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The Eternal Sorrow of the Intermediate Learner: “Are We There Yet?” Syndrome

In another place and time [the other day], I came to make the acquaintance of a young gentleman with looks so sharp that Johnny Depp is yet to recover from the blow to his ego. The young man’s name was T-star [not to be confused with the Japanese T-star], and this is his story.

I’ve been working with your method for almost six months now, and although I’m doing the things you talk about on your website, and putting a lot of time into studying, it still seems like something’s not quite right. I can’t put my finger on it, and it seems like everyday after I’ve finished my reps i have a feeling like there’s “something not quite right” and “I wish I could ask Khatzumoto x…” Well, I guess I have made progress in this six months, I mean, I certainly can write more kanji than I could; I can use a J-J dictionary, even if its still a bit clunky, and I’ve probably read more now than I had in the previous year I had been in Japan, but I can’t help feeling that this method isn’t working as well as it could be. Or maybe, I’m not working as well as I could be.

The other reason I’m looking for a bit of guidance is that, now having come into the belief that “classes suck,” I’m considering turning down a chance to attend to the “most prestigious/famous/well-known/full of academic wankers” Japanese school…in favor of taking a job here (doing sound engineering) and continuing to study AJATT style. Basically, I’ve got a lot riding on your belief that I can do it on my own, but maybe I need a little help getting myself to that point.

To which I responded as follows, but in Japanese:

My dearest, most precious T-star,

The situation you’re in right now is what you might call the “uncanny valley” (yes, this is an extension of the original usage of this term, but it makes sense here). Meaning that you’re at this point where you’re not a beginner and you’re not advanced; you’re in a “half-boiled”, in-between stage.

Have you ever eaten a half-boiled potato? Have you noticed how they almost taste worse than raw ones? In the uncanny valley stage, it’s common to feel like a half-boiled potato — to think that “Dude, I’ve been boiling all this time — am I EVER going to soften up and taste good?! Or, am I just driving up the gas bill or what?! What the truck, already?!” In fact, people who depend on school to learn a language almost never graduate from being a half-boiled potato, although many of them are convinced they’re the tastiest freedom fries this side of the Romulan Empire. That is, until they actually meet with their target language in its unadulterated form, at which point they decide that either they themselves are stupid or the target language is stupid (funnily enough, no one ever seems to find a problem with learning methods).

It’s not like you can’t read characters, but you still can’t breeze through them effortlessly. It’s not like you can’t say stuff, but you frequently find yourself tongue-tied. When you’re intermediate, it’s almost always like that. That’s what sucks about being intermediate.

And to make things worse, you’ve somewhat forgotten about “having fun” and discovery and the sheer beauty of the sound of Japanese, and become obsessed with “competition,” “progress,” “goals”, sentences, retention rates.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for breaking out of this valley. Well, no…there is, but it is simply this: “continue”. Even though you are definitely improving during this stage, it’s normal to feel like you can’t see the results, so there is no need to worry or give up.

Why is it like that when you’re an intermediate learner? I have a hard time understanding it myself, but let me venture a “Khatzumoto hypothesis”. Be aware that I’m just throwing out ideas, and I’m not sure if any of this is actually correct or not. With that disclaimer in mind…

It seems to me that all intellectual improvement actually progresses at a roughly linear rate. In monetary terms, it would be like increasing your savings by exactly $10 every day with (almost) no interest. So then, what happens is, even though the absolute rate of improvement doesn’t change, the relative rate inevitably declines to very near zero — to the point that it is completely imperceptible on small time scales.

Let me illustrate: when $10 one day becomes $20 the next day, you get all excited, like: “Whoa! It’s doubled!” But when $10,010 becomes $10,020, you paradoxically feel all let down instead, like: “What the chump change! Still not enough to do jack shWindows ME.” You have four orders of magnitude more money, yet you feel worse rather than better.

In fact, there may be a biological reason for this. It’s been said that humans are quite sensitive to acceleration (change in speed), but have a very poor grasp of fixed speed 1…The thing is, you don’t even need a biologist to lay it all out for you. Anyone who’s flown on a plane with or without snakes has experienced this first-hand. On a passenger plane flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, the most exciting (terrifying?) part is the acceleration during takeoff. When you’re up in the air traveling over the Pacific Ocean, though, the speed feels no different than it would if you were riding in the family Ford Taurus. Even though the plane is moving the fastest during the middle of the flight (at about Mach 0.8 — that’s almost the speed of sound, be arch!), it’s always the middle of the flight that is the most boring part. We are faced with the most amazing of ironies: the fastest part of the flight seems the slowest.

My point being, learn to distinguish between “speed” and “acceleration” already!

You’ve been adding to your Japanese knowledge bank word by word, and your “savings” will keep growing word by word. It’s just that you’ve gotten to where it’s hard to feel your growth — more accurately, it’s hard to feel your acceleration, because you are essentially not accelerating; you are moving at constant velocity. But you are growing. You are flying. And if you just keep flying, you’ll eventually land in Tokyo. So K-E-E-P F-L-Y-I-N-G, O-K-A-Y? Stay in the air.

At the same time, simply being told to “continue” despite mind-numbing boredom isn’t exactly going to psyche you up or boost morale, or even result in learning. Indeed, there’s one more thing you’re going to need to follow through with this kind of self-study program.

That is, to “lose yourself in it”. In other words, completely forget the “self,” forget the reason you’re studying Japanese, forget what other people think — everything — and immerse yourself wholly in “having fun” — call it intellectual hedonism if you want. Forget why you are doing Japanese. Do Japanese because you are Japanese. Do Japanese because Japanese is fun. Do Japanese because it’s there. Do Japanese because it’s what you would be doing anyway (think about it — you’re learning Japanese so you can do stuff in Japanese, so you might as well do stuff in Japanese, because that’s what the Japanese is for in the first place! The cause is the effect is the cause. The means is the end is the means.)

