Language goals

Overcoming a language learning plateau

Hitting a language learning plateau can be stressful. When you first start learning a language, you can often feel your progress at the end of each study session. Knowing that you are picking up new information so quickly is an amazing, almost addicting feeling.

Sadly, this sense of rapid progress doesn’t last forever and no matter what level you are, you might reach a point where your proficiency remains the same. I’ve definitely been feeling a bit stressed from the feeling stuck recently, especially when trying to set myself some goals for the year.

hitting-a-plateau-learning-japanese
Image by Makalu from Pixabay

So how do you deal with hitting a plateau – when all your hard work doesn’t seem to be resulting in any progress at all?

Getting out of the language learning plateau 

Hitting a plateau is incredibly common, but sometimes our perceived lack of progress is exactly that – a perception. Excessively worrying about perceived lack of progress is a waste of time, so use the plateau as an opportunity to make positive changes. With that in mind, here are a few things that have helped me improve my language learning mindset:

Set a new goal or challenge for yourself

We can end up in a rut where we have achieved past goals and might have subconsciously gotten too comfortable at our current level. The solution is to keep working towards new goals that you need to strive for. Is there an aspect of the language you’ve been avoiding? Time to tackle it!

For example, with Japanese I was so anxious about learning keigo (formal/ honorific language). I knew I needed to tackle it but I was lacking confidence at first. Fortunately, a couple of lessons focused on keigo helped me feel a lot better about studying it on my own. Not only that, it led to a huge improvement in understanding Japanese at shops and restaurants as well as in more formal situations.

Similarly, you could set yourself a challenge such as:

  • learning a new hobby through your target language
  • read a certain number of books in a month/ year
  • write a short story or essay 
  • give a speech on a certain topic

I’ve written a bit about language learning challenges on the blog. I even made up my own 30-day Japanese writing challenge as a way to push myself!

Sometimes at an intermediate level the amount of vocabulary you know makes a huge difference, so you might need to change your focus a little bit. This leads me nicely on to my next suggestion:

Change up your learning routine

The language learning plateau can be a result of boredom, where we end up doing the bare minimum. Try prioritising different skills for a few weeks at a time to keep things fresh. 

You can also look at other ways to refresh your language routine, such as studying at a different time or place than usual. Similarly, the resources you are using could be limiting your potential. Carry out a mini audit of what you use currently. Is it time to replace a resource with something else?

It might seem counterintuitive, but you might just need to give yourself a break. Intense study for long periods of time can lead to burnout. Make sure you are taking regular breaks and that you also have a good balance of studying grammar/ vocab with more fun activities in your target language.

Reach out to others

Hitting a language learning plateau can be really difficult to deal with on your own. Talk through your language routine with someone else – they may be able to point out a gap in your learning that you hadn’t noticed before.

The other benefit of doing this is to help stay motivated. Sometimes just one conversation can remind you remember why you started learning a language in the first place. Social media is really useful for this when you don’t know any local language learners! If you haven’t been interacting with native speakers much, reach out to someone on Hello Talk or iTalki.

When we fall into a routine it can become harder to spot potential areas for improvement. The language learning plateau is a scary place to be, but it is important not to get discouraged and keep going. The changes you make when you feel you are plateauing are key to your future success. Keep going and you will eventually break through!

Have you experienced a plateau or dip recently? Comment down below with how you managed to overcome it 🙂

3 Reasons Why Breaks Improve your Productivity

Believe it or not, breaks are an essential part of a productive study session.

In our quest to master our target language, it is very easy to study in long intensive sessions. There is a lot of research to suggest that taking breaks is an easy way to improve your memory. We already know that sleeping is very important for good brain function, and this extends to our ability to learn new skills.

I think that having a cup of tea or coffee is a good excuse to take a break!

How are breaks beneficial for learning?

  1. Taking a break gives our brain a chance to retain new information better. Doing an easier task such as having a coffee is known as wakeful rest and allows the brain to dedicate more of its power to process new information.
  2. Breaks aid our creativity and problem-solving skills. Have you ever had an experience where you were stuck on a problem, only to take a break and suddenly find the right answer? Taking a break gives ourselves a chance to reset and approach tasks with a fresh mind. 
  3. Long study sessions normally lead to stress. When you try to learn a lot in a short time it is easy to get overwhelmed, making it difficult to actually learn anything effectively. Breaks help you to sustain your motivation, especially when tackling something difficult.

So with this in mind, there are a few easy things you can do to incorporate breaks into your study routine.

