This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Connect.

Angelique Magistrello (Aichi)

Have you ever come across the term “intermediate plateau” in your Japanese learning journey?

Though there isn’t any official definition, in language learning, the intermediate plateau can be defined as the sensation of stagnation when you’ve reached an intermediate level but can’t seem to reach an advanced level. You’re definitely not a beginner, but you’re not quite comfortable with calling yourself an advanced speaker either, as you still struggle with most native material, or when you want to talk about deeper subjects. In Japanese learning, you often hear about the huge gap between JLPT N3 and N2. I believe this gap is also due to the intermediate plateau to some extent, and it shows the struggle that many face in making the transition from intermediate to advanced Japanese.

As someone who experienced this feeling, and who finally feels comfortable calling herself an advanced Japanese speaker, I’d like to talk about my experience and give you some advice on how to overcome the intermediate plateau in Japanese.

My experience

I’ve been learning Japanese for six years, five of which were spent learning it at university. Having majored in Japanese, I was spending most of my time learning the language, and after two years, I truly felt like I had made tremendous progress. Then came year three, year four. . . and I wasn’t sure how to describe my Japanese level anymore. Although I had spent so much of my time learning Japanese, I still felt like I was lacking in so many ways. While I could navigate N3-level texts, that didn’t feel enough to read native material.

It wasn’t until my fifth and final year at university, when I wrote my master’s thesis and passed JLPT N2, that I truly sensed the transition from intermediate to advanced Japanese. Between the advanced material I engaged with for my thesis and my preparation for the JLPT, I was learning Japanese in a whole different way than I had until now.

During that time, I struggled with two things: adapting my learning method into one that was more adapted for advanced language learning, and finding learning material that was suited to my current level. These are the two points I’d like to give some Japanese-specific advice about in this article.

Practical Advice

Reading practice

One of the great obstacles to advanced Japanese is kanji. When reading an advanced text, it’s probably not the grammar but the kanji that will stop you from understanding the meaning, therefore deterring you from going for advanced reading. This is where my advice comes in: consider changing your reading approach.

My advice is to select two separate texts for your regular Japanese reading and treat them completely differently. The first text should be approached academically, which is what you might already be doing: proceeding slowly, sentence by sentence, and looking up unfamiliar kanji, words, or grammar points. Write them down, revisit them for memorization, and proceed gradually.

Then, read the second text as if it were in your native language. Don’t stop to look up kanji or grammar; instead, continue reading and try to understand as you go, based on the words you do know. This approach might seem counterintuitive, but it will help you train your logic and reasoning.

Both ways of reading are equally important. The first helps you learn new vocabulary and grammar in context, while the second forces you to learn how to understand the general gist of a text when your knowledge is lacking. You’ll soon come to realize that you don’t need to know every single word to understand a text in a foreign language, and you’ll learn how to understand a text you don’t know every word of, which is a necessary skill to have in Japanese, as it will probably be a very long time before you reach a level where you never encounter unfamiliar words. (I mean, I got N1 a year ago, and I’m sometimes still baffled at how much I don’t know!)

Listening practice

Listening in Japanese might come easy for some people, while for others it might feel like the hardest part of the language. When I took N1, I remember thinking that the listening part was fairly easy compared to the rest of the exam, but talking about it with others, I realized that wasn’t the general consensus.

Just like with reading, I recommend practicing listening with two different approaches. The first approach is with active listening practice, using YouTube JLPT mock exams and other educational videos. Listen again and again to the recording to understand what is being said.

The second way is to incorporate passive listening in your daily routine, whenever you have the chance: on the bus, while walking, doing dishes, etc. When practicing for N2 and later N1, I would listen to native material way above my understanding, like the news or conversational podcasts. I only understood about 30% of what was being said, but it trained my ear to listen in Japanese, and in comparison, the listening part of the JLPT felt pretty easy.

Where to find material

One more thing I’d like to give advice about is the learning material. It can be quite hard to find material adequate to your level, when you find the intermediate stuff too easy, and the advanced stuff too hard.

First, I would recommend using intermediate-level textbooks in Japanese. It might seem demanding at first, as you’ll have to learn grammar terms in Japanese, but these textbooks are written in Japanese suited to the level you’re studying, and it’ll make you learn grammar and such from the Japanese perspective. One textbook I would especially recommend is the Shin Kanzen Master series, which is also an amazing textbook to practice with for the JLPT and has been my go-to since N2.

I recommend using websites such as the NHK’s News Web Easy, which publishes news articles written in simplified Japanese. It’s a good transition before you start reading news articles written for native speakers.

You can also read manga, as many of them come with furigana, which can help with the frustration of reading a text when you don’t know how the kanji are pronounced.

As a general rule, try to diversify the media you consume in Japanese as much as possible, as it brings a feeling of newness and helps you learn different aspects of the Japanese language.

Things to keep in mind

My final piece of advice is to be patient. When you started learning Japanese, you started from zero, learning basic words encountered in every sentence, so progress was very easy to see. Now that you’re more advanced, progress is harder to notice: you’re learning complex grammar and vocabulary that you see less of, but still need to know. Acknowledge how far you’ve come, and recognize that it might take some time before you reach advanced Japanese proficiency, but that this is normal when learning a language. And most importantly, hang in there!

Angelique is a first-year CIR from France working in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture. She studied Japanese Literature at university. She enjoys reading, writing, and learning foreign languages. She also loves traveling around Japan and collecting goshuin stamps wherever she goes.