Smashing through Language Learning Plateaus

Smashing through Language Learning Plateaus post image

One night not so long ago, a man met a woman at a party. They hit it off immediately, spending as much time as possible with each other. And the whole time they shared all their hopes and dreams with each other.

It was a perfect romance. A match made in heaven if you will. They had a favorite movie theater they went to every weekend, and then they would go to their favorite restaurant afterwards every time. It was a great routine.

And everything seemed magical. He noticed everything about her, every detail. He could remember that cute smile and she could recall every minute of their first date together. And all they wanted to do was just learn every little detail about each other.

And after awhile things fell into a nice comfortable routine. They had a regular ‘thing’ if you will. And it was okay, but then they realized one day – “Hey, this isn’t going anywhere.” We keep doing the same thing over and over again, but the relationship hasn’t moved on to the next level.

They were going on dates, they were watching movies together. But, they stopped remembering things about each other, days blended into weeks, and weeks blended into months, staying in that neutral position. So, why wasn’t the relationship going anywhere?

I think we have all experienced this at one time or another. Not only with relationships but new habits and skills we pick up as well. It’s a common pattern that pops up a lot. In language learning it’s called plateauing.

This is something that you might face as you move up through the different levels of language learning. It tends to hit most people around the intermediate stage of learning a language, but it could hit sooner or later depending on your situation.

So What Happened?

When you start to learn something new, things go pretty fast for you or so it seems. For any language you can start to make basic sentences from day one.  If you keep at it, you could probably piece together a rudimentary 2 to 4 line conversation within a week.

And that is a huge, clearly visible step. One week, you didn’t know one thing about a language, the next you are able to survive a brief encounter with someone. That’s something you can clearly see in black and white.

The 1st couple of things you learn in a language are some of the key components that the language uses a lot. They are things like simple nouns, everyday actions, and some of the basic particles like wa and ga. Most of the vocabulary and grammar you’ll see at the N5 level appear in a majority of native material.

Most jDramas don’t use grammar that is much more difficult than N4 actually (there are some spoken forms in them that can be quite complicated, but the majority is N4). As you move up, you’ll see the grammar less and less often.

As a quick side note, the JLPT is a little grammar heavy. Most of the grammar you’ll see and use every day is covered by N3. N2 and N1 grammar is still useful, especially for writing, but some of the structures are pretty rare.

The Power of 80-20

Anyway, this phenomena of diminishing returns is called the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle is also called the 80-20 rule, because it states that 80% of the benefit is produced by 20% of the work. This is something that gets a lot of press when talking about business, but I think it holds true for language learning as well.

The 20% in this case is basically the 1st 2 levels of the JLPT (N5, N4). These two levels cover most of the spoken grammar you’ll need and a lot of the building blocks for the more complicated phrases used at the higher levels. They also contain around 2000 of the most commonly used words. So, if you assume that you need a good command of around 10,000 words to be fluent, which is what is suggested that you have at the N1 level, 2000 words would be 20% of that.

Timothy Ferriss actually talks about this principal a lot in his book “The 4 Hour Work Week.” On his blog, he even goes so far as to say that this is where you should stop learning a language, at the conversational stage. The idea being that you start to get significantly less return on your investment of time once you have learned 20% of the most commonly used parts of the language.

And I would agree with that advice if you just want to use Japanese to chat with friends and travel around Japan because N4 is that level. I was at that level for quite some time in Japan until I decided to get married. And I wanted to be head of the household as well as be able to show my daughter how useful being fluent in two languages is, rather than just tell her.

The Journey Past the 20%

If you take on the challenge of becoming pretty fluent. You are going to be doing a lot of studying and reading without real, black and white, results that you can see every day. You will definitely see improvements. From time to time, I’ll pick up material that I struggled with just a year before and I’ll be able to cut right through it without issues. It’s just that the time that is required to see results is more.

You may also be wondering that if people suggest not going past the 20% mark, why deal with being pretty fluent?

Well, the advantage of being pretty fluent in a language is that you start to see the world through the eyes of that culture a lot more. There is only so much you can get from translations and commentators. In order to get a truly different perspective on the world, you really have to dive in and read, listen, speak and interact with the people of that culture on their level.

After all, N1 is not just for jobs. The highest level of the test can force you into some good habits that will help you read faster, take better notes, and have laser focus because you need to have all of these to pass the exam. It’s not only about knowing it, but knowing it well, making it automatic.

But, how do you get over this speed bump that tends to pop up between N4 and N3 or N2?

Crop Rotation

I grew up in Iowa, which is in a section of America that sometimes goes by the nickname – “Bread Basket of the World.” It was given this name because Iowa is covered with farm fields. It’s big, flat and boring, which is why it is sometimes also called “a fly over state” because people fly over it on their way to somewhere important.

Now early on, farmers discovered that if you plant the same kind of crop every year, you get less and less yield or benefit. So they started changing the way they grow crops. Instead of growing the same thing over and over again they started changing the crop they grew. Some crops actually add back in nutrients that other crops need to grow.

This is how language learning works. If you just study one thing (like vocabulary), or stick to the same method, you won’t get anywhere. You’ll soak up all your motivation and attention. You need to add back in the nutrients (like motivation and attention) that will keep you growing. That’s one reason I recommend getting your head out of the drill books after the test. You need to rotate your studies.

What’s the Perfect Rotation?

This is a personal choice that you need to make about your studies. Assign yourself a clear goal to focus on in a short period of time. Think about your current weaknesses and what’s important for you to master right now.

Even taking a few moments to bring your attention back to how you are studying can help you eliminate these roadblocks or even prevent you from ever encountering them in the 1st place.

One big thing you can do to break through a plateau is to do some reading. That is always part of a good rotation. But, don’t feel like you have to read a book straight through to the end. You can take a break from it for a week and head back into it. Or take a week where you just do all grammar drills day and night. Keep up a minimum of vocabulary review, but with the rest of your time just have fun and experiment with different study methods.

You may think that Japanese dictation is a complete bore, but have you tried it? Give it a good try for a week and see if it helps you out. You’ll never know until you give it a try.

What’s your Rotation?

Let me know what you do to mix it up and smash through the plateaus in your studies. Tell me in the comments below.

More in the Study Guide Kit

This is just an excerpt from the latest update to the kit. Inside the kit you can find other great stuff like:

  • Suggested rotations for different types of learners and levels.
  • Well over 20 different activities you can do to study Japanese.
  • How to set goals that keep you changing.
  • How to bust apart those words that just won’t stick.
  • And more…

Photo by Bill Lapp

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Marcus August 18, 2013, 9:31 am

    I was at the same spot as you after the December N1 test with a good score on both the listening and the grammar section、but an horrible score on the reading section. I didn’t have time to address this immediately but in preparation for the next December test I have been reading one book every week this summer soon reaching 2000 read pages. Hopefully this will be enough to leave JLPT behind and move on to other goals with my studies.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 26, 2013, 12:05 am

      Wow, one book a week. That is great prep for the test. I’d love to have that much time to burn through a few books. My current pace is about a book a month when I’m reading. I’m currently doing more blog/magazine reading though. Good luck in December!

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