Discomfort, the Diminishing Returns of Language Study, and Linguistic Tolerance

I have an article on the Japan Times Bilingual Page today. This time there isn’t much of a language lesson. It’s more of a motivational story-type article, which means you should feel free to disregard it completely. The story I tell in the article is true, and you can see the results of it – I made a video of the pub crawl, and Brian has photos on his site.

I went out with the girls a couple times after that and didn’t experience the same level of linguistic discomfort, so I’m not exactly sure why I had so much trouble that time in Shibuya. The one thing it reminds me of is having good days and bad days in language class. When I was in college, some days everything would go as planned and other days I’d be unable to say anything at all or totally forget we had a kanji quiz. The only thing that matters now is that I powered through it and got to a very comfortable level of fluency. I still have good days and bad days, but I try to soldier through everything the best I can. It’s important to push yourself whenever you start to feel the limits of your abilities, whether it’s reading or speaking or writing. Building linguistic tolerance is a very real thing.

Don’t get discouraged when you start to encounter the diminishing returns of language study. Do whatever it takes to power through. Once you’re on the other side, you’ll probably find out that it was worth it.

7 thoughts on “Discomfort, the Diminishing Returns of Language Study, and Linguistic Tolerance

  1. I read your J Times article. Good read.

    A few years ago, I went out into the boonies with an older Japanese crew. I had no opportunity to speak, nor even see English for three days. Being with them 24/7 for three days was linguistically uncomfortable to say the least, but I muscled through that shit like a caveman and it was great for my Japanese. Upon my return to the city, hearing and seeing English was like exposure to a foreign language.

    Eventually most languages learners will hit a wall. The road to fluency depends (in part) on how you deal with the linguistic discomfort. The walls are great opportunities for growth. Unfortunately some people never go beyond and miss out on a whole new world.

  2. I enjoyed your article as well, Daniel. It definitely spoke to me as someone struggling to climb that last sheer-faced cliff to truly “advanced” Japanese.

    Being in the States full time, it’s hard to find speaking opportunities, but I do what I can here and there. Still, does anyone out there have thoughts on what it takes to power through the diminishing returns outside of Japan? Right now I’m constantly reviewing vocab and grammar in preparation for the N1 JLPT, but while that might be enough to pass the test, my conversation skills are at best mediocre right now. Meeting a language partner once a week is helpful, but there really isn’t a good substitute for being on the ground in Japan!

  3. My 担任の先生 (who was also the vice-principal of the language school) listened to me ranting about diminishing returns when I was in my last three months there – she described the beginning stages of learning a language as like a column that climbs up fast so that you feel your own progress. And then, she described carrying on from that as the column getting wider very, very slowly – you can’t feel it, but you’re actually picking up a lot by expanding on everything you already know.

    Agreed with both Derek and Andrew that it’s tough to get through the wall and to keep things going outside of Japan – and you’ll probably hit more than one wall as you keep on going. It can be a long time later before you look back and realise how far you’ve come, but you just have to trust that you’re going somewhere on the days where it feels like you’re going nowhere. (Or worse, backwards.)

  4. Andrew – I think you’re right – Japan = total immersion. I’d just try to watch as much TV as you can get your grubby little torrenting hands on. Podcasts might also be good. Language partners would be great. I’m going to hang out with one tomorrow for the first time in a while. Looking forward to it!

    Arline – That’s a really great image – an expanding plateau. Everything around you is more solid. I, on the other hand, am feeling the plateau shrink after being out of Japan for so long.

  5. This is an older entry but I still feel the need to reply as I am really enjoying your blog.

    What I’ve come to realize and try to remind myself of is that this diminished return concept is perfectly normal. Why? Because basically, we, as students of a foreign language, are trying to do in 6-8 years what a native speaker has had 25 years of practice in doing every single day, 24 hours a day. So we really need to remember that and be impressed with what we know. It’s a remarkable feat.

    I hadn’t used my Japanese in four years and in just four months I got it all back and then some as I read my first full-length novel in Japanese. To do that in just four months is a monumental feat and I must say I’m proud of myself. And it gets easier to read the next sentence and then the following sentence and that’s where you see the true return on your studying!

  6. Thanks for the comment! That’s great to hear that you gained your Japanese back…especially nice to hear since I’ve moved away. And reading your first full-length novel in Japanese is a great moment. I still have the copy of Keritai senaka that I read.

  7. Yes, I already have quite a few books lined up now.
    The first one was Ryu Murakami’s “Almost Transparent Blue”. Fun read where you get to learn a lot of interesting words (to say the very least).