Beware especially of caring what other people think. And stop comparing yourself to other people, starting today [not that you are, but…various forces can sometimes bias people towards feeling the need to prove themselves to the world]. No good can come of it. As anyone who has spent time observing children — regular, garden-variety children who grow into regular, garden-variety adults — understands, each person grows according to their own unique schedule. Some children can already talk up a storm by the age of 2, while some don’t get beyond baby gibberish until they are 4. Some girls have their menarche when they’re 8 years old and some have to wait for it until they’re 16.

When babies learn to walk, they don’t have everybody and their dog giving them advice on posture, telling them “you don’t need to learn to walk any more because we have cars, electric wheelchairs and Segways”, telling them “only Japanese babies can walk, because they have a lower center of gravity and live close to sea level”. They are largely left alone; they grow when they grow. You need to make it so that you are left alone, too.

I could fill a whole website with stories of how slow I am on the uptake. Slow, that is, if you were to insist on comparing me to other people. For example, my voice didn’t break until I was almost 17. Pretty late when compared to all the hairy English kids I was surrounded by at the time. Years late. But, ultimately, these variations are nothing to work oneself up over. And there will come a day when no one but you even remembers this time. Today, no one ever comes to me and goes: “Whatever, Khatzumoto, you talk a good game, but I heard your voice didn’t even break until you were 17, Mr. pre-op castrato!” In fact, As long as I don’t bring it up, no one is any the wiser. Babies walking, toddlers speaking, girls menstruating, boys’ voices changing — everyone gets there at their own pace.

So why not scrap this whole “self” vs. “others” thing and get down to having some serious fun. That might sound stupid at first, but if you go ahead and approach it that way, your brain will naturally work better, as it tends to do when you’re enjoying something (or whatever the brain does…I dunno…I just use it), ensuring substantial improvement. You will learn far more having fun than not having fun. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that you will only learn when having fun.

Rather than asking “Mommy, are we there yet?” the whole way through this road trip called acquiring Japanese, start doing stuff like singing songs, playing on your PSP, reading manga or enjoying the scenery. It’ll make the time pass by so quickly that you’ll almost be upset when you “get there”. You will actually feel this loss…this void…this nostalgia for when attaining proficiency was such a wonderful, clear-cut destination for you.

Long journeys are not the only places where we can experience the phenomenon of the-middle-seeming-worse-than-the-beginning. When you get a haircut, your head is messier mid-way than when you first entered the barber shop. When you tidy a room, there soon comes a point in the tidying where the place is more chaotic than when you started. And these are the only examples that come to mind right now…feel that depth of life experience!

Some people might write all this off as “obvious” or “self-evident”…but it is these obvious things that are the easiest to forget. Often, the more something “goes without saying”, the more it seems to need saying.


Have fun.

It’s been a long time since I was an mid-journey acquirer of Japanese, though I am one of Cantonese now. Let she who is with intermediate experience also cast a commentary stone this way and give T-star some more advice.


but I can’t help feeling that this method isn’t working as well as it could be. Or maybe, I’m not working as well as I could be.

Just what is it that would need to happen in order for you to stop feeling this way? I have a feeling of my own: nothing short of being Perfect Right Now would satisfy this desire. And the only way that that’s going to happen, is if you continue. In the absence of overwhelming external force, the only thing that’s going to get you to continue is the pull-in power of fun. So you might as well go have fun 😀 ]

  62 comments for “The Eternal Sorrow of the Intermediate Learner: “Are We There Yet?” Syndrome

  1. Daniel
    May 6, 2009 at 23:25

    Wow, thanks to Khatz and T-Bone for this, it’s pretty much where I’m at in my Japanese right now. The part that made the most sense to be was how in the beginning, you’re “doubling” your knowledge each day, but later on it just seems like you’re adding on small bits, even though it’s the same rate in the end…

  2. nacest
    May 6, 2009 at 23:45

    I had recently realised this very thing when I noticed that many books feel “heavier” and longer when you’re at the middle of reading them. At the beginning and end, the ratio between the past pages and the ones yet to read changes quickly; not so when you’re half way through.

  3. Erick Garcia
    May 6, 2009 at 23:59

    It’s very satisfying to leave that intermediate stage. I remember when I realized “Hey, I’m an advanced Mandarin speaker! Woo hoo!” Now I’m on the journey to Native like ability. Anyways, I still keep the AJATT style going, just not so much since my rekindled interest in Japanese.

  4. May 7, 2009 at 00:02

    wow, thanks man, I’d waited for this post so long…finally you wrote something new!
    Well, I am in that phase with Spanish right now (yeah, I am kinda doin allspanishallthetime…kinda…), but I am not doing the immersion as seriously (hardcore?) as you are.
    But still…the middle feels the worst!

    Thanks again for this post!

  5. WC
    May 7, 2009 at 00:08

    A tip on beating this problem: Measure your progress.

    To measure progress, you have to know where you started, and where you were along the way. The beginning for this is easy: You start at nothing! But do this anyhow: Pick up a Japanese book of some kind (I like Mangas because they’ve fun and come in different levels and tend to be easier than other books) and try to read it. In fact, try to get different levels of books… Kid’s, teen, adult, etc.

    Then, once you start to feel the blahs, pick up the books again and see how well you can read them. This should be at least a couple months from the start, though. The easiest books will be eye-opening because you can now -read- some of it, when you couldn’t before. The hardest will still be depressing.

    Keep doing the above every few months when you start to waiver. You will gradually see an improvement in each book. You don’t need to read the whole book… Maybe just the first real page. (Skip the table of contents, etc, and get right into the action.)

