You’ve been through RTK. You’ve taken down 1000 J-E sentences. You’ve put in a good dent on around 1,000+ J-J sentences. You’ve been listening to Japanese media on your immersion Ipod all day, every day. You do all your Anki reviews on time and are constantly adding new cards. You play Japanese video games. You listen to Japanese podcasts. You read Japanese manga. You are living the immersion dream. You are following Japanese Level Up and similar methods. Yet something is wrong.
You are only understanding 10-20% of what you are listening to. There is too much kanji you can’t read and you struggle through books and manga. You speak slowly, make too many errors, and can’t say what you want to. When people speak to you, you can’t keep up a conversation.
Right now ask yourself the following three questions:
1. Are you doubting your methods?
You’ve been following a certain method for so long with promised results, and are yet to see any of them. This leads to you searching the internet for reviews on your current method, other methods, and how other people are studying Japanese.
2. Are you doubting your own abilities?
Maybe you weren’t meant to learn Japanese. Maybe you just aren’t smart enough. Other people were able to do it, but for some reason you can’t. You focus on everything you can’t do in Japanese. You check the internet for how long it has taken other people to be able to do X, Y, and Z, and then question why you can’t do the same thing in the same time frame.
3. Are you doubting the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese?
You start thinking learning Japanese will take forever. You’ve already spent countless hours, days, and months, and yet have little improvement.
If you have answered yes to 1 or more of these questions, you may have just entered the dreaded Japanese mid-level blues. Brace yourself. Somewhere between level 20 to 30 or 8 to 12 months of studying, you will face one of your most difficult trials.
What causes this phenomenon?
The major transition between 1) knowing you are a beginner and still learning, and 2) expecting tangible results and more of your abilities after putting in so much time and effort. You start feeling like you deserve far more for what you’ve done which causes the above three questions.
How long do the mid-level blues last for?
While I know you would like to see a small time period, I think it’s very important to be truthful here. Expect a good 2-5 months, which depending on where you are, should be enough to push you towards the slightly more advanced levels (35~40). As always, the harder you push through towards your goals, the faster you will overcome this, and the faster you will move from frustration to adjustment.
The epicenter: immersion and listening
While you will begin to doubt all your abilities and methods, the area that is hit worst is listening and the use of the immersion method. While you may not be pleased at all with your reading, writing, or speaking, you can at least physically see that you can at least do something. With listening, you may watch a Japanese TV show and feel that you understand almost nothing after 8-12 months of studying.
Understanding the reality of the situation
Now that you know what you are going through, you need a plan of attack. The Mid-level blues cause many Japanese learners to fail. This is one of the major hurdles which is why there are so few foreigners speaking fluent Japanese. As followers of Japanese Level Up, I can’t very well have you fail like all the rest. First, some key points to follow:
1. Do not suddenly start reading negative reviews of the methods you are using.
Negative reviews online of methods are left by people who are going through what you are going through. The major difference is that they decided to give up the method before it reached fruition. They never gave the method a chance to work. To them, the method never worked. This is why you often see on many internet forums “the immersion method doesn’t work.” These people then go on spending too much time trying to find new methods to discover their perfect match.
2. Read positive reviews of the methods you are using.
This would be the obvious counterpart to the above, but it is still important to point out. Reading and seeing people who used the methods you are using now is very motivating and reassuring, in a time you need as much of this as you can get.
3. Avoid major skews in the in-about ratio.
This is a time where you may want to spend an exorbitant amount of time on web forums discussing the problem, seeking answers, and having sympathy parties with others. Stop.
4. Trust the people who provide their Japanese methods online.
We usually know what we are talking about. Do you think we’ve poured months/years into websites for the purpose of telling you lies and exaggerations?
5. Don’t divert your time into something else.
Some people use this lag in Japanese studies to pick up a new hobby. Your Japanese study time decreases, either leaving you in the Mid-level blues for even longer than you have to be, or resulting in the abandonment of your passion.
6. Reflect on how much you’ve accomplished so far.
How many kanji do you know now? How many sentences do you know? How much Japanese media can you understand (rather than can’t)? You’ve come a lot further than you realize.
Immersion and Listening and the Mid-Level Crisis
Immersion works. It works beautifully. I and others have used this method to extreme success. However, immersion listening is different from normal listening methods and you must make yourself aware of this. The chart below reflects the progress of an average immersion listener vs. an average normal listener.
People using regular methods see progress right from the beginning because they are listening to level-appropriate material, and building their listening in blocks of difficulty.
People using immersion methods are doing the exact opposite. They are starting right from the beginning with the absolute most difficult material (native media), and are not breaking up difficulty according to level. Immersion listening and the mid-level blues are entwined because right as you are entering this depressing phase (around 8-12 months), your listening ability is painfully low and has yet to make it’s giant leap.
Another non-obvious comparison:
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.
Conquering these blues will separate you from those who learn Japanese and those who don’t. It’s just that simple. The main concept you really need to know is just keep pushing forward. Do not slow down, and do not stop. As long as you keep moving, you will emerge from this phase with new found powers. You will enter the next new wave of levels as your Japanese world begins to rapidly open up for you. What’s waiting on the other side of the mid-level blues are rewards worth more than you can possibly imagine.