Overcoming The High Level Blues

Why are you studying Japanese? To understand anime/manga? To get a job in Japan? To appreciate the music? To play video games in their original form? All fine goals. But eventually you come to a strange crossroads. You’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to do.

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Now what?

The Mid Level Blues (usually around level 20-30) is that downer phase between having a strong foundation of all the basics, but being unable to make that leap into actually enjoying what you set out to do. You reach a plateau. A seemingly impossible to climb wall blocks you.

The high level blues (level 45-55) is a much more complex phase. A phase that most learners may be jealous that you get to experience, but a major struggle nonetheless.

Your Japanese isn’t perfect. It’s not fluent. But it’s pretty damn good. Good enough to do everything you wanted. You don’t need 100% Japanese to have fun. 85% is enough.

Two emotions emerge:

1. Complacency: the feeling that this may be good enough. You are able to bask in the rewards of your labor. Why suffer any more?

2. Lack of direction: where to go from here. You’ve come this far but feel like you aren’t making the same progress anymore. Is this what fluency is like? Is there really anything else you can do?

The high level blues is a game changer. The sad truth about Japanese learners is most people don’t make it past this phase. People too easily make a conscious decision that this is good enough. An unsurprising coincidence is that level 50 is around the level required to pass the JLPT N1, which causes many learners to feel they have peaked.

However this is Japanese Level Up. No one on this site is stopping at 50s. I won’t allow it. This site is getting you to fluent or beyond. Nothing less.

Is it really worth it?

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Yes. Absolutely.

I suffered the high level blues at the worst time possible. Right after I came back from living in Japan for 3 years. This was a rough time, as I was used to having an in your face need to improve your Japanese all the time. A drastic change of environment can hurt.

I persevered and fortunately discovered that there is a major difference between “advanced” and “fluency.” They are worlds apart in what you can see and what you can do. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the same divide in feeling of going to Japan for the first time when you speak little Japanese and going when your Japanese is good. You appreciate more, you feel more, you connect more. Sure 85% feels great, but it’s that last 15% that makes things truly special.

So how do you get it through it? There are 4 strategies I developed that allowed me to push through.

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1. New grand goals

When you’ve met goals, you have to set new ones. Immediately. Otherwise your pace falls flat. I know you’ve been at Japanese for probably a few years now. But it’s time to sit down like you did when you first started studying, and make a new list of things you want to be able to do, short term and long term.

2. Connect with other Japanese learners who are where you want to be

The high level blues bring with it some arrogance. Your Japanese is great and you’ve earned it. If you’ve ever run into a high level Japanese learner who is being arrogant (for example on a forum), there is a good chance they are in the middle of this phase.

Making friends with learners who are much higher than you does something important. It shows you how much better you can actually get. It puts your level in perspective, showing you that you still have so much more left to achieve.

Don’t have any direct connections? Use fluent foreigners that appear on variety shows as your role models.

3. Whatever you were doing at the peak of your levelling, bring it back, and take it further.

Has Anki turned into mostly just reviews with few new cards added? Get back into the habit of adding new cards like you were in your level 20s. Used to watch hour after hour of Japanese TV show? Are you still doing so or has English programming been increasingly creeping in? Did you used to go out of your way to talk with everyone in Japanese, whenever and wherever you could? What happened to all those people?

Read a new novel a week or a few volumes of manga a day. Step up your pace. Reignite the flame. Don’t let it slowly burn out.

4. Use more challenging native material

Always watching or reading the same type of material gives you false confidence. You get too used to it and you don’t feel the necessity for improvement. You need to expand into new genres and formats you’ve never engaged in with before.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Experience with the high level blues?

I know there are some people on this site who have faced this, are currently facing it, or have it just around the corner. What problems have you struggled with? How have you overcome/hope to overcome it? Have any strategies to add to the list?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Overcoming The High Level Blues — 44 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, this is the phase I’m at! I’ve found it really strange and was wondering what was going on. I’ve been writing about it for about a semester now. Every challenge I set out for myself, I end up backing out of. Like I have no motivation to improve (-_-).

    The things I used to do, like going out of the way to speak Japanese to people, now almost seem silly, because it’s not necessary, and I feel like I need to put real things in my life, not little challenges that used to get me by.