    Eventually, you’ll be reading the hardest book and you’ll have a measure of your progress every step along the way.

  6. 克己
    May 7, 2009 at 01:18

    I think this idea of getting lost in the language, no matter where you’re at, is true success. When Japanese just becomes the thing you just do everyday without thinking because it’s so much of a habit, and everyday, you just keep learning and not even realize it. This kind of success is so abstract that it’s hard to grasp sometimes, but once you’re there, you know it.

  7. May 7, 2009 at 01:43

    Hey Khatz,
    Just wanted to say how impressed I am with your insight. I’m in a perpetually weird spot myself, having passed the JLPT Level 1 and yet still feeling inadequate and stagnant with having such a long way to go until I can actually fill in all the big holes in my comprehension. It’s frustrating when I hear/read Japanese and everything is still really patchy.
    But your post really puts into words exactly what I’ve been feeling about studying, and it’s almost like I have a weight off my chest, now that my uncertainty has been materialized into an explanation that I can pick apart and tackle now, heh. 🙂
    I’ll be sure to keep my eye on your terribly insightful perspectives on the subject, because fluency in Japanese is only one dream of mine–the other one is to develop effective and enjoyable methods for foreign language acquisition, since I find it unfortunate that most of the methods in practice in schools right now are kind of a waste of time and effort.
    Also, just thought I’d note that this post kind of brought me back to an explanation a friend of mine made for Japanese. He related it to DBZ. You strengthen up, beat the bad guy, you feel super powerful, and all of a sudden the whole dang thing drags on cuz you realize there is another bad guy and you have to power up again, and the cycle continues. I’m terrible at explaining it though, so I’ll have to do it justice and find where he posted it and link to it.

  8. greatfool
    May 7, 2009 at 01:55

    Great inspiring post, this kinda describes where I am right now at 2.5 months into AJATT and like 6 years of some japanese a little bit of the time.

    At first I felt like I was almost “leveling up” every 2 weeks or so. I would notice an actual breakthrough in understanding that was a great feeling. Now those moments are getting few and far between, and its not as exciting to half understand something now. I feel like after this work I should get a TV show the first time, not struggle and have to review many times.

    One unexpected part for me is that my reading ability is rapidly outpacing my listening ability. I started off stronger in listening from living in Japan, but now I’m adding about 50 anki items every day and remembering most of them(though not necessarily recognizing them by hearing the first time).

    I think the better you get at reading, the faster you read and the faster you learn and its a repeating cycle until eventually you can blow through short books. To me listening is a lot harder because its strictly linear- words always come at the same speed. An hour of listening will always be an hour of listening, and 10,000 is a whole lot of hours, whereas 10,000 sentences can be done as fast as you can read and type. Also a lot of music and movies are not packed full of spoken Japanese 100% of the time so are they actually worth less than an hour of say, a podcast or audiobook?

    I think in the end reading and listening are complementary and being strong in one and weak in the other will keep you from learning full speed. Has anyone else had this experience?

  9. May 7, 2009 at 01:56

    Apparently this T-Star fellow completely glanced over your End of AJATT post. He wouldn’t be complaining so much if he would have known that he could learn a language in 10 days with Pimsleur.

  10. May 7, 2009 at 02:12

    About T-Star’s other question, he shouldn’t pass up the chance to attend the ““most prestigious/famous/well-known/full of academic wankers” Japanese school. I know the “classes suck” mantra and everything, but there’s more to life than just Japanese. If he’ll benefit in some way in future by attending that school, he should go for it!

  11. Nukemarine
    May 7, 2009 at 02:49

    This follows on what WC has to say.

    Without looking into exactly what he’s doing, it’s hard to tell if maybe T-star is not doing as good as he can be with the time.

    You can only read, watch and listen to real Japanese so much a day. Is he doing a victory calender of sorts? For me, I can add up the number of times I’ve watched my shows. Manga and books I’ve read can be lined up (virtually for the online type). In other words, put something out there to help gauge your speed (ie progress). You could think to yourself “Self, I’ve read a lot more than before, but not much I don’t think”. Or you can look at 300 logged hours of videos and 1500 pages worth of read material and think “Holy ****, I’ve done that much. Wonder what I’ll be like when that’s doubled?

    In addition, there’s the active studying that limits you on a day by day basis. Can he make his reviews more efficient? One way is if you do dictation cards is to only write down 1 part of the sentence (likely a vocabulary word). Does he have many redundant cards? Maybe use the idea with and let each sentence be represented by a vocabulary term. If that sentence has no new terms don’t use it. The benefit of this I think is you have a tangible result like with RTK. I can look at my SRS deck and say: Wow, I have 2000 unique vocabulary terms covered and reading in Japanese is fun now. Wonder what I’ll be like when that’s doubled.

    Reason I do this is I hate to re-watch and re-read stuff. So I’m not likely going to measure my progress by trying to remember how much I sucked back then. I think I suck now. However, I see that the hours are adding up along with the learned material. I can see that not only am I making progress, but that it’s tangible.

    So that’s my two cents for T-star: Check how you’re studying and see if that can be made a tad more efficient (ie less of a grind). Measure your progress in some manner.

    PS: I did think I wasn’t making progress last year. However, my problem was I was not efficient. Fixing that supercharged these last 8 months into Japanese learning thrill ride that has carried itself despite leaving Japan in February and having a heavy training schedule.

  12. May 7, 2009 at 04:30

    Thank you so much Khatz, this post has really made me feel better and inspired me more. I definitely relate to this post a lot, lately I constantly feel like I’m not improving at all, that I can read young teen’s manga like Sailor Moon pretty good, but I’ll never get past that point. One of the ways I’ve been keeping myself going on my own is just to think what level I was at half a year ago, or even a year ago.. think about that, then, think what I could/can be half a year from now, or a year from now. I just gotta keep going.