Tips on using breaks effectively

  • If your mind tends to wander a lot when you study, then try taking a break. It might be that your study sessions need to be broken down into smaller chunks. The Pomodoro technique takes advantage of our need for breaks. With the Pomodoro technique, you take a 5-minute break after 25 minutes of focus. After 4 focus sessions, you get a longer break of 20 minutes.
  • Make sure you do as little as possible during your breaks. Using your break to check your social media or do some chores might seem like a good idea, but you are not truly giving your brain a rest. Meditation is also a great idea to ensure that you switch off completely.
  • Try to go outside or for a walk. Physical activity improves oxygen flow to your brain and stimulates our hippocampus which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer break is pretty much over. You might have neglected your studies so that you can enjoy your holidays – I personally think that’s great! Don’t feel bad about taking breaks because they are critical to productive learning sessions. 

When your study sessions don’t feel productive, there are a few things that you may need to look at. Here are a few posts I’ve done related to this topic that might help you:

Decluttering and The Path of Least Resistance

The idea of having fewer ‘things’ has been on my mind a lot lately. This is mostly to do with the fact that I have moved house recently. However, this has also coincided with me finally watching Marie Kondo’s TV series on Netflix.

I thought that Marie Kondo was already fairly popular, but this show seems to have got a lot of people talking about decluttering. I believe that the Japanese word for decluttering is 断捨離:

断捨離 (だんしゃり/danshari)

Decluttering

Marie Kondo and her method might have a lot of critics, but it is obvious from watching her show that having fewer things makes her clients so much happier.

I’ve been on my own personal mission to declutter, which was very difficult at first but has gradually been getting easier. The vast majority of my Japanese books have survived my latest round of decluttering. Nevertheless, going through this process has got me thinking about why decluttering is a good idea both in general and when it comes to language learning.

The Power of Decluttering

I was watching a TV show about a Japanese minimalist called Fumio Sasaki (佐々木文雄). He realised that he needed to make a change in his life and decided to drastically remove the number of items he had. Through this process, he discovered that having fewer things improved his life in many ways. He’s since written a book about his experiences called ぼくたちに、もうモノは必要ない (the English title is Goodbye, Things).

His example is rather extreme but it did get me thinking about how decluttering can be beneficial.

Decluttering helps you create room for the most important things in your life. When you have fewer things, making decisions becomes much easier. It also means you have fewer things to worry about – for example, having fewer clothes means less laundry to do.

The Path of Least Resistance

I recently read about a theory called the Path of Least Resistance. In short, the path of least resistance means us humans will always do the things that it is easiest to do.

Let’s say I have some chocolates near my sofa and some fruit in the next room. I am more likely to eat the chocolate as it is physically closer to me, even though I know that eating the fruit is better for me. This concept applies to all areas of our lives.

It sounds like a very negative thing, but it is possible to use this aspect of human nature to our advantage. Going back to the food example, if I place the fruit near my sofa and lock the chocolates away in the next room, I am more likely to eat the fruit instead of the chocolates.

Ultimately, decluttering helps you to take advantage of the Path of Least Resistance. Fewer things to distract you means you can program yourself to make better decisions more easily. If I don’t buy any chocolate at all, then I no longer have to make the choice between chocolate or fruit – I can only eat the fruit.

How does this apply to language learning?

There are so many different resources out there for Japanese. Truthfully though, I think a lot of people (myself included) would make more progress if we restricted the number of resources we used. Choice is a wonderful thing, but just like when we have too many things it reduces our ability to focus on what we really want.

If you have this many Japanese books, then you should definitely be decluttering!

Most of the time our progress is not dependent on what resources we use, but how we use them. What habits do we have in place that help us learn the language? I’ve explored this idea before when I wrote about ways to simplify your language learning routine. I now challenge you to declutter your language learning resources!

Decluttering for Language Learners

  1. Take stock of the resources you use. Marie Kondo likes to get her clients to put all of their clothes in a huge pile before sorting through them. It’s a bit harder to do this with language learning resources (especially digital ones), so I write a list of all of the websites/ subscriptions/ apps that I am using.
  2. Ask yourself a few questions about each one. Do you use it? Do you like using it? Is it helping to move you towards your language goals? If the answer is no, then you probably don’t need it anymore.
  3. If you find it hard to identify which resources are holding you back, stop using one or more of them for a couple of weeks. If you didn’t really miss using the resource during this period, then it might not be as useful or helpful as you think.
  4. Sell/ give away/ unsubscribe from the resource.

The resources you have left should be the most effective in helping you make progress. What’s more, it should be easier to jump into a study session without having to spend time deciding what to use!

