn new vocabulary or grammar within the language you’re learning.

This is a pretty good phase to be in. Even though you don’t know how to say everything, you can generally break it down with simpler words and concepts. Instead of saying, “I’m so hungry I could die”, you can say “I’m very hungry”. Sure it may not be exactly what you wanted to say but you can get by. But that’s the big danger of this phase.

You should always try to push yourself beyond the vocab, phrases, and grammar you’re comfortable with. Try out some more difficult words such as γ€ŒηΎεœ¨γ€ instead of γ€Œδ»Šγ€, γ€ŒεΏ…θ¦γ€ instead of γ€Œγ„γ‚‹γ€ or γ€Œεˆ€ζ–­γ€ instead of γ€Œζ±Ίγ‚γ‚‹γ€. Push yourself to be more than someone who can speak Japanese but rather someone who can speak Japanese as an educated native speaker would. Sure, you rarely use phrases such as γ€Œγ€œι™γ‚Šγ€γ€γ€Œγ€œγ‹γ­γͺい」、 or γ€Œγ€œγ«ι–’γ—γ¦γ―γ€ but you know what? Rarely doesn’t mean never. And if you put all those more advanced phrases and vocabulary together, an educated adult speaker will use them quite frequently on the whole.

Read! Reading is still one of the best ways to expand your vocabulary and power of expression. And don’t just read manga! Read real books that challenge you. And watch programs or talk with people about something more complicated than what you did last weekend.

Phase 4 – It’s a new world after all

If you reach this phase, congratulate yourself and take a look around. With all your experiences and hard work, you’ve truly achieved something remarkable. You crossed language and cultural boundaries to open up a whole new world of potential in culture, job opportunities, and interpersonal relationships. You’ve also gained a lot of growth as a person and expanded your outlook and broken some assumptions you’ve had. You also probably got a lot more than you bargained for when you initially decided just to “learn a new language” that most likely changed your life path in a significant way.

As you and I know, we’ll never stop learning. There’s always a new word or expression. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of a word I just learned with a Kanji I’ve never seen before even though I don’t even live in Japan anymore. If you’re reading this and you’re still in phases 1-3, just know that all the hard work will totally be worth it. Or maybe you already know that.

23 thoughts on “Learning phases

  1. In my experience, I did a lot of cycling back and forth between your Phases 3 and 4 as my situation changed. Learning Japanese wasn’t a sudden increase followed by a gradually sloping curve, but rather a series of plateaus. In particular, I had four huge spikes of rapid acquisition followed by relative slowdowns as I “saturated” the learning space that I was in. The spikes happened…
    1. When I first started studying Japanese in a serious, methodical way, rather than just sort of screwing around and toying with this book, then that book,
    2. When I first went to Japan and immersed myself as much as possible in the language,
    3. When I got my first job at a Japanese company, and started learning formal & business Japanese, and
    4. When I started getting heavily involved in using Japanese online through chat rooms, message boards, and IMing

      • Actually, I’ll add one more spike, which happened sort of parallel to #2 above:
        2.5 When I finished “Remembering the Kanji” and started huge vocabulary gains through reading manga, short stories, novels, and newspapers

  2. I kind of feel that I’m between 2 and 3, but I can say that thanks to a certain Japanese tutor I am taking a trip to California to see a nice Japanese lady in 5 days. Perhaps I will have a chance to push my boundaries with her (^_^`)

  3. Heh…been floating around Phase 3 for a while, but in recent months I’ve started reading a lot more and trying to consume more Japanese media in general. So…Phase 4, watch out!

    Nice post, man.

  4. Yeah I’d say I’m between 2 and 3 or in late stages of 3. I think between stage 3 and 4 is 3.5. In that stage it’s like continuation. If you keep studying, talking to people, working in the language you will become more fluent and then acceptance.

  5. Luckily I’ve never had a phase 2, but I would describe my situation as 50% phase 1, 20% phase 3 and 30% phase 4 at the same time. Keeping phase 1 on is a big factor for me.
    Looks like it’s different for every one πŸ™‚

  6. Of course, similar phases exist for *anything* thats moderately tough to learn πŸ˜‰ Learning Japanese: a very good exercise in learning how to learn things

  7. >”you need to take your cognitive knowledge and train it to the instinctual level”
    I agree so very much with this. I always was of this idea, not only about languages, about everything, from cooking to martial arts.

    More topic-related: i think phases are not merely phases. Once you get into one, parts of the preceding ones still remain; furthermore, they switch one another so softly you often find yourself not inside one of them but between two (like i actually am). While reading your post i tried to figure out in which phase i was with every language i know or i’m learning. That not just applies to what you learn as an adult, or at least, not in my case. I’m not native english speaker but didn’t study it like i’m studying japanese: i someway learned it in my childhood simply being in contact with it (especially with video games, believe it or not), and i do know i’m not a perfect english speaker, but i acquired this ability to figure out grammar and words instinctively, just as i do with italian (my native language). I really hope i will eventually be able to accomplish this with japanese too, but i’m quite in the phase 2 about it: i’m not sure to be capable of that, being not a child anymore. Anyway, i’m still in phase 4 with my native language too; italian in particular is a gigantic language regarding grammar and especially vocabs, there’s simply too much to even know them all (just like kanji…). I just keep learning my native language as i will keep learning japanese and english: thats really true, you will never “done” learning a language.