  13. Jonathan
    May 7, 2009 at 07:18

    >>there’s more to life than just Japanese.

    Excuse me, but we don’t allow talk like that around here.

    Life is ALL Japanese, ALL THE TIME. Or didn’t you get the memo? 😉

  14. Scuba
    May 7, 2009 at 07:27

    Khatz, thanks for the new post… As always it’s exactly what I needed!

    We’re even now.

    By the way, just to share my own experience with how I stay motivated about my progress. I like to look back on the stuff I was studying before, like reading through my workbook stuff from Japanese for busy people 1.

    Every time I do that, I remember the time when I didn’t know any kanji, or much of the kana without looking it up constantly.

  15. Rochella
    May 7, 2009 at 12:02

    Awesome post! Its hard for me to find fun stuff. I’m one of those people who find themselves idly watching the Japanese info commercials during the day more interested in the products for fun than listening. Oops 😀 I don’t know if knowing infomercial voices is really beneficial 😀 everyone’s so ExCited about EveryThing! OMG! haha!

    I wrote a blog recently about not comparing, because a slew of my friends learning JP were trying to compare their progress between themselves, and a lot of them were discouraged with each other. I think this is such an issue, I think people should indeed learn that everyone is different, and we should embrace that, not let it discourage us.

    I find that if I track my learning with guides and calendars and pie charts or whatever, I get too discouraged because I’m focusing way to much on those big things and seeing to much of the big picture. I’d rather let loose and just get lost in the moment, and before I know it lots of moments get passed and I’m better off than if I focus on the big stuff. To each their own!

  16. Tagore
    May 7, 2009 at 14:57

    I agree with a lot of what you posted, though I’m not so sure about the linear progress. In my experience, when you earn a language, or when you learn something that’s learned in a way similar to the way a language is learned, it can appear to be worse than linear at times, but in the end it is somewhat better than linear (say, O(n lg n), at least.)

    The reason is that in addition to the uncanny valley there is the barren plateau. Every music student and every chess player knows about this. It’s exciting when you start, for exactly the reason given in this post- you can double your knowledge in a day. But after a while the progress is slower, also for the reason given in this article- a day’s work is insignificant when compared to the years of work that have gone before. But then something worse happens- you seem to make no progress even after a month or two. This is the point at which a lot of people give up music, or the study of a language. They might not admit that they’ve given it up, but they stop trying to make progress and just repeat what they’ve already learned for the next 10 years.

    But- if you keep going, without stressing too much (and this can, paradoxically, entail taking a short break, though that should be something you do infrequently and even then you should have a non-taxing daily maintenance routine) you often find that when you do make progress again you make a lot of it, very quickly. I’ve come to think that if you are studying a language, or learning an instrument, visible progress should, and must, come in spurts. The first time I really broke through with Japanese I was feeling a bit down about it- I had been making some progress, I was understanding words and phrases here and there, but for a long time I had been stalled. I left a job and had some time off before starting a new one, and I watched a drama about 4 times in a row in a week. By the 4th time I was catching entire sentences- lots of them.

    I didn’t follow the khatzumomo method because I wasn’t aware of it, but what I did was pretty similar, but less intense, and minus the sentence mining, but heavier on reading, and lighter on writing characters. The method works, but it requires some patience.

    The analogy I like is to painting (though I suppose this only applies to traditional representative art.) When you watch someone who has no experience start to paint you notice that they work one area of the canvas to death before moving on to the next blank area. On the other hand someone who paints will work on the entire canvas at once. Now, if you only look at the little section of the canvas that the non-painter is working on, and then compare it to part of the canvas that the painter is working on, you might conclude that the non=-painter is making much better progress. In fact, the painter’s canvas is going to be very vague for a long time- maybe just a few lines in charcoal to start, and then some blotches of light and dark. But at some point, and even if you’re watching closely you might have a hard time saying just when, the painter’s canvas will start to scome into focus- and again, a bit later, it will be a bit more defined- and again, and again, until it is done. And wehen both the painter and the non-painter are done you’ll notice that the painter’s painting has better proportions, because he could see the skeleton of it at once- it has a better balance of light and dark, and it has better proportions.

    Now, it’s not so hard to put off adding detail before you should when you are working on a painting that will be done in a day or a week or a month. It’s harder when you are working on something like a language, or an instrument, where you measure progress in years. But I think that that’s a much more important variable than Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule of thumb (a rule that doesn’t even try to answer the question: why do some people spend 10,000 hours on things and still suck at them.)

    So, in short, take a short break, and then go back to it, honestly, and you will bust your plateau eventually.

  17. Ryan
    May 7, 2009 at 23:26

    Regarding the idea of a “victory calendar”–what is this calorie counting nonsense? Do you really simultaneously hold the beliefs “I enjoy learning Japanese” and “I want to count flash cards?”

    Let me make an analogy here. Listen closely to your absolute favorite song, giving it your undivided attention and fully processing it emotionally and psychologically. If you’re really into music, this will probably be a very powerful and satisfying experience. Now note the fact that, when you’re done listening to the song, you don’t mentally pat yourself on the back for having incremented the number of times you’ve listened to that song, or for having listened to an additional four minutes of music.

    Apparently, by any objective measure, I am an intermediate learner of Japanese, but I haven’t even noticed it; I haven’t experienced a moment of this “eternal sorrow,” precisely because I haven’t made it a Goal to learn Japanese. I don’t hold some delusion that I need to chase some future that’s just over the horizon, in which I have mastered Japanese and then have finally become happy or satisfied somehow. I have learned to accept and be happy with where I am: I have learned to have fun at my current level of Japanese, and because of this my progress has been exceptional, and I have never needed to play games with myself to effect some counterfeit of motivation, because genuine enjoyment never requires motivation.

