It all adds up studying languages

It all adds up! (Or how to master a foreign language)

Do you ever feel like all your time and effort studying your target language hasn’t amounted to much? Ever feel frustrated with your progress? Well, join the club! Once you pass the intermediate threshold, it gets harder to judge your growth in the language. You are entering what I refer to as intermediate fatigue. It’s one of the bumps along the road to mastering a language.

What is intermediate fatigue? 

Intermediate fatigue is where you start to feel discouraged with your rate of progress in the language you are learning. You might even lose motivation too. I’ll lay out the possible symptoms before suggesting how to get through it.

  1. You are at the stage where you no longer need textbooks.
  2. You’re definitely not a beginner, but not yet advanced.
  3. You study online with the help of some amazing language extensions (shameless plug :)), reading material intended for native speakers
  4. You listen to podcasts in your target language but get frustrated you can’t fully follow what is going on.
  5. You can slowly read books in the language but you struggle without a dictionary.
  6. You are frustrated that you still fumble for words when speaking to native speakers.
  7. You haven’t finished Heisig yet (that’s an in-joke for Japanese learners)
  8. You are constantly berating yourself with variations of “I should be better by now!”
  9. You have moved onto reading literature but still get stumped by questions from the restaurant waitress.
  10. You have no problem talking to your native speaker friend but get lost in group situations when he brings his friends along.
  11. You can follow the whole dialogue of comedy sketches but don’t get the punchline.
  12. You receive constant praise for your linguistic ability, but the taxi drivers don’t understand you. And so on…

Once intermediate fatigue sets in, all the gains you make in the language feel much smaller than before. Sometimes they will even seem nonexistent. But the important thing to remember is that you are progressing. All the time you spend picking up vocabulary and exposing yourself to new content in the language builds up into something much greater. Even if you don’t feel that you are improving, you need to suspend disbelief. Just when the fatigue seems to be at its heaviest, you are about to step up to the next level.

It all adds up! 

Always remember the snowball effect. As the renowned polyglot Alexander Arguelles reminds us, 15 minutes of study every day adds up to over 90 hours in one year. 30 minutes a day is over 180 hours! These are amazing numbers. Just imagine what is possible with just 45 or 60 minutes per day. In fact, Arguelles used this fact to study multiple languages at the same time, dedicating hours per day to keep them up. You don’t need to become a language monk like Arguelles, but a steady time commitment each day will build into a sizable snowball over time. It all adds up!

When I can, I like to sit down with my books for extended periods, but it’s tough to find the time. Life gets in the way. Being a true Tokyoite, I can be on-the-go for several days at a time. This makes it challenging to keep up my study regime. Sometimes it even gets discouraging but but there is no need to despair! All the time you invest will pay off. Language is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to remind yourself that it all adds up.

The little moments

Barry Farber is a talk show legend with a knowledge of more than 25 languages. He brilliantly describes in his book How To Learn Any Language about making the little moments count. What do you usually do when you are on the train or waiting in line? These periods are fantastic opportunities for learning.


I would estimate that over 50% of my language knowledge comes from micro-study during those little moments. Minutes spent on the bus and waiting for traffic lights to change add up to hours over time. Use them! Not only does it all add up but it also makes those moments more pleasant. As well as learning a language, you are improving your daily quality of life! Not a bad deal if you ask me. And guess what? It all adds up.

Farber is old school. He prefers to use index cards for his mobile learning (iPhones didn’t exist when he was learning the ropes) but I think that he would approve of helpful flashcard apps like i-Sokki and Anki. In any event, it’s much better than wasting your commute tweeting and looking at wedding photos on Facebook!

One more tip.

Still not feeling it? If you are lacking motivation, one good tactic is to look at old emails or letters you have written in the foreign language. It’s like looking at homework you did when you were a kid. You will laugh at your mistakes and wonder how you used to write so badly.

Reading old examples of your writing is a great way to show yourself how much you have improved. It reminds you that all the time you put in was worth it and motivates you to battle on. One glance at my gmail account is undeniable proof of my progress in Japanese. Give it a try! And remember, it all adds up!

I hope this post was helpful. Do you have any other tactics for beating intermediate fatigue? Let us know in the comments below!

For those of you who are interested in a wider discussion of mastering a skill (such as learning languages), I recommend reading Robert Greene’s latest work on mastery. It’s a very enlightening read.

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