  8. This post is all so true!

    I’d like to think I’m crossing over into Level4. The lazy stage was difficult to get past πŸ™‚
    I just wish there were more hours in the day for study!

  9. I’m JLPT 1, living and working in Japan as a kind of translator, but mentally I’m still in Phase 3; I’m never quite satisfied with my language ability.

    When I first started Japanese, all I wanted was to be able to impress Japanese girls or go on a vacation to Japan.
    When I got good enough for that, I decided I wanted to be able to understand anime.
    When I got good enough for that, I wanted to read manga without a dictionary.
    When I got good enough for that, I wanted to read Japanese literature.
    When I got good enough for that, I wanted to be able to talk on the phone and be mistaken for a Japanese person.
    That’s where I am right now (unless I stumble with my keigo, 50% of people who I talk to on the phone don’t notice I’m non-Japanese).

    In my case, my own dissatisfaction with my language ability has been what’s taken me so far.

  10. Greetings are the most important while learning any language. Thanks for the all information in your post. I am also learning chinese from Chinesesphere – online school.

  11. I’m around JLPT 1 level (2 was way too easy, kanji on 1 are still a bit tough) mostly in Phase 3 – dissatisfied every time I have to leave out nuance or compromise what I’m trying to say, and still encountering a large number of new words. I just took a trip to Korea, though, and upon my return I was in Phase 4 for a while. It’s amazing what a superman you feel like after struggling with the most basic things in another language and then seeing how far you’ve come, and I recommend it to anyone who gets a bit discouraged.

    A lot of people talk about language learning as a never-ending activity, but the truth is that this extends to your native language, too. The average educated person’s vocabulary can be fairly estimated at 1000 x their age (with obvious distortion on the ends) if they continually challenge themselves, otherwise topping out between 20000 and 30000. Given, for example, that there are over half a million words in the English language, it’s clear that we see and pick up plenty of new words and word combinations all the time even in our native language without noticing it.

  12. Nice post. Thanks, Tae, for summarizing your ideas.
    This concept is easily applied to many things you learn.

    I am probably in phase 3-4 in German and English (very lazy to acquire anything new, since I can easily express my thoughts on various topics).

    My Japanese – in phase 0 (only occasionally have I learned several things).
    I am a little WORRIED that if I start to do it seriously and SYSTEMATICALLY I will end up stuck in phase 2, FRUSTRATED. And then quit. And will be DEPRESSED that I have spend so much time without any noticeable/useful progress.

    This only an excuse… I know.

    When I look back on all these worries I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened. –Winston Churchill

  13. I enjoyed this post a lot.

    Achieving phase 4 is all about integrating the language into your life. If you are still setting goals and tasks in that language, you’re probably in phase 3 (no matter how good your language level is. In Phase 4 you’re not thinking about learning, you are simply doing things you love that happen to help you learn.

  14. Well for learning language maybe I can compare two different experiences.
    First when I learned English, I never really bothered studying it properly like ever. I always got the top grades in my class up to high school with little to no external exposure. Classroom English was plain easy in my opinion. It’s only in my last year of high school that I became interested in watching US dramas because I didn’t want to wait one year for them to be dubbed. I started watching them with French subtitles but when some things I wanted to watch eventually didn’t get subs I managed with English subs. I don’t remember ever looking up more than a dozen words in an episode and now four years later I hardly see more than one new word every couple days. Now I use everything in English and it seems natural for me so I guess in the end I never experienced so much what you’re describing. Maybe because I never felt a need to actually understand English before I was good enough at it, I guess I ended up directly in the “lazy” zone and ended up picking up new words because of a lot of reading in English that I never saw as studying because it’s things I want to read.

    Then I have different stories for Chinese and Japanese. The excitement phase ended too soon in Chinese because I felt overwhelmed by the amount of hanzi from the start in the class so I was more like trying to get passing grade for a few years before I gave up.
    With Japanese I think I’ve gotten over the first phase after almost 2 years, I’m starting to feel like my efforts aren’t enough and the new kanji and vocabulary aren’t ending but I keep going for now, but I can clearly tell it’s gotten harder than before. I also believe external factors (motivation and time) can change a lot how long you can stay in the excitement zone before you fail in the despair zone.

    Another difference for me is that I never actually spoke or used English (outside of class) before I was already close to fluency after like 8 years of study already while with Chinese and Japanese I used them after about one year of study (college classes 2h/week). Even if I’ve only been learning Japanese for two years, I have on some days much more conversation in Japanese than in English. The motivation to learn a language really changes everything.

  15. how can i make it cognitive. its exactly as described in phase two. i talk with some partners but i don’t feel like i’m improving on my speech. its really frustrating

  16. Jo123 In this sentence you are saniyg TWO separate things: 1) This is the only guide book recommended, and 2) it was useful. Because these are SEPARATE statements, you need to link them with and’. Otherwise the sentence does not make sense. I hope this was helpful!

  17. This is interesting about the Lazy stage. I find this to be true for any language classes that people take as it is so exciting at the beginning but then many give up because of laziness. Personally find that if you really want to speak a language especially Japanese, you have to live there for a number of years and have close friends that you can speak to.

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