Plateauing in Your Japanese Study

Plateauing in Your Japanese Study


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.

Downtime: What to do when you have nothing to do

Downtime: What to do when you have nothing to do

Lately I have had a lot of downtime at work. So, I decided to write a blog post about effective use of time, rather than using my time effectively 🙂

Step 1: Organize and Review

If you have been taking notes while you are translating or interpreting, or if you have been saving a document to look over in detail, now is the time to do that. I like to organize the vocab I look up into lists by theme (HR words, Manufacturing words, Financial words, etc) and that is rather time consuming. It can be a great thing to do if you have nothing else to do. Take the time to organize what you have done so far. Put your files in order. Take the words you looked up on the last translation and review them. Put them into a flash card program. Go over old translations.

Step 2: Practice

If you don’t have any work to do, you can always make work for yourself. Go get an NHK article and start translating. Put the translation up on lang-8 and see what people think. Practicing will grow your vocabulary and give you more words to add to your glossary. If you are a straight interpreter, try pasting an article into google translate. It has a read-to-me function that you can use to help you practice interpreting. (Note, I am not telling you to use the translation google provides. Use the read-to-me function on the original, not the translation. We all know how bad GT is.) If you work in close quarters with other people just stick your headphones in and interpret in your head. It may look silly but its actually pretty good practice.

Step 3: Professional Development

See what other things are out there that might help you be a better translator. Research translation classes, online classes in your field, articles related to your field. There might not be something you can do right then but you might be able to suggest something at your next personnel review. Most companies love it when their employees take the initiative in professional development.

Step 4: Familiarize yourself with the Building/Products

If you work in a factory, this is a great time to go out on the floor and watch the processes, see how things work. Take notes and try to look up how to say things that you don’t know. (You may see things you’ve never thought to mention in conversation: beams, rafters, ventilation, etc.) You can also take this time to shadow someone, if anyone is willing. You don’t have to get involved you can just watch them do what they do and take notes. Try to translate out what you saw in a diary entry kind of thing. If you don’t work in a factory, find some parts laying around or some drawings and familiarize yourself with those.

Step 5: Taking stock and self evaluation

Let’s take some time to look at where you are and where you want to be. Look at how much progress you’ve made in your job. List your accomplishments to date. Include things like “I went to this seminar” or “I translated this thing that was out of my specialty.” Then take time to list out some goals. What are your weak points? What would you like to be able to do? What steps do you need to take to get there? This will help you know how to better use your downtime when you have it.

Step 6: Read

Reading is always good for our profession. Open up any random Japanese news site and start reading. It can be taxing when you just got done translating 10 pages and all you want to do is zone out, but reading is one of those things that we have to be able to do. It is how we grow our vocabulary. Reading is essential for translators.

Planning for the future

Planning for the future

I have been a translator and interpreter for two years and four months. I started working as a bilingual office administrator with only a JLPT N2 as qualification. Two years and one job change later, I am ready to pass, no, decimate the N1 this December. But other than that, I will still be without qualifications.

I understand that translation is one of those things that comes with experience. The more you do it, the more you learn, the better you get. But there are people out there who have done it much longer than I have. Surely I could learn a lot from them. The problem is…I can’t find them.

Here is what I have learned about T&I education that is related to Japanese:

Schools in Japan:

There are several T&I schools in Japan. These are small specialized schools that crank out interpreters at record pace. I cannot say much about the impressions that businesses may have about interpreters trained at these schools. But, it does seem that the most popular one is Simul Academy.  Another thing about these 専門学校 is that they are often broken down by type of T&I. Basically, that breaks down to: subtitling, conference interpreting, tour guide interpreting, and general or technical interpreting and translation. There are some other categories, like pharma translation, that have become huge lately, but the main areas are those listed above. You can use the TsuHon if you are interested in finding more schools in Japan.

Schools in the US and other countries:

There are a few schools that are known for interpreter training. The most famous one is the Monterey Institute. It is famous for training the world’s best interpreters. However, like most other programs in the US and abroad, this school only offers master’s degrees. There are many programs throughout the US that offer short program training in Spanish interpreting, as that is our second most widely spoken language here, but you will be hard pressed to find one that trains in Japanese.

Correspondence courses:

Much to my surprise, these are few and far between as well. Babel University offers a correspondence masters degree but it is very hard to get any information from them and I am not sure they are a reliable school. DHC offers online and correspondence classes but no comprehensive program. ALC has a correspondence program but doesn’t offer any support. And so on and so on.

Basically, if you are a Japanese translator and interpreter in the US, you do not have a lot of options. But that brings us to the next question: How much training do you really need for a profession that you already have?

When I attended iJET a few years ago, I asked a question to the general assembly about freelancers. I prefaced it with a comment about how I was new and hadn’t even completed N1. The response I got was a general scoff. Not because I hadn’t done it but because most of the scoffers didn’t think much of the test. Most of them, like me, had fallen into this profession because they could speak a fair amount of Japanese and someone needed a translator at that moment. Where as most of the Japanese translators I know went through schooling and spent hours to get a certain level of TOEIC just so businesses (and other Japanese) would take them seriously. I suppose I have always adopted the later attitude toward my profession rather than the former. I have always said, “Just because I am an American doesn’t excuse me from meeting Japanese expectations.” If an employer would expect X out of a Japanese employee, I don’t want them to ever say “Oh, well its ok that she doesn’t have that qualification, she’s an American.” It may be naive to throw away the gaijin card, I just hate preferential treatment.

Anyway, I don’t know how I will go about getting some kind of qualification, but as this is the beginning of my third year, I figure its about time to start. I don’t think I have any readers out there, but if there are, I would appreciate any advice you have.