The Foreign Rational

The world as seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you already have somewhere between an N4 and an N3 level of Japanese—although really, this advice can apply to any language. 

As an intermediate Japanese speaker, you should have a solid grasp of most basic grammatical structures (like -te, –ta, and –ba verb endings, as well as negatives) and a functional understanding of some of the more complex ones (like -saseru and -saserareru verb forms). 

You probably also have enough vocabulary to make full sentences expressing basic intentions (I want to eat ramen for lunch! Hiru ni ramen tabetai! 昼にラーメン食べたい!) and simple preferences (I like ramen more than soba. Soba yori ramen no hou ga suki. そばよりラーメンのほうが好き). You know several hundred kanji characters and can start switching between casual Japanese and the desu/masu form. 

If you’re not quite there yet, go ahead and check out my article on beginner tips

If you are, let’s take a moment to celebrate your journey so far. The term “beginner” can sound belittling, but for Japanese, making it into the intermediate stage is already a sign of tremendous effort and dedication. Congratulations! 

Now some bad news. 

The most awkward and frustrating part of learning any language is the middle. 

What makes intermediate learning so difficult is that it can feel less like understanding and more like memorization. Most of what you’ll be doing is finding ways to internalize long lists of vocabulary, expressions, and slightly less common grammatical constructs—and it’ll probably still be a while before you can get lost in a book or your favorite television series.

Before I give you advice on the actual language learning itself, it’s important to understand why a majority of learners give up before reaching N2, let alone N1. Most people blame it on the difficulty of the language or a lack of time, but in my personal experience, the biggest obstacle to getting amazing at Japanese has little to do with the language itself. 

It’s a matter of motivation. That’s where I’d like to begin my intermediate tips. 

Don’t fall into the three big psychological traps

If you want to get good at a language, spend time learning the language. If you want to get good at learning languages, spend time learning about learning languages. 

Here, balance is key. You don’t need a master’s degree in linguistics before you can go out and learn Japanese. In fact you’re probably better off without one. Every moment you spend on articles—mine included—is a moment you’re not spending on flash cards and grammar videos. 

Since I don’t want you to waste precious time procrastinating, let me sum up all you need to know about the psychology of language learning as an intermediate learner. 

The first trap you need to know about is the more you learn, the slower it feels like you’re learning. It makes sense mathematically: When your knowledge goes from 1% of a topic to 2%, you’ve effectively doubled your ability. It feels like a lot. When you go from 37% to 38%, not so much. This is where people start freaking out and googling a bunch of articles on how to learn effectively. 

Keep calm and keep studying. The tools that got you from 1% to 2% are just as effective at getting you from 37% to 38%. What’s changed isn’t your learning speed, but how you perceive your learning speed. 

The second trap is that the more you know, the more likely you are to forget the things you know. Including extremely simple, beginner things. Even years after passing the N1, I still have those moments of, “How could I possibly forget that word? I learned it years ago! I should know this! Ultra beginners know this!” 

This trap stems from the way we learn languages as adults. Thanks to modern tools, we can memorize incredibly long vocabulary lists in record time, before we’ve actually had the chance to really practice and internalize the words themselves. 

Those memory lapses aren’t a sign that you don’t know the word, but rather that you haven’t fully internalized it yet.

It helps to see memory lapses as part of a multi-step process to learning a word. The first step is memorizing the word and its meaning in your native language. The second is memorizing it without having to associate it to an idea in your native language. The third is knowing the word, having used it, and having heard others use it enough that it requires no thought whatsoever. 

That third step is internalization, and until you get there, you will have memory lapses. 

Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Photo courtesy of jrpass.com

The final trap you need to know is the dangers of comparison. People learn at different speeds and in different ways. We have a tendency to only compare ourselves to the people who impress us or to whom we aspire, leading us to have a biased perspective on what is “normal” and be way more critical toward ourselves than we are toward other people. 

This is especially true if Japanese is your first foreign language and you compare yourself to someone who knows several. Fluid speech isn’t synonymous with mastery. Polyglots are very quickly able to make full sentences in foreign languages. That doesn’t mean they’ve mastered those languages—just that they’re flexible in their word choice and sentence structures, allowing them to express complex ideas with simple constructs. 

Language is about much more than fluidity. Don’t let the ability of others get you down. Some people are genuine genius language learners. Many more are just really good at sounding good. Neither should stand in the way of your learning process. 

Those three traps should always be in a corner of your mind. I can’t think of a single fellow Japanese language learner who hasn’t dealt with them. They’re painfully universal. To summarize:

  1. The more you learn, the slower it feels like you’re learning
  2. The more you know, the more likely you are to forget things
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others, it’s never a fair comparison

Remember them when in doubt and use them to shield your motivation. You’ll need perseverance to progress effectively and sustainably. 

Make full sentences, even if they’re wrong

Now back to a concrete language tip that’s critical when you get to the intermediate phase. I had fellow Japanese students tell me they were fine with sounding like a caveman as long as they could get their point across. That is absolutely the opposite of how you should approach language learning. 

Make full use of all the grammar and vocabulary you’ve learned by making the most sophisticated sentences you can, even if at first nobody can understand them. 

There are two reasons full sentences—even if they’re incomprehensible—are important. The first is that sentences are the mechanism by which you internalize what you’ve memorized. Remember the three steps to learning a new word. 