    What I’ve done as my first step to get by this is join a course on gacco.org called Pop Power. It’s a free, open course ware that gives you a certificate at the end if you pass. Now, I finally feel some motivation. But I’m a little scared. I almost backed out today seeing there’s a paper every week, but then I realized they’re all due at the end of the four-week course, so it doesn’t have to interfere with my work schedule. I just listened to the first lecture and it was sooo good. I have a friend around my level who said she also signed up for the same course, so we’re going to be study buddies. If anyone else wants to sign up, let me know at @petitelumi on Twitter, I’d love to be your study buddy too.

    I’m right on the later edge of this, level 55. Being in a Japanese club at school really did give me too much confidence, though I loved it and those are treasured memories. When I started doing Omakase! Media, a media guide project my team and I are working on, I noticed one of our team member’s Japanese is a lot better than mine. It’s not that I wasn’t humble about my Japanese ability or bragging or anything, but it really helps to see someone who’s better to give you perspective and get out of this mode.

    • I think we always need new challenges, regardless of what we do. Challenges are real things, but once we stop pushing ourself to reach further, we get stuck.

      The course and the course papers sound like an excellent new challenge for you.

  2. This is a great article! It’s kind of like beating the story mode in a game once you reach this point but you only really feel satisfied when you take down the super bosses. I expect to be around 45 and enter this phase in the next two or three months so it’s great to have this article in advance. I can feel this kind of thing coming when after a few listens on my immersion iPod I can get around 85% on the shows I like. I hope to keep power leveling even when I reach this phase, but it will probably seem odd because the progress will start to get slower even though I’m devoting a lot of time per day, but of course you can only earn so many points a day. What did you use for higher level materials at this point?

    • Excellent analogy!

      When I made the transition from advanced/business to fluent, some of the challenges I created:

      – Watched extensive comedy sketches (漫才、コント)
      – Read a novel a week (for almost a year straight), on a wide range of unfamiliar subjects
      – Made a lot of Japanese online friends that loved to have long e-mail correspondence

  3. I’ve felt this to some extent (~40), but for me it manifests in a more subtle way. As I get more comfortable with native media, I find I have to push myself harder to stay consistent with studying (and not just have 100% fun-time reading/playing), but fortunately I can’t stand not knowing things far too much to just let it slide. At this point I’m fairly confident that I’ll reach fluency in Reading/Listening by sheer force of OCD.

    And even when I get to 80+ in the input skills, there’s still the matter of output. I pride myself on my English writing ability, and I can’t imagine I’ll be satisfied until my Japanese writing ability is comparable. As for speaking, I’ve simply been too nervous to talk to anyone, so I’ve got a looooong way to go there. My pronunciation sounds OK when I’m reading to myself out loud, but try to talk to a live person and my voice just shuts down – nothing comes out. At some point I’m going to have to suck it up and do something about that, even if it means hiring someone to coach me until I can get over the nerves >_>

    • Put it in a more positive light. Every word you find that you don’t know is a new item to add to your inventory that will be useful for a later battle. The feeling of wanting to know everything is troublesome for a beginner but important for the high levels.

      And I think many people have had some fear of speaking in Japanese they have had to overcome. Just take things one step at a time.

  4. Exactly this.

    I fulfilled my dream. I have a job in Japan where not only I’m using my degree, but I get to communicate in Japanese all day. I go home and I get to watch Japanese tv and read manga and understand it.

    But I still make mistakes. And I still trip on certain ways of saying things. And I’m still uncomfortable with new subjects.

    Knowing this means I’m making sure that “just around the corner” doesn’t happen. At work, during my breaks I’ve been reviewing my Japanese grammar to get stronger at that, I’ve been writing entries in Lang-8 to improve my writing, I’ve been studying every Japanese thing that comes across my desk, even rewriting the emails sent out so I can get a feel for how to write work emails.

    I refuse to not get better and better and to not get to a point where I’m understanding at least 90% of most material. So thanks for the encouragement to keep on pushing and not settle.

    • Very admirable. You can do it!

      I love how your life in Japan is sounding! Being around Japanese all day, sending Japanese emails, coming home to Japanese TV live! And the BookOffs all around. Sounds awesome.

      Your Japanese is definitely going to soar! Doesn’t sound like you’re in this stage. You’re so productive about all of this! But I can see how you could easily slip into this stage with the environment you’re in. Good preventative thinking!

    • Okay, well, it happened. The high level blues. Having settled into my life, now all I want to do is go home after work and watch (American) tv and movies. I haven’t touched a book in months and haven’t touched manga in almost two months. I do want to go out all the time and speak to people in Japanese but speaking is the only thing I feel excited about these days. It’s all very strange. I at least try to reason with myself that at least I’m practicing something in Japanese and since speaking was my weakest skill, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

      But boy, my manga keep staring at me. And the books.