    Truly, the most worthwhile advice Khatz has to offer is that language learning should be as fun as possible. This is the First Law of Robotics for second language acquisition: I didn’t start making true, enjoyable progress with Japanese until I decided to throw out every piece of advice, obtained from Khatz or anyone else, if it conflicted with the First Law. For example: creating one-way flash cards using synthetic Japanese audio prompts was tedious and difficult, so I reverted to making two-way flashcards out of single vocabulary words. One technique corresponds exactly to AJATT orthodoxy, and one technique had me reading Wikipedia and 読売新聞–and deriving pleasure from doing so–in mere weeks.

    Now, Japanese has simply become a part of who I am. If, for whatever reason, I go a few days without an opportunity to read much Japanese or work with my SRS, I don’t feel guilt or wage some awful moral battle with myself; I’m just afflicted with an even more intense craving to get back to Japanese. A week without Japanese should feel like a week without sex, not a week of blowing off homework and cutting class.

  18. Ryan
    May 7, 2009 at 23:26

    In response to Jonathan: everyone understands that, according to AJATT doctrine, holding Japanese in abeyance, even for a minute, should result in an immediate and involuntary guilt trip, like a dog crossing an electric fence. This inevitably constitutes a violation of my First Law. If your brain is telling you to take a break, there’s probably a good reason for that! My prior point bears repeating: if your study of Japanese requires that you wage a constant moral battle with yourself, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!

    You will return to an activity that you genuinely enjoy, every time; conversely, you will naturally resist endeavors that cause you suffering. Authentic, intrinsic motivation is the difference between devouring Japanese and force-feeding yourself. Don’t fool yourself into mistaking one for the other.

  19. Nukemarine
    May 8, 2009 at 01:01

    Ryan, you just posted how you did something different from Khatz for your own reasons that worked for you. Do you think that maybe for some people the number of mature cards in their deck can be yet another motivator? It was one bit of advice among many. Unless it’s completely useless advice like trying Pimsleur for 3 months vice anything else, then why dismiss entirely out of hand for everyone?

  20. Shea
    May 8, 2009 at 09:03

    I have to agree with Ryan on this one. I’ve been studying Japanese and having fun with it every day for the past 4 months or so and I took a week vacation when my mother came to visit me in Japan. I was a tad worried about my SRS thing but the overriding feeling was something LACKING in my life! I felt a small sense of emptiness without some sort of Japanese. Luckily I live in Japan so it is all around me too. And I realized during my break how far I had progressed. No longer do I rely on the English or Romaji in train stations but I can almost fully rely on the kanji everywhere and understand the people on the trains and can ASK people if I get confused about something. So a break can be good to realize just where you are at in your Japanese, but I felt that there was some sort of craving to be had because I went a week without any fun study. 🙂

  21. Sarah
    May 8, 2009 at 10:29

    Languages is fun, but you gotta do some less fun things like downloading or looking for shows. Don’t tell me that you enjoy the act of downloading something, even if you like what you’re going to watch/ listen to. It’s the same for vocabulary flashcards. I like knowing new words, and I enjoy my deck of flashcards, but I’m not all that gung ho when I got to make new ones, because it’s tedious. You can enjoy the result and the process, but maybe not all the technical thingies.

    • August 26, 2011 at 07:21

      I actually disagree with downloading can be boring. I have found some very useful websites and references while looking for things, so that it becomes easier later.
      Use that as a metaphor if you wish…

  22. Ryan
    May 8, 2009 at 13:33

    “Do you think that maybe for some people the number of mature cards in their deck can be yet another motivator?”

    No, I don’t, and I don’t think you fully realize what you’re saying here. Counting cards cannot be an end in itself; you can only derive satisfaction from it to the extent that it has meaning with respect to some other goal. You would find all of your SRS labor senseless if it were detached from the Japanese language and your enjoyment of it.

  23. Ryan
    May 8, 2009 at 13:34

    “Do you think that maybe for some people the number of mature cards in their deck can be yet another motivator?”

    No, I don’t, and I don’t think you fully realize what you’re saying here. Counting cards cannot be an end in itself; you can only derive satisfaction from it to the extent that it has meaning with respect to some other goal. You would find all of your SRS labor senseless if it were detached from your progress in Japanese, which itself only has meaning because you enjoy it.

  24. Nukemarine
    May 8, 2009 at 14:43

    Ryan, you’re thinking wrong then about my realization. If all person want to do is count cards, yeah, they’re wrong. Having 20,000 cards means nothing if none them are being looked at. Looking at 20,000 cards means nothing if all of them are simple variants of XXX wa YYYY desu. But hey, thanks for attaching to me something I did not say. If that makes the discussion easier for you, I’m cool with that.

    Remember the point of the article: A man who has improved in Japanese feels he can be doing better. He’s reading more than ever and recognizing more than ever. I offered something to maybe let him realize that maybe he’s learning at a good pace, or maybe he’s being a bit inefficient in his studies. He wasn’t very detailed, and none of us are experts at this thing (and I’m likely to be skeptical of anyone calling themselves an expert) so any advice offered as a cure all in this case is questionable at best.

    The other point was whether he should spend thousands of dollars in the Japanese Study program (I’m assuming that’s the course he’s talking about), or get a real job in sound engineering and continue doing with AJATT. On that I think he should stick with normal life.