When you just speak in key words with insufficient context, the listener has to fill in the gaps. A beginner-level example would be if somebody comes up to ask you for directions and timidly mutters the word “station” while shrugging and pointing at a map. You’ll assume based on context that they want to know where the station is, but most of that assumption comes from clues that are not language. 

Even worse, the traveler who asked the question probably thinks they speak pretty good English since after all, you understood them.

Now in that same situation, if the person had asked, “What is the station?” instinctively many of us would go, “Oh, you mean where is the station!” 

The misuse of language conveyed the wrong message, but it created a valuable learning opportunity. In that lost traveler’s mind, your face might forever be associated with when to use “where” instead of “what.”

I can’t stress this enough: Getting your point across is not the same as speaking a language. By focusing on basic comprehension, you risk internalizing poor habits and getting stuck in the caveman phase. While that may serve you as an intermediate speaker, good luck getting to an advanced level, where you’ll have to try to convey abstract ideas. 

No amount of shrugging and pointing will help you then. 

The second reason you want to make full sentences in Japanese especially is that native Japanese speakers will hardly ever correct you. Even when I ask my Japanese friends and colleagues for feedback they’ll say, “It’s excellent, you’re basically native.” I’m really not, I make lots of mistakes, they’re just too polite to point them out. 

The very few times Japanese speakers will correct me is when what I’m saying is incomprehensible, or I make the same mistake over and over again.You want to get to a point where the native speaker will take pity on you and would rather hurt your feelings than let you keep embarrassing yourself. 

This happened to me once at work, when I was repeatedly using sekkyaku (接客, to receive customers) instead of sekkyoku (積極, proactive). A younger colleague I get along with well pointed out my mistake, and now I automatically remember his grin every time I suggest our team be more proactive. 

Flashcards may work great, but shame works even better. 

For grammar especially, overuse it

For both vocabulary and grammar, the only way to internalize what you’ve learned is to both experience how native speakers use it, and use it yourself repeatedly in a variety of contexts.

For grammar especially, the “variety of contexts” element is critical. Grammar is meant for broad use, but often the line between what sounds natural and what doesn’t is invisible to non-native speakers. 

What I recommend is to use the grammar structures you recently learned in every context in which you think they could possibly apply. Overuse them. If you think of grammar as an equation—as I recommend in my beginner tips—then imagine this overuse as mental arithmetic. Once you’ve practiced enough, you can solve even complex equations with barely any thought.

My friends used to make fun of me a lot for doing this. For example, the instant I learned the grammar point nakute wa ikemasen (なくてはいけません), used when you have to do something (I have to submit these documents, kono shiryou wo teishutsu shinakute wa ikemasen, この資料を提出しなくてはいけません), I began using it all the time. 

I had to go to the bathroom? Toire ni ikanakute wa ikemasen (トイレに行かなくてはいけません).

I felt like I had to order the giant portion of rice because it was free? Muryou dakara, gohan wo oomori ni shinakute wa ikemasen (無料だからごはんを大盛りにしなくてはいけません).

Over time I realised that neither of these two examples made much sense. The structure is used when you feel an obligation to do something, not when you have an actual physical need (the toilet example) or when you’re giving in to an urge (the rice example). However textbooks don’t often teach these nuances. And the actual phrase nakutewaikemasen is quite a mouthful. 

Even though I sounded like an idiot and I don’t use that particular phrasing any more, it will forever remain ingrained in my memory. 

How you’ll feel when you make it through to advanced. Entrance to the Unagihime shrine, Yufuin, Oita prefecture.

The most efficient learning method is whatever you use the most

My last piece of intermediate advice again has less to do with Japanese and more with learning in general. A lot of people online have all kinds of advice on the most effective way to learn. At the end of the day though, the most effective tool is the one you use. 

For me, I drew great satisfaction from spending hours on end doing flashcards, then taking mock JLPT tests and seeing my score go up. I was so motivated to pass the N1, I spent more time and effort studying Japanese than on my entire postgraduate degree. 

For other people, I’ve seen all kinds of motivators that have worked. If you love Japanese culture to the point you desperately want a Japanese partner, good for you. Use that passion to fuel your Japanese learning journey. If you want to read manga as soon as they come out, by all means, use manga as your main learning tool. 

Being an intermediate learner is about doing as many things as possible to identify your imperfections, embracing them one last time, then strangling them mercilessly. It’s an ungrateful task that can sometimes feel terrible, but it needs to be done, which is why finding the most motivating way to do it is so important. 

That’s it. Everything else is basically the same as in the beginner phase. The only new advice I have is: be careful of the three traps, use full sentences, overuse your grammar, learn the way that keeps you learning.

Now you’ve spent enough time reading this article. Get back to your studies. 

Good luck! Ganbatte! 

PS: In terms of tools, I would once again like to recommend NHK’s News Web Easy for reading, Anki for flashcards, and the YouTube channel Nihongo no Mori (日本語の森) for grammar and listening. 

When it comes to books, I personally really enjoyed the Nihongo So-Matome series and the Try! JLPT preparation books. 

And if you’re ready to travel to Japan, make sure to get your hands on a Japan Rail Pass! All purchases help support my content, and honestly, it’s the best way to travel domestically.

One thought on “Intermediate Tips that Helped Me Learn Japanese Quickly and Sustainably

  1. JW says:

    Keep up the good writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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