At first, learning a new language is super fun. So many interesting words! Quick progress from zero to … something! Apps apps apps!
But then things become a bit routine, and then, stale. The dopamine hits are less reliable. You advance more slowly, or hit roadblocks. For Japanese learning, apparently (according to my very scientific collection of data from random YouTube channels and discussion boards), this often happens when students are approaching “intermediate” level. There are lots of fun resources for beginning Japanese students, but once you’ve completed the whole Duolingo course, have mastered the most elementary kanji, and have started to grapple with more advanced grammar, it’s harder to find learning aids that meet you at your level.
I’m not at the intermediate level yet, and my motivation is still intense. Even though I have little time on my hands, I cram in a bit of Japanese study every day by getting up early, and by grabbing moments between classes or as a break while marking papers. There’s nothing I’d rather do with my free minutes than go through some kanji flashcards or write a four-line composition for my class.
I’m obsessive by nature, but my obsessions don’t last forever; this one has sustained itself for over a year, which is promising foreshadowing of a possible long-term commitment, but sooner or later, the morning will come when I just won’t feel like it. So I’m trying to put good habits in place to get me through that morning and those that come after it. I’ve gleaned some tips from learners with more experience than I, and also from my own past practice as both an English teacher and a learner of French. I’ve made four important choices about my approach to studying that have contributed to keeping my motivation strong so far.
1. Take it slow.
When I was in training to become an English teacher, I learned that limiting new input is essential. One rule of thumb is that you never introduce more than ten new vocabulary items in a lesson. Another is that spaced review is much more effective than cramming – reviewing an item at longer and longer intervals leads to longer-term memory, whereas trying to ingest a lot of stuff quickly, say before a test, leads to loss of all that info once the pressure is off.
So I try to ignore any compulsions I have to go fast. For example, I practice kanji using WaniKani, a 60-level program for learning 2000 or so basic useful characters. I’m currently on level 5, and have been for some weeks, because every day I complete all my reviews and then do just a tiny bit of new learning. At this rate, I might never reach level 60. That’s ok! I’m retaining what I’m learning quite well, and so far there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t wanted to do my lessons.
2. Mix it up.
I’m not a gym-goer; I prefer to get my exercise outdoors. However, when I visited family in the north of Canada one January, the forecast was for unrelenting -40º temperatures. The YMCA wasn’t far from my father’s house and offered a free week to new members. Their pleasant sunlit workout room was usually mostly empty, so I discovered the fun of spending ten or fifteen minutes on each machine rather than, for example, dedicating a whole hour to the mind- and butt-numbing recumbent bike. This bouncing around kept me eager to go every day, whereas if I’d tried to slog through one activity for the whole hour, the gym would have been a chore.
When it comes to studying Japanese, doing a little bit of everything, instead of spending a lot of time on one tool or item, helps me avoid saturation. In the morning I do one small grammar lesson, about 15 minutes of kanji practice, and a little bit of reading. If I have time, I add a few other activities throughout the day, including but not limited to listening to Japanese music on the metro and watching some Japanese TV at night. If I get tired of one activity, I swap it out for something different.
This summer, I’m hoping to dedicate a month to intensive self-guided Japanese study, and one principle I’ll be sure to follow will be to have a wide range of activities and tools so that I can move my attention around and reinforce what I’m learning in a variety of ways. It’s good for my learning, not least because it’s fun, and so I want to keep it up.
3. Set new goals.
When I started serious Japanese study back in December of 2020, I had no real objectives. I just loved doing it. Progress through the absolute beginner levels was quick. There was so much to discover: inventive textbooks, apps, YouTube channels, anime and Japanese reality TV, other people as excited about Japanese as I was. I didn’t need goals. And I still don’t, really. The process is its own reward.
But the tools that are working well for me are no longer as shiny and exciting, and I have recently found myself wondering if I’m making any real progress. I can feel the day looming when I might open しろくまカフェ and think, “Hmm; maybe I should go for a walk instead.” So I’m putting some motivators in place for when that day comes.
For example, I just ordered an assortment of books to help me prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I’m not even sure I’ll write it any time soon – I have to travel to another city to do so, and the lowest level is one that learners often skip, as it’s pretty basic; the next level will take me a lot more time to prepare for. Nevertheless, studying for that lowest level will give me an attainable goal, and even if I don’t write it, getting to a place where I feel I could pass it will give me a sense of accomplishment. The study process will also prepare me if I decide to write any of the higher-level tests. So this is a small, achievable step.
(Also, the textbooks are so cute! Look at that little chipmunk face just waiting to teach me vocabulary.)
Sometimes a goal pops up unexpectedly. I love haiku, for example, but now that I know a little Japanese, I see that English translations of Japanese haiku are missing something important. The thing is, I don’t know what. Could I become good enough at Japanese to understand haiku properly? Or even to write haiku in Japanese? Probably not, but I won’t know unless I try.
4. Congratulate yourself.
Every time I recognize a kanji I just learned, or I’m able to read the hiragana on a package at the Asian grocery down the street, I give myself a little fist bump. Singing along to random J-pop choruses while I make dinner makes me feel like I just won a medal.
But I might have been proudest of all when, in class the other day, we were practicing the construction のまえに (before…), and our teacher went around the class asking what each of us does before we eat breakfast. I said that I study Japanese. “本当に [Really]??” she exclaimed. “本当に,” I assured her. She was so impressed that I was embarrassed, but I decided to take it as she meant it: a recognition that working hard at something deserves applause.
I mean, accomplishments are fine. But that time before breakfast is one of the happiest moments in my day, and creating happiness for yourself is worth celebrating.