Even before I took JLPT this December, I knew that after taking the N3 exam, I would want to summarise study methods and resources that worked for me in my preparations and the ones that didn’t. Surprisingly, their list turned out to be quite long when I finally put it into writing. I haven’t realised that so many elements decided whether I’d stick with my studying efforts. And how many things I’ve tried only to toss them away.
As both “worked” and “didn’t work” sections have multiple subpoints, I will explain each one of them briefly, especially that I’ve already described some of them on this blog and I plan to elaborate more on others in the future, too.
1. Highlighting and colour-coding
I came round to highlighting when I was at university. Soon after that, I have already started to associate certain colours with some aspects of my studies. So it was only natural that as soon as I picked up Japanese again, I came up with my own colour code and I am proud to admit that I stuck to it for the past year, never changing it! It has even influenced the way I create my flashcards!
2. Digital flashcards (Anki)
I have been creating flashcards for a long time. Again, they are one of those discoveries I had made while at university, I had never encountered them, somehow, while in high school. They are quick to make, they can cover a variety of topics and you can keep them in your pocket. The last one is especially true when it comes to digital flashcards which I swear by. At first, I was a fan of Memrise because they had a great website and app at the time, but last February I switched to Anki and my flashcards have become much more effective. Why? Because I don’t create simple target language – mother language translation flashcards anymore. After I read a certain book which was a real eye-opener to creating flashcards (don’t worry, I plan to write a separate post all about that book and how my flashcards look like as a result), I started using monolingual flashcards. That is, they’re only in the target language and include a variety of elements – and Anki is a perfect tool for that due to its wide variety of editing options it offers its user. Yes, making such rich flashcards is a hassle and takes time, but I’ve been using them for almost a year and I can tell you – they saved my butt on JLPT because of how well the words stuck in my brain. It’s (and they are) marvellous!
3. Paper textbooks
When it comes to textbooks, I was lucky. A few years ago I was gifted with a whole So-Matome N3 series for my birthday. I could try all components in my preparations thus forming my own opinion on them on the whole and on each and every one separately. What I noticed is that because academic textbooks at university were so expensive and unaffordable, I was really happy that I can finally work with a paper textbook and not a xerox copy of a one. As a result, I grew to like using them. When it came to purchasing Kanzen Master books, I had no doubts. I ordered a few straight away because even though you could find them in digital format on some shady (and not quite legal) sites, I preferred to get a physical copy instead. And I still do.
Working with a physical book proved to be much more fulfilling (even though So-Matome is black and white anyway, so technically it shouldn’t be that different from a xerox). I was also tempted to use them more frequently as I was, firstly, curious what I was going to learn next and, secondly, I really wanted to mark my progress on GoodReads (GR is one more thing that has helped me tremendously to boost my motivation to study and can also be counted as a part of the “worked” section). Buying a Japanese language book also lets you use their answer key normally – because it’s usually added as a separate, thin brochure you can take out of the book – very convenient when you’re checking those answers, as you don’t have to flip the pages all the time.
It’s funny, though, how your perspective changes when you become an adult. As a student, I had no shame when using xerox copies at all. Now, when I work and can afford to spend more money on resources, I’m proud to put my hard-earned cash into the authors pocket so that I can put their resource book on my bookshelf in return (and, of course, use it to my heart’s content). It’s yet another thing that makes purchasing paper textbooks great – their number on the shelf only increases and makes you swell with pride when you glance at them. Because YOUR hard work and YOUR SALARY made it possible.
4. Writing in textbooks
This is something that most people, from what I’ve noticed, don’t really do and/or are afraid of doing. No worries, I was the same – until I took those So-Matome books in my hands and I thought “Why am I restricting myself with MY OWN BOOKS? I should be able to do whatever I want with them.” Yeah, at first it felt awkward to defile them with something other than a pencil, but when I started smearing them with highlights and gel pens, I noticed how much that worked in favour of my studies. That was also when all that colour-coding came into play and played my studies hard. I came up with the whole colour (and tool!) system for different language aspects. And I have been using it for almost a year now, no signs of changing or modifying it yet. For N2 I have already purchased most of the books because I know it’s going to work for me just the same.
5. Study planner
Ah, my beloved study planner. If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning (or you have dug into the most read post of mine about my 7 study rules at least), then you’re already aware of its presence and the influence it has on my studies. Seriously, it’s a tool I totally recommend to everyone when they’re struggling with their motivation. Registering what you’ve done that day is the best feeling in this world. And it helps a ton – you can see how much you’ve done as well as you can write down stuff you normally would’ve overlooked, like gaming, reading for pleasure, watching a tv show etc. I’ve been saying that since the very beginning – textbook studying is not the only “proper” way to study. Yes, it helps, even I have to admit that after preparing for JLPT on my own, without classroom help. But considering what has happened during this year’s JLPT (i.e. the listening section), I’d say that other study methods are more important than sitting with that textbook. One of them is also included in this list, as it worked wonders for me.
I won’t boast and tell you that I do it daily. Sometimes I’m sick of it so much that I need breaks. But regardless, I try to do it as often and as much as possible. That means that I don’t take breaks longer than a week or so and I also commit several hours A DAY to immersion, even if it’s just a simple show playing in the background when I’m working on my bullet journal. Yes, occasionally I have to force myself to enter immersion again, it’s especially hard right after the said break, but when you overcome your inner obstacles, it becomes so much easier to jump right in and regularly. Of course, when you start the immersion, it’s also quite overwhelming and you want to stop – it feels like too much and your brain freezes. My only tip in such a situation is: don’t ever stop. Take breaks, but return after every break. Don’t feel ashamed if your breaks last longer. Just get back there every time, without a doubt.