  25. Rhino
    May 8, 2009 at 19:49

    don’t forget khatz’ other point about not caring about what other people do/where other people are at. Be selfish guys. Don’t worry what anyone else is doing, if it works for you that’s all that matters. Personally I try to keep it as fun as possible but there are times when I have to grind it out. It can never be all fun and games. There are lots of things I WANT to do/know in japanese but I don’t necessarily ENJOY them. Listening to Yomiuri news podcasts and SRSing sentences with words like 「郵便局」 in them dont exactly enthrall me. But I do it anyway, because I want it.

    I’m contradicting myself a bit there. Who cares what I do with my time? nobody but me. I get that you guys are trying to help out, but you just come off as elitist tools. Implying stuff like “Japanese SHOULD be learnt xyz way” especially makes me cringe.

  26. Tagore
    May 9, 2009 at 10:58

    Rhino- while I’d agree that there isn’t _one_ true way when it comes to learning languages some ways do work better than others, and there are some basic principles. I don’t know if I’d use the word “expert”, but I’ve learned a few languages, to varying degrees of facility, and I’ve come to some pretty strong conclusions about what works. I don’t see the harm in passing them along, but obviously you’re free to disagree, and in the end you should do what you find works for you.

    I don’t see that as an elitist thing though- in a way it’s the opposite. I’ve always been able to pick up languages pretty quickly. It would be nice to think that that’s because I am just naturally talented, in addition to being extraordinarily good-looking, but actually I think it’s just because I stumbled on some good methods for learning languages, when I was still pretty young. A lot of people think that they’re just not able to learn languages, but I think that they’re likely just going about in a way that doesn’t work very well for anyone.

    I do think that watching the cards pile up can be a motivator. I’ve never really done much of what Kahtz calls sentence mining. It’s not that I don’t think it would be useful, but I do other things that I think serve the same purpose, and that I enjoy more. But I do put vocab in an SRS. The SRS is not my primary method for studying the vocab- reading and hearing it in context is. I use the SRS just to keep things fresh, so I don’t forget them if I don’t come across them for a while (the more obscure the vocab you learn, the more this is a risk, IMHO.)

    My card count is not my primary motivator. But it has often served as a useful reminder that I am making progress even when it seems like I’m not. If a month goes by, and I don’t feel like my Japanese has improved much, I can look at my card count and say “Well, I put 1000 new vocab items in, and even if it doesn’t seem like I’m making progress, those are seeds I planted, and sometime soon I’m going to wake up and see that they have sprouted.” And eventually that happens- my ability do what I want with Japanese jumps, seemingly overnight. The card count is just a reminder that things are germinating underground, so to speak, and that I will eventually reap a harvest from the seeds I’ve planted.

  27. Jonathan
    May 9, 2009 at 13:22


    I was just being snarky with that comment 😉 But yes, I agree.

  28. Kaba
    May 9, 2009 at 15:59


  29. Jonny
    May 9, 2009 at 23:27

    @Tagore: It’s hard to say how people progress when learning a skill. It’s obviously not completely linear, since the rate you learn depends on a variety of factors which definitely subject to change, but it’s very possible that the average rate you learn is linear. For me, it feels like I go in steps. For awhile it seems like I’m making no progress at all, and then I learn something new or do something different, and it all clicks and I’ve leveled up. And then for a while it’s flat again. I don’t know if this is how it has to work, or if it’s just based on chance. But it could still average out to being linear.

    And Khatzumoto’s advice regarding this matter is completely correct, at least for me. Sometimes you’re stuck in a doldrums. You don’t gain immediate enjoyment from what you’re doing anymore because you don’t see any progress, and because of that, the idea of doing whatever it is that you are doing becomes less tempting in comparison to all the other things you can do.

    You could say that taking a break at that point is a good thing to do. And yes, maybe a small break might be helpful. Like a 15 minute break. But I think the best thing you can do is just push on. Don’t make it painful, but don’t rely on instant gratification anymore. It’s at times like this where I believe you are about to make a huge jump in your proficiency level, if you just keep going. I’ve dropped programming so many times in the past because it became “boring.” And because of that, I’ve wasted a lot of time, and I could be soooo much better right now if I just _continued_.

    And the problem with “taking a break” when it gets “boring” is that it becomes a habit. Whenever there’s a slight resistance, you stop (and when I say “you”, I really mean me, because I don’t know how general of an experience this is). And stopping at time like that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, which means that the next time you think about doing the activity, you might feel a little bit of resistance towards it.

    @Ryan: While I’ve never used it, the victory calender sounds like the type of thing that I’d like. Everybody encounters different problems when learning new things, and requires different solutions. To call an idea like the victory calender nonsense just because it doesn’t fit with the way you do things is nonsense itself.

    I have a problem where I can’t remember what I’ve accomplished, so I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything. Creating a calender to keep track of all of that would really help me remember that I’m still moving forward. And maybe once I felt better about it, then I wouldn’t use it anymore. And that’s fine. The victory calender, and everything else like that, is a tool. If the tool serves a purpose, then use it. When you don’t need it anymore, stop using it.

    People have their own problems and shortcomings, and they bring those into whatever they do. This problem that I have is a problem with myself. It’s not unique to learning Japanese. You may not share this problem, so you may not require the same tools.

  30. Tagore
    May 10, 2009 at 06:26

    Jonny: well, first off, I wasn’t completely agreeing with Ryan- in fact I disagree with a lot of the specifics of what he said, while agreeing with the general principles he was stating. I have to admit I would find it a bit embarrassing to have something called a “victory calendar”, but I’m just geeky enough to like stats. I’m geeky enough about it that I keep track of what every thousandth word I put in the SRS is.