I write a lot about various resources on the blog, but in reality, I only use 3-4 at one time. If there is a resource that no longer serves a purpose, I stop using it. You should use the resources that are best suited to your goals. However, our goals and priorities can change, so our language learning should adapt to these changes too.

Sometimes I stop using something, only to go back to it later – I think this is perfectly fine to do. Whilst I believe that consistency is important, I focus on consistency in my habits rather than consistency in the resource I use.

Have you decluttered recently? Do you think it has had a positive impact in your life? Let me know in the comments!

My Mid-year Language Review

The end of June is near, which means we are nearly halfway through 2019 already. I honestly feel like it has flown by! Now feels like a good time to review how much progress you have made so far.

My birthday happens to be in June so this is the time I naturally think to myself “what is it that I want to achieve by my next birthday?”. A mid-year review is probably familiar if you work in a corporate environment, but over the last couple of years I’ve tried to do a personal review. It’s really easy to think that you can only set and revise your goals at the start of the year, but of course you can do this whenever you want!

In my case, I don’t really need to do a long review to know that I need to make changes. I have fallen behind with my goals for learning Japanese and the blog, but I am making steps to get back on track. I wanted to share how I have conducted my own language audit this year. If you’re not sure how you are doing with your languages, this post might give you some ideas.

How to carry out a mid-year language review/ audit

1. Look at your goals for the year. Do you need to make any changes?

  • Are your goals still relevant?
  • Have you added new goals since the start of the year? Try to be as specific and realistic as possible

I briefly wrote about a couple of goals in a blog post last December. My two goals were to read 1 book a month and work towards sitting the JLPT N1 in December. I was doing pretty well until March, which is when I moved house and my priorities had to change a bit. Not having the internet for a while had a bigger impact on my study than I initially thought!

2. Evaluate your progress

  • How much progress do you think you’ve made?
  • What do you think has contributed the most to your success or lack of progress?

The benefit of setting clear, measurable goals is a lot more obvious when you have to review them. You can use quizzes and tests from textbooks or online resources to judge your progress.

Having said that, even if you have set smart goals it can be difficult to assess yourself, so you might need to take a different approach. Have a look back at the types of things you were studying at the start of the year. Have you developed a better understanding of grammar points? You can also ask the people that you practice your target language with if they have noticed a difference in your ability.

Work backward from your end goals. What steps do you need to take to get there?

  • Are you studying regularly enough?
  • Are you covering the right amount of material in each study session?

Knowing what your priorities should be is important to making progress. It is always tempting to focus on your strengths, but this isn’t necessarily going to get you closer to your goals. Being uncomfortable is part of the process!

Are your habits aligned with the steps you need to take to make progress with your goals? Are there any particular areas that you need to focus on?

  • Is your routine focusing on your weak areas?
  • Do you need to introduce some variety into your routine?

Sometimes it isn’t what we are doing but how we are doing it that needs improvement. If you were taking a proficiency test, then you might realise at this point that you need to accelerate your learning. You always want to schedule time to revise what you have learned too.

If you haven’t progressed as much as you hoped, It’s important not to beat yourself up too much and try to think of some positives to keep things balanced. You can’t change what you did in the past, so focus on what you can do now and in the future to improve.

On the other hand, burnout is a very real thing and you should take care not to push yourself too hard. Making time in your schedule to relax is essential.

What I’ve learned from my review

My mid-year review has made me aware of a few things:

  • I’ve covered a fair bit of my grammar textbook, but when I tried a mock test recently I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I have realised that I need to spend more learning the difference in nuances between similar sounding grammar points. I am going to drill grammar every 1-2 weeks so that I can review gaps in my knowledge more regularly.
  • As I read a lot of fiction, I need to start reading more non-fiction as I feel that my reading skills are slower outside of novels (this could be due to a lack of vocabulary too)
  • Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with how much I still need to learn, which hinders my progress. My aim is to focus more on what is directly in front of me, whether that be my Anki reviews or grammar note taking.

One positive I can say is that I’ve managed to finish 4 books that have been on my to be read like for months (even years!). I’ve also started reading a book that I bought years ago – the last time I tried to read I couldn’t make any sense of it (lots of relative clauses).

I’m not sure whether I will be able to take the JLPT in December, but I will keep working on my grammar and vocab and see where I am in September. My listening skills have stayed fairly consistent as I listen to podcasts in Japanese pretty much every day.

I found this a really useful exercise and it has definitely boosted my motivation. If you have any tips or resources for me then I’d really appreciate it!

%d bloggers like this: