Enjoy The Small Breakthrough Moments

Small things can be powerful. For example, take a look at language. The study of sounds, both spoken and written. That doesn’t seem special until we consider that those sounds also carry meaning, which grants them a power beyond a simple noise.

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Language as a Journey

Like many difficult tasks, the study of language is often compared to a journey. Everyone naturally understands what a journey entails – a lot of time, and no small amount of tedium – so the metaphor is well deserved.

A “milestone,” which was used in the past to mark physical distance now conveys the completion of a major accomplishment. For those new to JALUP, this would be something like completing the RTK deck or Beginner 1000. Milestones are a place for you to take a breath and look back on what you’ve accomplished before continuing on.

Goals Are Essential

Goals are a tremendous part of the language learning process. Many articles on JALUP dive into best practices for setting, maintaining, and reaching goals.


They give you forward momentum and encouragement to work towards something. They help you break down that giant milestone into manageable chunks.

For example, the RTK Mod has nearly 2,000 cards in it. That’s a lot, especially to someone starting out! If your goal is to do 20 cards a day, however, suddenly it’s not insurmountable.

Appreciating the little things

One of the things that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the little moments in between. Those little “Ah-Hah!” instances that enter into the middle of your study session without warning or fanfare. They are the tiny signs that measure the distance in between miles on the highway; easily overlooked, but still worthwhile.

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What’s the big deal about something so small?

These moments are a reminder to be positive. It’s easy to dismiss a small victory while you’re in the shadow of a large task, but do not be so quick to disregard them. A surprise, by definition, is something that grabs your attention because you weren’t expecting it. So when you experience it in regards to your Japanese learning it’s because you knew something that you didn’t even know that you knew! A sign that all the hard work you’re putting in is bearing fruit, even if you aren’t aware of it. This is also the beginning of an even larger understanding coming together.

The joy of the personal experience

Last year I found out I was going to be sent to Japan by my company for about a week. I began looking for information on studying the language so I could get by on my journey, and ended up going through several different resources. What they all had in common was the recommendation to skip out on romaji, learn the kana, and RTK before focusing on the language. So, when the time for the trip came I was in despair. Though I’d spent a lot of time studying, I hadn’t learned any Japanese!

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Stepping into the train station at Narita, my coworker and I purchased tickets, looked down at them, and realized we had no idea where to go. We knew the train was leaving in 5 minutes, so that didn’t leave us much opportunity to sort it out.

As I stared at the ticket, my frustration vanished in a moment of shock. “I know where to go!” I said. After we were seated on the train I told my colleague that I was able to figure it out because this is the kanji for “car”, and that means the number below it only made sense if it were a seat number, so that this other number had to be our train. The rest of the trip was filled with similar instances where knowing what a kanji meant was the difference in being clueless or functional.

Progression comes slowly with time

Understanding comes progressively in a system that is focused on native content. The more time you spend, the more you begin to understand.

Take passive listening, for example. Listening to the same audio tracks over time you begin to have moments where the unintelligible became known. It starts simply enough “Hey! I know that word”, but soon progresses to “Hey, I know that phrase”. Then one day several characters will go through an exchange and you stop dead “I followed that!” A similar effect comes when working sentences as you become more comfortable with the language the amount of understanding gained from reading something tends to increase.

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Relish in your personal breakthroughs

For me though, the biggest breakthrough was the first time I communicated in Japanese with a native speaker who didn’t understand English.

My work has me traveling to large gaming events every month and assisting the players when needed. About a month ago I fielded a question from someone whose opponent was Japanese, and clearly not following along. The Japanese player began to ask a question, and though I didn’t understand all the words he used, I could tell from modifiers and his gestures what he wanted to know. I answered him with a simple “はい!” After a quick look of surprise passed over his face, he bowed slightly and resumed the game with confidence. Not exactly engaging dialogue, but it was what it needed to be – for both of us.

These examples are just a few from my year of studying Japanese and though they don’t seem significant in the retelling, at the time they were valuable moments that provided encouragement and validation that the effort invested was worth it.

Take advantage of the small moments to reinvigorate yourself! When they happen, pause for moment and write them down, giving you motivational material to remind yourself of the next time you are down. If you feel like you’re stuck or have lost the motivation to keep working, I encourage you to press on a little bit further. You might just surprise yourself.

Do you have any small stories like this that have helped spur you forward?

Please share them in the comments below!

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A busy husband and father of two that fell in love with Japan on a business trip in 2014. Since then he's been studying, engaging native content, and growing in skill one day at a time.

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Enjoy The Small Breakthrough Moments — 13 Comments

  1. Lately I have been doing more of the passive listening that is not just music, and have definitely enjoyed being able to follow along with certain lines, stories, and things. Very fun and reassuring that my studying is paying off little by little.

    I think recognizing small victories like this and the ones you mentioned are very important in moving on to keep up studying, immersion, etc.

    • That’s a very cool place to be Jacob and something that I have been putting more emphasis on lately as well. Are there any particular passive listening avenues that you find useful in your listening? As for me, I’ve found it beneficial to listen to the audio tracks from anime I have already seen. Being able to watch the scenes in my head provides some better context for understanding. I’m curious to hear what other passive listening sources people are having success with!

      • Yes, I have been listening to content I’m already familiar with: One Piece and a couple GTO episodes I have just recently watched for the first time. Already being familiar with the content is definitely a big help in keeping up with what they’re saying, and also to start hearing things I didn’t hear the first time. I think eventually after getting comfortable enough with audio I know, I may try to look into some podcasts/talk shows/etc. to practice listening to brand new audio.

  2. Great post! It’s definitely important to remember to stop and look back at all that you’ve done; especially in moments when you feel like you’re not progressing!

  3. I keep a log of these things. I certainly don’t update it every day, but whenever I am struck by one of these little victories I make a note of it. When I get depressed about studying I read through it and it helps to motivate me.

    Some of the things I’ve noted down:
    Early on reading a Jalup Beginner sentence and realising that ‘these squiggles have meaning’!
    Reading a particular Beginner sentence and thinking ‘that was a really complicated sentence and I understood it!’
    Seeing a Japanese tour bus in London and being able to read the Kanji (RTK meanings) – something like ‘Japanese Educational Tour’.
    Exchanging a few words with a Japanese guy I sat next to on a ‘plane.
    Making out and understanding a whole sentence in the chorus of a Japanese pop song.
    Watching an anime (with subs) but realising that the villain had switched to super-formal Japanese and this made him seem more sinister (subs didn’t pick up on this nuance).

    • That’s a really good idea! I’m definitely planning to do this moving forward, and might even try to walk myself back in time and do some retroactively…

  4. Good article ^.^
    I feel like I’m in a bit of a slump at the moment. I understand most of the important grammar now, and am getting pretty good with reading kanji. My problem is the huggge amounts of words in the language. It feels like I am learning so many new words every day but everytime I read or watch something there are so many more words I don’t know. So I’m just keeping at it, building my vocab day by day.
    Gotta concentrate on the little victories more and look forward~~

    • It sure can be discouraging when you get overloaded on the dialogue of a show and all the words you haven’t heard before. One of my favorite things is to hear a word I just studied in an episode of something I’m watching, however! So I guess it’s a bit of a double edged sword in that regard. Definitely keep at it, those unknowns will become knowns over time.

  5. I think my biggest little victory came early on. In my sentence deck, I was used to seeing long spans of random kana at the end that made no sense to me. I would usually just ignore them and focus on whatever word I was learning. Then I finally bothered to learn about grammar (Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide). As soon as I went back to the sentences, I could actually make sense of the kana. What was once incomprehensible suddenly made perfect sense.

  6. I had a bit of a eureka moment when I first found out about Word Formation Principles, and the fact that in 70% of cases, mnemonics can be made for vocabulary from the meanings of kanji. It made learning vocabulary so much easier.

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