    But I think that getting into a huff about “elitism” is counter-productive, and generally misguided. People who are good at stuff tend to be elitists. Khatz is good at sugar-coating his elitism, but most people aren’t. You brought up programming- man, you wouldn’t believe some of the guys I studied with. The guy I learned the most from used to ask really difficult questions out of the blue, and if you didn’t get them right he wouldn’t talk to you for a week or so- it was like you weren’t in the room. He was actually the first guy who ever implemented a truly functional programming language, and had been one of Tony Hoare’s best students. At any rate, those guys made Gordon Ramsay look like a cream puff.

    Anyway, I know that my progress has been a bit better than linear when it comes to Japanese. One real milestone for me was getting to the point where I knew the on readings of all the common characters, and understood which wave of Chinese influence they had come in on (for instance buddhist terms tend to use the less common readings that were picked up earliest.) That makes it a lot easier to pick up new vocabulary, as long as it is vocab that has Sinitic roots. But, my progress has definitely been much closer to linear than to quadratic- that’s why I say that O(n lg n) is the best easy to understand approximation of it, over time.

    The thing about taking short breaks is that you take them in order to avoid long breaks. 15 minutes isn’t long enough ;). If you try to push past the point where you’re really feeling burnt out you’re going to have- well, you’re going to have exactly the experience you describe. Sometimes you really do need to just stop with the Japanese for a few days. But when you do that you ought, I think, to continue to do just a bit of Japanese (maybe about a half hour a day or so). Keep up with the SRS, listen to a song, whatever. Try it the next time you’re feeling really burnt out. I think that if you take a few _short_ and _infrequent_ breaks you’ll find that you make better progress. The key is to only do it when you really need to.

    People aren’t as different as you think, I think. They have the same shortcomings, generally, but to different degrees. Anyway, any method of learning that doesn’t take human weakness into account is flawed, IMHO. I think that’s what Ryan was getting at, and while I don’t agree with him on all the specifics, I think that there’s a good point at the base of what he’s saying. If you find studying something overly painful you’re unlikely to keep it up long enough to get good enough at it for it to be useful to you. So you ought to ration your pain- only do things you don’t like doing once you’re sure that they are essential. In effect you should have a pain budget, and treat it like a financial budget… don’t let yourself get too overdrawn at the pain bank. You won’t be able to afford the interest in the long term.

  31. Harry
    May 10, 2009 at 09:47


    I’m not going to write some huge post that is really boring to write (mostly), about how awesome you are, and how motivational this post was. I’m only going to say one thing…

    I needed this, thanks.

  32. Max
    May 11, 2009 at 01:07

    Khatz, did you know that there’s apparently a Cantonese Wikipedia? o_O

  33. GoldFibre
    May 11, 2009 at 17:08

    Is this a different T-star from the Japanese one whose parents send you rice?

  34. neil
    May 12, 2009 at 10:42

    hey man great post. i totally feel the same as that guy and I thank you for motivating me to keep going. take care. I look forward to your future posts!

  35. Janra
    May 13, 2009 at 03:09

    Shoo, Khatzumoto, you tell us your response was in Japanese, yet you dare to leave it out from your blog post? How will we ever learn Japanese if this continues?
    (No, but really, it would be really cool to see more posts in Japanese from you)

    I’m in this “valley” myself at the moment, what makes it worse, is that I’ve had to drop the time I spend on Japanese due to being so busy with life calling. Like someone mentioned, it’s useful to material of varying difficulty. I’ve been noticing this kind of stuff myself. Sometimes when I’ve been pushing the harder material and go back to the easier, it feels a lot easier.
    It feels so.. “uncanny” when you kind of *can* understand what they’re saying, or what you’re reading, and it’s fun alright, but not quite as fun as it would be with a higher level of fluency. It’s a sort of “try me” of what it will be like once you “try it” more. (Well, it could be de-motivating as well, but I go for the positive sides.)

  36. beneficii
    May 13, 2009 at 09:29

    Chalk one up for trial and error:

    The Wright Brothers probably had thousands or tens of thousands of failures over several years, but they did it in such a way that they could keep failing until they succeeded.

  37. Tagore
    May 17, 2009 at 12:00

    Janra said: “It feels so.. “uncanny” when you kind of *can* understand what they’re saying, or what you’re reading, and it’s fun alright, but not quite as fun as it would be with a higher level of fluency.”

    I think this is what kept me going for a long time. Every once in a while my comprehension would jump up a step, and things would become a bit clearer. And that’s the most amazing sensation- something that would have been gibberish to you a few months ago now makes _some_ sense. I found it kind of addictive.

    The truth is that it’s really hard for me to justify the amount of time I’ve spent on Japanese, unless I just say “I’ve spent that time because I enjoyed spending it.” I figure that the opportunity cost of learning Japanese to a high level is probably at least a million dollars, if you compare it to the most lucrative thing you could realistically have been doing. Very few people will ever recoup that through learning Japanese. And, even if you’re not likely to have been doing the most lucrative thing you might have in that time, you could have spent it with friends and family, or in learning to play the piano ;).

    Now, though you might think otherwise, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from learning Japanese. What I’m saying is that since, in a mini-maxing sense, ignoring the pleasure you derive from it, learning Japanese makes no sense… it only makes sense to learn Japanese if you enjoy it. and, for me at least, the key to that is to abandon any sense of “duty”. I mean- you could say everything I’ve said above about playing video games. But you never hear people angst about how they haven’t played enough hours of GTA IV so far this month.

    So enjoy the fact that you can kind of understand things you couldn’t understand just a short time ago. You’re right that it’s a great feeling when you get to the point where you understand almost everything being said in a Japanese TV show, or can read a book without using a dictionary (much 😉 ). But it’s hard to get to that point if you aren’t fascinated by the intermediate steps. It’s like looking through a soaped window, and wiping it clean, again and again… every time you wipe it a little more detail is revealed, and in some ways the earliest passes reveal the most interesting things.

