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 🙂 ). 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 「現在」 instead of 「今」, 「必要」 instead of 「いる」 or 「判断」 instead of 「決める」. 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 「〜限り」、「〜かねない」、 or 「〜に関しては」 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.