Learning a new language in adulthood is HARD! Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever undertaken a more frustrating (but simultaneously rewarding) task. I’ve been studying Japanese since 2015—that’s including many semesters worth of college courses and time spent in Japan! Despite this, I’m only at the conversational level, and memorizing Kanji is still the bane of my fragile existence. Don’t even get me started on Keigo.
In university, I was a good student on paper. My classroom attendance was consistent, and I always did my homework. So why didn’t I achieve fluency? Despite my efforts, I struggled to build a foundation for successful communication because I didn’t know how to learn a language. I only knew how to study for the tests.
Like many, I fell into three common language-learning traps that hold students back from true mastery. I’ve listed these pitfalls and included my solutions to them!
The first pitfall wasn’t entirely my fault. My first four Japanese courses in college used outdated books that included an overabundance of English translations below the Japanese text. Because of this, I thought I was understanding more than I really was. Sure, sometimes English translations are useful for explaining tricky grammar concepts, but they should be used sparingly. Also, these textbooks used Romaji (Japanese characters written in Roman letters) for far too long.
No matter what level you are, it’s best to find study materials that include as much of the target language as possible. It may be more painful in the beginning, but your reading skills will develop much faster if you rip off the training wheels early. A very popular textbook for beginning Japanese students is the Genki series. While I never used them, a former professor of mine made the switch after I graduated because of how highly recommended they are. Lately, I’ve been using Tobira and Bunpro.com to review grammar patterns that appear on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). This website is now one of my favorite resources because it organizes its contents by JLPT level and textbook. They even include a section covering concepts from the Genki and Tobira books!
Recently, I begrudgingly realized that just studying textbook grammar wasn’t enough. You should aim to get as much authentic exposure to the target language as possible. Investing time in things like manga, short stories, flyers, and web articles is critical for reinforcing what you are learning. To meet these needs, I like to read children’s stories and news articles published on NHK for kids. It’s incredibly beneficial to see how a language is actually used in real life. Plus, you can often learn something new about the culture you are studying as well. If you get stumped by a grammar pattern you don’t understand, there are also tons of YouTube channels where native speakers break down Japanese grammar. Japanese Ammo with Misa is a great resource for beginner and intermediate students alike.
Pitfall number two was definitely my fault. Because I attended a class three times a week, I felt like I could get away with not studying every day. The night before a quiz or test, I crammed dozens of vocabulary words into my short-term memory and then promptly forgot them once they were no longer needed. Now, I use Anki every single day to review vocabulary and Kanji on my computer. You can even make flashcards for grammar points. Timed repetition is much better for committing words and constructs to my long-term memory and has helped me recall more information in my daily life.
My third problem was arguably the most detrimental. I never listened to or spoke Japanese outside of the classroom. Even in class, I felt embarrassed and awkward during dialogues with other students because I fumbled over vocabulary I had forgotten. It was also hard for me to catch words and phrases mid conversation. People who are perfectionists or naturally a bit more shy will struggle in the beginning to speak in their target language. Studying abroad and then later moving to Japan for work definitely helped me overcome this fear. If you put yourself in an immersive environment, you will be forced to communicate, and you will see improvement. However, travel to a foreign country isn’t feasible for everyone striving to become fluent.
Fortunately, there are things you can do from home to level up these skills as well. I highly recommend Pimsleur for listening practice. It’s easy to incorporate into my morning and evening commutes, and I find most of the dialogues very natural. I also watch children’s shows like Doraemon with Japanese subtitles and try to follow along. After watching the episode, I change the subtitles to English and see how much I understood. It’s also ok if you don’t follow every single thing that is mentioned. Focus on catching the gist of things and write down new words you hear. A handy online dictionary like Jisho.org can help you look up definitions in a flash. Bonus points if you plug in all those juicy new words to a designated Anki flashcard deck. But, you still need to speak. This is a bit harder to do if the language you are studying is not widely spoken in your country. There are a few ways to get around this. Try to think in your target language by narrating your day. Write a daily journal and then read it out loud. Look for a language meetup in your area. Create an italki account to connect with native speakers over Skype. Sessions with community tutors are usually pretty cheap, but you can invest in their licensed teachers if you have the resources.
If I could go back in time and make these adjustments to my study habits, I definitely would. Even though I’m still far from achieving my language learning goals, I am happy with the progress I’ve made in the last six months. I think one crucial thing to remember is to be kind and patient with yourself. We all learn differently and make progress at our own pace. In the past, I’ve gotten discouraged because classmates who started their studies when I did are already much more fluent than me. But, that’s ok! I know if I apply myself, I can get there someday. And you can, too!
So those are my best tips for overcoming the common struggles most language learners face! I hope this helps, and happy studying! If you have any resources or recommendations, please share them in the comments.