      • I mentioned this on another comment thread recently, but consider the following:

        The most skilled speakers are also voracious readers. This is true in any language.

        If you’re really excited about being a good speaker, and want to be able to express your viewpoints clearly and elegantly, sound smart, be persuasive, etc then you have a lot of incentive to keep reading.

        Maybe it’s a little childish, but have you considered setting up an incentive program for yourself? Read X books a month and reward yourself with a special dinner? Alternatively, maybe you need some new material that can re-ignite your interest?

      • I’m sorry to hear about the blues. The way I think about it, if it doesn’t entertain you forget about it, but always keep searching for something that will entertain you. It’s the book’s job to keep you entertained. There’s gotta be something entertaining that just happens to be in Japanese.

        • Thanks for the encouragement and tips.

          I continue to sneak into BookOffs to look for inspiration and every night I try to at least read a few pages of different manga series to see if anything takes off. And while it’s not happening now I’m sure it’ll come back. It always does since the passion is always lingering even if it’s not fully aflame at the moment.

      • A good way to fight the American TV urge (hey there are some shows that must be watched right?) is to start watching the Japanese dubs instead (Hulu Japan is great for this). You usually end up about a year behind current episodes but it takes way the guilt of watching all 5 seasons of the Walking Dead.

        Same goes for novels.

        As Matt also says, at high levels (even natives), reading makes a major difference on your speaking, so you can try to use that as a boost of motivation.

        • I just got onto Hulu Japan without an account and I don’t see an option anywhere to change the audio to Japanese. I clicked on the first episode that is free to watch to test it out, but no dice on the Japanese audio. Do you know if an account is required to access the dub?

          • some stuff is japanese audio, some is japanese subtitles. Sometimes they have both, but it isn’t an option. They’ll upload it twice, as separate shows/movies. Friends has a dub from memory. I haven’t used it in a while cause I had to use an annoying vpn to get it working.

            • Sounds like it’s a bit cluttered. I just signed up for the free trial and tried to get the Walking Dead to play as a Japanese dub and it still doesn’t work for me unfortunately. Maybe it’s separate from the page I used though.

            • I’m from Australia. I had to use a Vpn to access Hulu Japan content. http://Www.hulu.jp

              Though I’ve heard Americans might not need one ? So annoying, that’s why i cancelled my subscription, the annoying Vpn wasn’t dynamic and only worked on my pc

          • Yeah, well actually walking dead I had the DVDs, but for other shows sometimes there are Japanese dubs, other times there are not. For the shows that there are not, I have checked out used DVDs on Amazon. Itunes Japan also has a nice amount of material that is growing, and older movies/TV shows you can get for like 100-200 yen a piece.

            Hulu Japan I think is still in its infancy, and will really grow it’s dubbed collection from here on out.

            • itunes japan store doesn’t have tv shows does it? Unless you mean buy from the american store and turn off subtitles? Heaps of movies though :O

            • I think I’ll look more into the Amazon and Itunes options as well. Hopefully Hulu Japan will indeed add more and more as time goes on, as there are a fair number of American shows that I would like to watch dubbed at some point.

        • If I were just rewatching series I’ve already seen, maybe I’d watch it in the dub, but since I’m watching these shows for the first time, well, I’m not going to watch Breaking Bad in Japanese. Sacrificing the integrity of the show because I’m worried about losing the integrity of my Japanese is just not going to happen. This is why I learn languages in the first place; to enjoy materials in the original language.

          What I really need instead is something interesting to watch in Japanese that can attract my attention as much as these American tv shows, etc. But until Japan can create the equivalent of Vikings, I don’t see that happening right now.

          In any case, I’m not actually that concerned. Motivation, along with many other things comes in waves, and I know that I’ll get over this. Time is my ally.

          And like I mentioned before, I’m finding an upgrade in my speaking so maybe the break is allowing my brain to settle and process so I can actually use what I’ve been learning. (I know last year I was learning so much so fast that my brain couldn’t catch up and I was speaking as if I had a sock in my mouth.)

          I appreciate all the support even if I’m decided to continue my ways. (Hey, we have to be stubborn sometimes. :P)

          • What i find really useful and fun is watching japanese dubs of movies ive seen a million times in english

  5. As a beginner, I can only dream of having this problem. But when I do have this problem, I’m going to own it.

  6. I’m only level 35ish but I’ve always promised myself that I would get to 10000 words no matter what. Maybe it’s my own naivety, but I can only imagine once I hit the level 40 turning point at 5000 words I’ll have more drive than ever to become fully fluent. I guess around the 7500 point i could start wavering in my pace. But I just can’t imagine getting that close and not reaching my true goal.

