I have read several articles recently about plateauing in your Japanese study. (Tofugu, Japanalicious, and The Japan Times articles come to mind) Basically, a plateau is a wall you hit in your studies, usually at intermediate level (though some people hit it earlier). It can be hard to overcome. The articles I linked above give great tips on how to get over this wall. But I have actually experienced a couple different plateaus that I wanted to discuss here. If you have hit any others, please feel free to chime in.
1. The Kana Plateau
A lot of people give up when they hit this first wall. You learn, or try to learn all hiragana and katakana only to find that you still can’t “read” Japanese because of all the kanji. Then, on top of that, you learn that all kana sentences are nearly impossible to read. You get frustrated and a lot of people quit at this point.
2. The Aisatsu Plateau
You have learned to say your 自己紹介 and your basic conversations. Japanese people are impressed by you. But, once you exhaust your pre-memorized phrases, you are lost. You cannot actually hold a conversation (unless that conversation is about whether the book is under or on the table.) You get frustrated because the amount of topics that can possibly come up in a conversation seem endless and all involve words you don’t know.
3. The Kanji Compound Plateau
You have mastered basic conversation skills. You have had many different conversations and you know what kind of topics are likely to come up when you meet someone. You can make appointments with friends and you are feeling pretty confident in your Japanese. Then, you watch the news. You know the word 入れる but 入力? What’s that? 怖い>恐縮, ありがとう>感謝しています, 手に入れる>入手?! Suddenly the world is full of “shu” and “sou” and you know they are kanji compounds that you are hearing but you have no idea what they mean. Was that nyushu or nyuushu or nyuushuu? This can be the most frustrating stage and keeps a lot of people from progressing from intermediate to advanced.
4. The College/Career Plateau
You have conquered the basic kanji compounds. The news doesn’t scare you anymore. You have started to read native language material. Then, you go take college classes in Japan or go to work for a Japanese company. Suddenly, you realize how much you don’t know. The problem is, you have hit the wall where not everything can be solved with a dictionary. Some of what you are hearing/reading is abbreviations (the first and third kanji of a longer compound), some of it is proper names and places that you don’t know, some of it is just modern lingo or technical terms that you can’t look up. At this stage you have to start turning to 国語 dictionaries and websites. You can’t rely on English definitions anymore. You have to let your L1 go.
I have hit this last plateau multiple times. You feel confident going into a meeting, but then you realize, not only do you know nothing about finance and stocks in Japanese, you know very little about it in English. This will blow your mind the first time it happens. But once you start to function as if you were a native speaker of Japanese and start using resources made for Japanese native speakers, it will get better.
Again, if you have any other plateaus to add to the list, please chime in.