Feeling Stuck Learning Japanese (How to get Unstuck)

Learning Japanese is a really rewarding experience. It’s so exciting to get the learning process underway and begin to be able to understand the language and communicate using it. But learning Japanese comes with its challenges and you can find yourself stuck at times. It’s not always easy to know why you have ended up stuck, and even less easy to know how to get unstuck.  

The feeling of being stuck when learning Japanese can be caused by how a learner is affected by the language, a learning plateau, or a decrease in motivation. These can be overcome by addressing how they are affected, employing targeted improvement strategies, and finding new types of motivation.

When stuck, the first step is to identify if you are in a good headspace for learning. You then need to identify the specific areas in which you are struggling, and then proactively employ a strategy to overcome those areas of challenge. If your motivation is faltering, it can be reignited. With proactive effort and new motivation, you’ll be able to pull yourself out of the rut you’re stuck in.

How Learning Japanese Language Can Affect You

In the case of language learning, [affect] can refer to feelings or emotional reactions about the language, about the people who speak that language, or about the culture where that language is spoken.

Susan M. Gass and Larry Selinker [1]

If you are experiencing some sort of affect, it’s most likely that its due to the language itself. You may have had high expectations initially about learning Japanese. Perhaps it was fun and easy at first, but now as you try to advance, it’s staring to feel like an insurmountable task. Especially if you did not have much previous exposure to Japanese, there could be a big gap between your expectations and the learning reality, which hampers your motivation leaves you feeling negative about the language [2].

An interesting concept was developed by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt called the Affective Filter, which is a form of mental filter for taking in and acquiring language. Ideally you would like to have low or no filter at all, but if your attitude towards learning the language is not in a good place, then your filter will be high which prevents acquisition of the language.

Those whose attitudes are not optimal for second language acquisition will not only tend to seek less input, but they will also have a high or strong Affective Filter—even if they understand the message, the input will not reach that part of the brain responsible for language acquisition.

Stephen Krashen
Operation of the Affective Filter [3].

To get you in a more positive state, and enjoy learning Japanese again, let’s identify what is holding you back. To do this, take time to write down, or even keep a diary about what is frustrating you about Japanese and how you feel when studying or practicing. It can be soothing to write down your feelings, but the real reason for the diary is to flesh out the areas that you need to work on.

Let’s start with how you feel about your performance in Japanese. When you speak, are you too nervous to perform well? A little bit of nerves helps sharpen your performance, but too much is debilitating [4]. Are you worried about being perfect and having everything you say be grammatically correct? Perfectionism can hold you back from actually practicing for fear of making a mistake. You need to practice, and mistakes are part of learning!

Next let’s identify specific areas that might be frustrating you. In your diary you can write, I am frustrated because: I could not remember the vocabulary I thought I had learned… I could not understand the dialogue I was listening to… I could not understand what I read… I could not speak as well as I wanted to… We’ll look at how to overcome all of these in the next section.

For me, what I am concerned about these days is expressing what I want to say in natural Japanese. I still make a lot of forced translation from English. This is called language transfer and is a natural part of the learning process. Whatever the case, the key is to identify and work on the areas that you feel are holding you back, and to work on them in a safe, non-judgemental place. This is also how you break through the learning plateau.

Strategies to get Unstuck When Learning Japanese

Now that we have identified how we’re feeling about Japanese and where we are falling short, let’s look at specific strategies to overcome our shortcomings using readily available online resources. Let’s say you’re nervous or stressed about saying everything perfectly. A comfortable place to practice speaking with a native Japanese speaker where making mistakes is fine and even encouraged so that you can get feedback is italki.

I have written in detail about the amazing things working with a private teacher on italki can do for your Japanese here. As a quick summary, at a very reasonable cost, you get to choose the native speaking teacher you want to work with and get 1 on 1 personalized language tutoring. There is no need to be nervous, your teacher is there to help you learn. I have also written in more detail about how and where to practice speaking here.

Two other great places to practice are HiNative and LangCorrect. HiNative allows you to write a question in English in the form “how do I say ‘X’ in Japanese”? Native Japanese speakers in the HiNative community can respond and give you a natural translation. You can also post a question in the form “Does ‘Y’ sound natural”? In this case you write something in Japanese for community members to correct and comment on.

Great tools to practice your Japanese: Italki, HiNative and LangCorrect

LangCorrect is place where you keep a public journal in Japanese and native Japanese speaking community members offer corrections. You will likely receive correction not just on grammar and word choice, but style as well. Both LangCorrect and HiNative are free services, the only thing you need to do in exchange for receiving help is to give help to those who need help with languages you know.

If you have trouble remembering vocabulary, use a spaced repetition flashcard service such as Anki if you are not already. But otherwise, it’s hard to remember new vocabulary and grammar if you do not give yourself opportunities to use them. When you are practicing your speaking and writing with the above services, make a deliberate effort to use words you struggle to remember and get some real experience using them.

The above was all about output, but output needs to paired with a lot of input. A podcast on theme that interests you is great for listening input. As a specific strategy, listen to the full content once, but just listen and do your best to understand. Then listen again, but this time, write down words you don’t know and transcribe sentences you can’t understand. Look up the words and analyze the sentences.

Listen a third time. Do you understand better? If there are still parts you don’t understand, listen to the clip with your teacher and have them explain it to you in simpler Japanese. The same strategy can be used for reading as well. 

Reignite Your Motivation to Learn Japanese

Above we discussed input. Possibly your motivation for wanting to learn Japanese in the first place was to be able understand input, that is to say, native media like anime. This was certainly the case for me. I still like anime and I think it is both a great reason to start learning and a method to learn Japanese. But just one utilitarian reason for learning Japanese (to understand anime) may not be enough.

As you learn more Japanese, you have probably found yourself more and more interested in being able to communicate with Japanese people, curious about other aspects of Japanese culture, and have possibly also developed an intrinsic interest in the language itself. If you can latch onto these new interests for additional motivation, you will have a much higher chance at success [4]!

New types of motivation will push you to continue to learn Japanese. But when you get stuck, it’s hard to get unstuck on your own, what you need is targeted help form native speakers. You just need go through the pain of trying to communicate and understand so that you can expose your weaknesses and gaps in knowledge, then get correction.

By implementing the feedback you receive you will see improvement, which in turn will boost your confidence and give you further motivation to continue. Just remember that it takes a lot of practice and large volume of input to improve. It’s a long journey that’s tough all on your own. If you get stuck, figure out why, and then get help!


[1] Gass, Susan M., Selinker, Larry. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Third Edition. Routledge.

[2] Matsumoto, M., & Obana, Y. (2001). Motivational Factors and Persistence in Learning Japanese as a Foreign Language. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 3(1), 59-86.

[3] Krashen, Stephen. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Institute of English. (Retrieved from: Research Gate, April 2022).

[4] Dornyei, Zoltan. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Routledge.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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