    I’m really excited for the next couple of months because when I get to 5000 words I’ve promised myself I’m going to try having proper voice conversations with others in Japanese.

    • This definitely effects everyone differently, but it’s just something to keep in mind so that when you do get to level 50 and start to have feelings like this you’ll be ready with a good plan of attack.

  7. I get the blues when I finally find someone who speaks Japanese and I listen in and I can’t understand anything. It makes me feel like my studying is all for not any tips to get over this

    • “Immersion listeners: noise -> some noise -> little noise -> clarity
      – When you start with the maximum amount of noise (incomprehensible native media), the only direction to move towards is clarity.

      Regular listeners: clarity -> little noise -> some noise -> noise
      – While there is clarity from the beginning, since they are listening to material to match their level, when they suddenly jump listening material levels, there will be more noise since they are not used to it. The higher the level they jump in material (nearing native media), the less they will be used to it, and more noise that will be introduced.”

    • I guess just know that it will end, as long as you keep immersing and studying. But it is a blind leap of faith based on others experiences. So it’s easy to get low points sometimes. Your study would be all for nothing if you gave up now and never came back. Don’t ever give up!

    • If you mean eavesdropping (listening in to others conversations you aren’t a part of), keep in mind this is difficult even in your own language. You are just kind of thrown into the mix, without context, probably at some physical distance, and not participating in the conversation makes it harder.

  8. Thanks for the great article!

    I’ve been going through the intermediate blues since forever (almost 1 year I think) and honestly, I can’t seem to get out of it no matter what I do. Compared to most readers, I think I am really lucky because I work in a Japanese company and my bosses speak to me Japanese 100% of the time.

    I would say that my listening skills have improved a lot but gosh, my speaking skills…it still sucks big time. I call it the ‘I-understand-but-can’t-reproduce’ stage. It is really frustrating because you can’t vocalize your thoughts and opinions even though you understanding what the other party is saying.

    Every single day I am still trying to figure out how to get myself out of the intermediate plateau and improve my speaking skills. The exit seems to be nowhere in sight as of now but well, gotta keep trying! To those who are going through the blues, just so you know, we are all in this together and let us keep striving forward and I really believe that one day, somehow or rather, we will conquer it like a boss. :)

    • It almost seems as if I wrote this… I’m in the EXACT same situation as you.
      Fortunately, our company also uses a chat program/facebook/line to communicate with one another, and I can express myself fairly well through there. At least I can pretty much understand most of what is said to me, and a great deal of what is said around me (not directed toward me, but occasionally expected of me to have heard it/understood it)
      I can kinda awkwardly express myself verbally — as my only means of communicating is Japanese, but it is frustrating at how horrible I feel I am at doing so.

      I recently got my own place, and a tv, and internet in my place, so I intend on trying to improve a lot more from this point on instead of just kinda living in Japanese with no effort to improve it.

      Anyway, thanks for posting — it’s nice to hear there’s someone else going through almost the exact same thing I am.

      • Hello! Thanks for sharing! Like what you said, it is less painful when you know that you are not alone in the problem. Wish you all the best! We can do this!

      • Hello Adam! Thank you for the link to the article. I will always read those articles when I am feeling frustrated about my progress. :) Thank you!

  9. This phenomenon would apper to be more problematic in non-anki studiers I believe. The exponential improvement I’m currently experiencing at my current pace through anki cards and immersion… I can’t imagine wanting to stop until these mass leaps in skill begin to wane. For example it takes 2500 cards to level 30, but the gap between high level and fluency is so much smaller. I just can’t imagine myself ignoring how short that distance is in comparison to how far I’ve come, not to mention the huge impact you receive per card when compared with beginners.

    Of course this is probably more relevant for j-j and more partcularly, anki users. I’d assume that anyone not using these methods, especially if they’d never heard of them, would have no idea how much of a timeline they have left. For me it’d be a matter of mere months versus the year and a bit it took me to get here. Seems a bit silly to stop any sooner if you knew what I now know (thanks to this website)

    • I think you hit on a good point, that depending on your study structure, the tools you use, and the way you are setting concrete mid-long term goals makes a difference on how this will affect you.

  10. This may sound a little strange, but right now, my primary goal is to get to the level where High-Level Blues set in. :3

    • Haha, I think your primary goal should be to get to the level where you just finished your high-level blues!

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