Once you have reached a high level in another language, or passed the highest grade of a proficiency test for that language, there is a tendency to ease up on your studies. You think, “I have mastered the language, so I don’t need to study anymore.” I thought like this after I passed first grade on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. After three hard years of study, I was worn out. I thought I had achieved the highest level, so I had no more need to study. I was using the language every day, wasn’t that enough?
Using the language personally and professionally did help to maintain my skills, but the more complicated situations I encountered, the more I realized just how much more there was to learn. When you reach a high level of proficiency in a language, you start to encounter way more of the language than you ever found in your textbooks. Of course, if you have been studying in earnest, you will have been listening to the radio, watching TV, reading newspapers and books – absorbing native speaker-level content, and therefore coming across new expressions or words. You can often guess the meaning of unknown words or phrases from context. You may be able to understand these unknown elements through context, or take an educated guess, but that doesn’t mean you have made them your own, that they are in your active vocabulary. The way to move a word from your passive vocabulary arsenal to your active vocabulary toolbox is to use the word. But if the new words and expressions you come across are fleeting, in a TV show, on the radio or in a newspaper, you might just let them pass you by. It is enough to understand the word in context, so you move on.
The fascinating thing about a language is that there is always something new to learn. No matter what level you may be, advanced, fluent, native-speaker level, there is always something you don’t know. In the case of Japanese, my second language, there are always new characters, new four-character idioms, new expressions, synonyms, proverbs, vocabulary related to specific fields, such as economics, engineering, medicine…learning a language really is a never-ending pursuit.
In addition to translating, reading, listening and using Japanese every day, I try to learn something new every day. It might be an expression I have come across while reading a book, or it might be a proverb someone used when speaking to me. Or it might be a specialist term in a web article I read.
If you truly want to master a language, you need to keep at it. My goal is to reach the proficiency of a native speaker in Japanese. Some might say this is impossible. But I’m not going to lower my goal. When we set high goals, we strive to achieve them. I’m going to keep on studying until I get there.