Variations in level of difficulty

It is not uncommon to hear that something is too hard or, on the contrary, too easy for a student who has reached a particular level. We often want to find materials that fit our level perfectly, which means, difficult enough to learn new things but not to the point where we would feel overwhelmed.

I have the impression that every language course that I have taken at school has followed this progression requisite, where every new material was a little more challenging than the previous one. I rarely saw my teacher coming out with a far too easy material to cheer us up, or with a far too difficult one to give us a shock.

Of course, following a progression line is very sensible, but I wonder if it suits me. When I learnt languages at school (or any other institution), I was left with a loose motivation and a feeling that I was making no progress when there were still so much to be done.

One of the reasons why I prefer learning languages on my own is that I can fully play with the difficulty level of the materials I choose.

Varying the difficulty level of the novels I read

To give an example with novels, I often choose to read books that are either too difficult or too easy to me, because:

  • Reading easier novels allows me to:
    • Feel that I made progress
    • Regain self-confidence by seeing that I can read something in Japanese
    • Feel empowered to take the next step and read more difficult novels
    • Have a break in my studies while still doing Japanese
  • Reading difficult novels allows me to:
    • Get out of my comfort zone and force me to truly pay attention to what I read
    • Find that the difficult words or grammar I struggled to memorize are useful after all, as they probably turn up in a difficult novel
    • Improve my capacity to understand something even with a vocabulary deficiency and make the missing connections by myself
    • Set concrete goals where I would not learn new words just to increase my vocabulary, but to be able to read such difficult novels

Of course, picking a far too difficult novel can result in giving up reading it. But I never felt discouraged because I gave up a challenging book. From the beginning, I knew that this novel was too difficult to me, there is no shame in acknowledging that I still can’t read it. What would demoralize me would be to read a book that suits my level and not be able to read it comfortably. If someone tells me “this novel is perfect for learners of your level” and if I can’t read it or give it up, I would really feel downcast.

Other benefits

Getting better at reading challenging novels

One of the other benefits of a difficult novel is that it allows me to improve my reading competence. To read a novel in a foreign language, we need two things:

  • What the JLPT would call “Language knowledge”, vocabulary and grammar.
  • The ability to fill the gaps when our “language knowledge” falls short, the ability to understand a text despite a vocabulary shortage.

To acquire a decent language knowledge, all you have to do is to learn new words and new grammar points. However, our reading ability can only be acquired by reading a lot. This is a distinct skill that won’t improve just because our vocabulary increased. It has to be trained independently. People who read a lot, first in their language, then in any other foreign language, won’t be much distracted by unknown words because they make connections more easily. To train this ability, I see no other way than to read a lot, especially texts that contains words we don’t know. What you have to do is:

  • The dictionary should only be used as a last resort, so don’t use it immediately
  • Determine whether an unknown word is crucial or not to understand the general meaning of the sentence.
  • Try to guess the meaning of unknown words. There are three ways of doing so:
    • Look at the kanji. For example, I come across a word that I never learned and think: “I don’t know this word”… but more than once, I know at least one kanji, when not the two, and I can guess the meaning of the new word from the kanji.
    • Look at the context. If the author is describing a house, the difficult nouns that keep appearing may well be different parts of the house, the adjectives might describe the texture, the colour…
    • Try to imagine the scene and think of what is happening or what will happen. What would you have written if you were the author? We have to keep in mind that a novel has a story that makes sense, the reader can generally guess what is going to happen, we are not supposed to be confused by what the characters do or say.

Easy materials and the two sorts of demotivation

For me, there are two sorts of demotivation, one that is purely “intellectual” and one that is more emotional. What I call an “intellectual” loss of motivation is when you are facing difficult words, challenging grammar that you don’t immediately understand. Your brain is put to trial and feels overwhelmed. At this point, I feel that Japanese (or any other language) is too difficult.

The other form of demotivation, that I find to be more emotional, is when you lose your confidence. To me, it happens when I experience an embarrassing moment, that I feel ashamed of myself, that I make mistakes in front of others… These bad experiences may have no relation whatsoever with learning Japanese, but it will affect my general mood and eventually, draw down my motivation to learn Japanese as well. At this point, I feel that I am too stupid to learn Japanese.

Dealing with the first form of demotivation should not be a big deal. Just slow down a bit, ask for explanations if you can, reduce the number of new words you learn per week, revise instead of learning new things.

The second form of demotivation, however, is much more vicious. It is hard to get over it because we cannot control our feelings. We never know when it will happen, it can be something someone said or even something you imagine the others think of you. Particularly for people who lack self-confidence or let themselves be affected by what others say, this sort of demotivation can strike at any moment.

Reading easy novels is, for me, a way of overcoming these moments. Feeling that I can read something, even a children book, in the language that I decided to learn, rebuilds my faith in myself and my positiveness. Those easy materials comfort me and give me the strength to go back to the battlefield.


These reflections are all based on my own experience and my relation with learning. It certainly does not apply to everybody but I thought it worth to share my thoughts. If you feel like you are studying every day like crazy but still have this feeling that you are not getting anywhere and are not making any progress, maybe try to vary the difficulty level of what you study, read or listen to.