So, there you are. You’ve started learning Japanese. You’ve got your materials, you’re excited, you do your sentences. But you don’t feel that different from yesterday. You wonder, when are you going to get good? How do you know if you’re making progress?
Short answer: You don’t. It’s kind of like growing taller. Oh, it’s happening. Oh, the milk is helping. But it’s not like there’s a percent bar on your elbow that you can look at, really. There’s no green light that flickers to let you know that you’re increasing in height. There’s no bell that rings every millimeter you go up. You only notice after the fact when you start bumping your head on doorways and such.
So this is what I did when I was learning hardcore, and it’s what I still do right now. Here it is — if you have to ask how good you are at Japanese, or when you’ll get good, then either:
1. You still suck (but only for now…remember, sucking is a temporary condition healed through practice), so stop asking — it’ll probably only make you feel bad. Or,
2. You don’t suck. But,
3. You could be spending this time finding ways to get even better.
In other words, ask not what the language you are learning is doing for you. Ask what more you can do for the language you are learning.
Especially when I lived outside of Japan, I spent a lot of time trying to Japanize every moment possible. I bought a shower radio and a radio transmitter so I could listen to my MiniDisc player’s Japanese music in the bathroom as I washed filth from my body. I put my headphones on almost 24 hours a day (very important to acquire comfy headphones for this purpose; I like the behind-the-head kind). I got rid of all English books on my shelves and replaced them with Japanese ones, some I could understand, some I just wanted to understand. I put Japanese posters on the walls. I talked to cats and dogs in Japanese. I wrote any personal notes in Japanese. And I was constantly acquiring new Japanese shows to watch. What’s another random movie I like? Waterworld? Let’s buy the Japanese version. Hey! That unaccompanied child over there looks like he could collect a few hundred DVDs’ worth of ransom money…
I could go on praising myself for ever, but my point is this: it’s not like I thought up all these things all at once ahead of time. I just looked for gaps and filled them in. Can you get more films or shows to watch? Do you eat with chopsticks? Can you make sure you do your SRS reps first thing every day? Can you improve your daily consistency? Do you have to do whatever it is you still do that isn’t in Japanese? Can you do more sentences per day?
What don’t you know how to say that you want to know how to say? What word do you keep needing but forget to look up (in my case it was “plateau”/高原 (in the sense of a high-altitude flat area of land…not a word you always need, but hard to elegantly do without when you do need it)? Can you discuss the things you care about? The geography of your country? Agriculture? Ancient Rome? ‘Better read up on them in the old Japanese Wikipedia or something…
Spend your time getting better rather than worrying about when and whether or not you will get better. Spend your time filling all the cracks of your life with Japanese. Focus on the little things you do or could do. Some people say that if you take care of the pennies, the pounds take care of themselves — I actually think this isn’t entirely true — but I will say this: every step in the right direction is a step closer to your destination. So, if you take care of the practicing, and the sentences, Japanese will take care of itself. And at the end of the day, what is a language but a collection of sentences? What is being good but being well-practiced?
Anyway, as always, HAVE FUN!