    Anyway, the more learning Japanese (or any other language) is play, the more you will learn, I think. So, if you are discouraged, stop doing what is discouraging you, even if it is important, and start doing what you enjoy. You will learn more Japanese by doing something that is inefficient than you will learn by avoiding doing something that is efficient. And in the long run a lot of what looks like inefficient enjoyable stuff is actually more effective than the seemingly efficient dour stuff anyway. Good luck, and keep having fun with it.

  38. lillefluff
    May 28, 2009 at 10:11

    A late additional comment from a person who has successfully learned one language in the past: One of the biggest motivations for me is that I know that eventually I will get to a point where one gets almost the same kind of kick out of learning as in the beginning. To me, one of the most fun stages of language learning is the point where you have reached fluency, but keep working on attaining an even higher level of fluency. I know it’s possible to get there, because I’ve done it before, and I know I’m well on my way there with Japanese – even when it feels like I’m making no progress at all.

    To all you people who are struggling in the middle, I just want to repeat what has already been said: keep going. I spent what feels like a small eternity in this stage where I could “kind of” understand English and got the gist of a book, song etc, but didn’t quite catch the nuances and details, but I kept on reading English books nonetheless, and gradually things got more clear. Now I’m getting a kick out of learning (and using!) “strange” advanced vocabulary and being a proud Grammar Nazi in a language other than the one I was born speaking, and it feels awesome. The same thing -will- happen to you and me with Japanese, too.

  39. Ernesto
    May 28, 2009 at 12:26


    …you’re kidding! Your English is superb! Congrats on becoming fluent. I’m still in the middle stages of Japanese, but I’ll keep going nonetheless.

  40. Narkth
    August 9, 2009 at 22:55

    I’m sitting here, eating an early supper, chopsticks sticks in hand, listening to some godawful JPop, when I read…

    …lillefluff’s comment. O.O. Thanks for that. You definitely sound like a native speaker. You have just compounded my belief that I can achieve fluency in a reasonable amount of time.

    I especially like that you have become a grammar nazi. I think it would be amazing to get the point where I correct native Japanese speakers ^^

  41. AD
    November 11, 2009 at 03:45

    I believe that human growth is logarithmic and not linear, other than that, good post

  42. Drewskie
    May 2, 2010 at 09:00

    It’s amazing how relevant this article is to where I’m at right now. Just this week my Japanese project has started having this weird, not-quite-right feeling, and this article addressed it like I was the one who sent the e-mail.

  43. February 7, 2011 at 18:21

    Dude, this is such an awesome article you wrote. It applies to being an artist so well. Your website is a real inspiration


  44. February 7, 2011 at 20:32

    I must have read this before, but it’s great reading it again.

    I’m at exactly this stage in Dutch right now, and having those same thoughts like “alright already, when am I going to stop sucking?”. The thing is, I already have my own evidence because I taught myself fluent German using something “AJATT-like”, and German is reeeally close to Dutch.

    So why does my brain insist on telling me that I suck at Dutch and I’m never going to get there, when I’ve already proven that it works in nearly identical circumstances? I guess that’s just the power of your perception during the intermediate stage that you’re not really going that fast, even if you are. Fly a hundred flights, and the take-off will still seem more exciting than the middle.

    I guess this also holds some advice for those new to language acquisition: even the “experienced” people feel this way when they’re partway through a language. Focus on the fun instead of the result, and it’ll work itself out.

  45. Dax
    March 16, 2011 at 22:22

    Thank you Khatzumoto for spreading the positive vibe.
    I think that people who have any kind of higher formal education tend to over dramatize language learning process. They would like to cram a grammar , memorize 5000 words and that’s it. Now let’s speak!!! Wait, no, something is not working, ok I MUST learn another 5000 words and revise the grammar, that is like 50 words per day , another 3 months!!! I suck, I am going to kill my self.

    In reality, language learning is more process than a chore with the beginning and the end. Also , some people don’t get that one can rarely go to job, study for school, phd or whatever, go to gym , hang out, make a business and travel at the same time! You must be focused in a funny way. Like AJATT, you still have a life and you are enjoying it but you are making progress, far better progress compared to “serious learning” process where you look like a retard , always feel under the pressure and compare with others.

    To conclude , keep learning and it is not possible to stay on the same level.

  46. August 26, 2011 at 10:15

    Intermediate students of any language hit a plateau at some point. As long as you keep on studying and listening (listening is extremely important), you’ll be fine.

  47. November 17, 2011 at 00:46

    This is one of my favourite AJATT articles, and it seemed only fitting to post my new findings here.

    I don’t think I’ve been going through a full blown “Are we there yet” phase, but I have been thinking more about the future than the present lately. Either way, what I realized was that thinking, “I’m at x stage of the journey” is forever placing where I *should* be in the future, and leaves me in a state of uncompleted-ness.

    What I’ve found is, the better way to reflect on the situation is simply thinking, “being able to understand and comprehend x amount; it’s my current way of life.” This more present-centric way of thinking seems like a more uplifting way to think about things for me. After all, we don’t go around saying. “yeah, I’m at x stage of life” – we generally just think in the now.

    I don’t know, this is probably a twist on something that’s already been covered, but I thought I’d put it out there in case it helped anyone.

  48. kraemder
    July 31, 2013 at 23:18

    Reads like all your other posts but I like all your posts so… I am at the intermediate stage myself (hence I’m reading this article) but I still do see progress. I see it when I’m watching anime. Anime varies depending on the content on how easy or hard it is to understand so I don’t see my progress on every series but there’s definitely some anime I watch and I’m like wow.. I understand a lot of what’s going on here. It’s helping me to continue. Aside from that, I’m going forward based on my experience learning other languages (which were European and therefore easier)that it always always always gets better. Just have to be patient.

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