I don’t make any progress 😕

When learning a foreign language, it is easy to get demotivated and give up, especially when one is self-studying. One of the most common causes of demotivation is the belief that we don’t make any progress.

I think that there are two reasons why language learners can have this feeling:

  1. if you don’t study, you are not making measurable progress
  2. if progress means “getting closer to an unreachable goal”, the journey will last forever.

These are some ideas to stay motivated when you feel like you are treading water.

First of all: are you studying?

Before lamenting that your Japanese is not improving and so on, ask yourself if you are really studying. Sometimes, I think “I am fed up with studying because I don’t make any progress anyway”, when the truth is, that I am not making progress because I am not studying.

I wish that I could become fluent by just watching films and reading books but, even if it does help improving one’s reading and listening skills, it’s not enough to take the next step. Reading crime novels will improve my capacity to read crime novels but not my capacity to read the politics section of a newspaper. This requires a new field of vocabulary, difficult grammar, a good knowledge of the current state of affairs and so on.

So, first of all, if you feel demotivated because you don’t feel like you are improving, ask yourself if you are making it happen.

Forget about being fluent, set little goals and enjoy the learning process

If you are studying, you are making progress. But measuring them is hard. If you accept that “being fluent” will take time and in the meanwhile, set little goals easy to reach, you won’t feel like you are far away from your ultimate goal: “being fluent in Japanese”. I think that one should set aside fluency and concentrate on reachable goals. These goals could be “finish the next chapter of my book” or “watch a Japanese film”.

I personally use a notebook where I write down dozens of little goals I want to achieve. Even if measuring one’s progress is hard, it is easy to keep track of achieved goals. A multitude of achievable goals also allows you to feel rewarded often. A feeling that helps to stay motivated.

To go a little further, you should not only see those goals as mere means or intermediate steps to reach “fluency” but enjoy these goals for themselves. I enjoy watching a Japanese film, and I am happy when I can understand a little of what is said. I enjoy reading a book for itself, without asking myself how much reading this book will allow me to improve my Japanese.

To avoid feeling demotivated, surround yourself with personal, meaningful and realistic goals.

Focus on one skill at a time

When you study a language, you certainly make progress, but you are not necessarily improving all your skills at the same pace. To take a personal example, I only focus on reading, and even if I do make progress when reading books, I still feel discouraged every time I listen to the radio in Japanese and don’t understand what is said. After months of learning passive vocabulary and reading books, I think: “I can’t even understand this anime without subtitles, I don’t make any progress!”.

Inevitably, I feel discouraged because I associate two things that are not related. I am used to thinking:

hours and hours spent to learn Japanese = not even able to understand an anime

But the right equation is:

hours spent to train my reading skills = able to read some novels ≠ didn’t study listening = don’t understand the radio, films, anime, etc.

I guess we all make this kind of misappreciation from time to time. It’s a shame to get demotivated because we fail to appreciate our progress.

To avoid being demotivated, we should define our goal and measure our progress concerning this goal. To come back to my own experience, after having been overwhelmed with joy and pride when I first read a Japanese novel from the first page to the last page, I continued reading novels and learning vocabulary. Then I realised that I could not even follow the news on the radio. I felt demotivated because I thought that I was making progress and then I realised (falsely) that I didn’t make any. But the thing is, that I can’t improve my listening skills while making only reading exercises.

Now, I concentrate on listening, and I am already able to measure some progress, not much, but still.

So if you currently feel that you don’t make progress, choose one skill to improve and work on it. Of course, one could say that learning a language implies to feel at ease in every skill, but I am talking here about how to get out of a demotivation phase. It is better to have a disbalance in your skills than to give up.

Vocabulary is an endless road

I personally think that vocabulary is the most discouraging thing when learning a language. You will soon learn all the useful grammar points, but vocabulary never ends. You feel like you know a lot of words, but you are still puzzled by most writing materials, you know 6000 words but still can’t read the newspaper, etc.

Well, there is no miracle: if you want to know enough vocabulary to be able to understand anything, you will have to learn it. I think that it is useless to learn too many words at the same time because there is some kind of “daily potential” concerning vocabulary. You should not exceed this potential, but you should not waste it neither by not using it. Every day spent without learning new words is a day that does not bring you closer to your goal. I think that we all can learn 5 to 10 new words a day, but even 1 or 2 is better than nothing.

Of course, with only 5 new words a day, reading newspaper will take time. But we have to accept that learning a language takes time.

To avoid feeling discouraged, choose material that suits your current vocabulary level and go back to easier material from time to time to enjoy your progress and see how easy this book, this audio, etc. is to you now. You can choose books for children or go for the series called Japanese Graded Reader. I used this series a lot and watched several times some Ghibli films that allowed me to understand dialogues here and there: Whisper of the heart (耳をすませば) is a very easy one. Even a beginner can catch familiar expressions and phrases from time to time, and you can even find the script online (with some research) if you don’t have the Japanese subtitles.

Prepare for the JLPT

A good way to realise that you are indeed making progress is to prepare for the JLPT.

Even if you don’t need to get the JLPT because you are studying Japanese just to be able to watch anime or read manga, sitting the test is a good way to stay motivated and to know where to go next, especially if you are learning on your own.

I will make a comparison with running. When running alone, I can hardly run longer than 10 km. After 10 km I feel that I would die on the spot if I were to continue. But then I participated in a 16km race, and I finished it without difficulty. I was baffled. After that, I heard other people say that running a marathon gives an energy you don’t have when running alone. I feel the same energy when preparing for the JLPT. Even if I am not taking any preparatory class, feeling that hundred of thousands of other Japanese learners are also preparing for the same test boosts my motivation.


I am sure that there are many other ways to measure one’s progress and stay motivated. I just listed some tips that I am applying myself and that work for me. But anyway, don’t forget that “I don’t make any progress” is sometimes an excuse for not studying when not studying is the reason for not making progress. 😛