If you feel particularly upset, downgrade to immersion in something you already know. Watching a new tv show or reading a new book feels gratifying, but if you’re not up to the challenge (be it because of fatigue or lack of skill), choose something you have read or watched before (even in another language). It makes an entirely different experience if you stop worrying about understanding the plot and characters. That’s when you soak in the language that you’re flooded with – because you stop worrying whether you will understand what you’re told.
7. What textbooks for which skill
As for textbooks, I’ve already mentioned them in the post on pre-JLPT conclusions, but I’ll quickly tell you what book I have chosen for each skill you need to master for the exam (this list is absolutely subjective):
Kanzen Master is a good book, but I’m a visual learner and I genuinely enjoy short comics and gags So-Matome comes up with and for this reason, it’s my top choice when it comes to learning vocabulary. Boring word lists that Kanzen Master or Speed Master provide you with are counterproductive for me – the words never stick. Same goes for all those books that offer vocabulary lists with examples and a box to tick off. I can learn a word this way, but is it going to be memorised easily? My answer is “no” and that is why I rejected such books on my journey. However, I did appreciate the number of diverse vocabulary exercises Kanzen Master has and, as a consequence, I’m going to use my copy as a vocabulary review post-exam.
The mix of listening exercises, reading passages and grammar structures in Try! is a pleasure to work with. I mean, it can be used for so many purposes. I generally start with my small listening practice, meaning I don’t open the book and simply listen to the recording with the text I’m about to read. As I finish listening, I read the text quietly and then aloud (you can sometimes listen to me reading it on my Instagram if you’re interested) and then I proceed to learn grammar. Finally, each chapter ends with a mini mock exam, listening included. To tell the truth, I practised listening tasks better with Try! than with a typical choukai (name of the listening section on JLPT) textbook.
Apart from Try!, I practised my listening skills best with mock tests rather than typical prep books. I’ll elaborate on said prep books more in the “Didn’t Work” section because they were mostly a failure in my case.
Reading was similar to listening for me – I read so many authentic materials on a daily basis that doing reading prep books felt like an unnecessary hassle. I tried doing them to get used to the exam format, but I mostly felt bored. To tell the truth, as much as I enjoyed them on N4 level, on N3 they just felt too easy in comparison to the real manga, novels, games or subtitles on tv shows. Still, it was good to practice them a bit before the real deal, because the questions regarding the text can sometimes be really confusing or simply weird.
Ha! I could talk about kanji all day. You’ve probably noticed by now that I adore learning kanji. If I don’t feel like doing anything, I sit down with my practice notebook and some lists or textbooks. Speaking of practice notebooks, they’re one more thing I discovered this year and I welcomed positively. I’ve always been a fan of working on my penmanship, ever since I learned how to write. That attitude passed on to my kanji acquisition. I just love sitting down and beautifully writing all the strokes, repeating them over and over again when I’m not satisfied with the shape. I’ve also noticed over the course of my preparations that it was finally time to shift to kanji compound practice rather than a single kanji plus its readings, as I used to do on N5 and N4 level.
As for the kanji books, I used quite a few, but was definitely most satisfied with Kanzen Master due to its variety of exercises and very useful tips on, for example, rules of compound readings (too bad the N2 book is very much repetitive and doesn’t really stand up to its predecessor in that regard). So-Matome also worked fine, especially that with it I was provided with a list of kanji in every lesson and later, as I was revising them, I could just open the book along with my practice notebook and just rewrite all signs and vocabulary… In Kanzen Master you’re given a list in the back of the book, so the characters aren’t introduced per se like they are in So-Matome. As a result, I got both Kanzen Master and So-Matome for my N2 studies as well as a new book called Kanji Master N2. One can never have too many kanji books!
1. Pretty notes
I do enjoy a good photo of beautifully and meticulously written notes. It’s so eye-satisfying! However, when I tried to make them myself, I quickly realised that they are SUPER HYPER counter-productive and a total waste of time! Yes, they may look ascetically pleasing for you to browse, but is your time seriously worth spending hours perfecting those pretty pages rather than making more progress in your studies? Yes, they say that writing notes, flashcards or even cheat sheets boost your memorisation but is doodling or drawing all those lovely pictures going to help you tremendously? No. Will they boost your Instagram viewership? Hell yeah! Are your viewers going to shower you with the knowledge you’re supposed to learn in exchange for your time and effort? Not really? Well, then there go your pretty notes.
2. Keeping notebooks
For the reasons mentioned above, I ditched notebooks (apart from my kanji practice notebook) as well. I write on my textbooks, I input the vocabulary and grammar I learn into my digital flashcards, so I asked myself: do I need to take notes, rewrite textbooks and write down lists of vocabulary? I quickly realised (after writing down like 1 lesson, haha) that I don’t and again, it’s counterproductive if something entirely else works better for me (namely, flashcards). By the way, anyone wants to buy a wardrobe full of unused notebooks?
3. Inputting digital flashcards
Ah. That’s a real struggle. As I’ve told you, I’m using Anki and a certain method to create flashcards so they’re quite rich in content but, on the other hand, very effective. Yet, making them takes quite a bit of time and I’m so lazy when it comes to this that I have real trouble sitting down and creating flashcards when I should. I tried being regular with this and making ones right after I finished a chapter of vocabulary, but it’s always too many words to input at once. This is something I really need to work on in my N2 studies because I know those flashcards are extremely helpful but my lazy ass does everything to avoid the creation process. Shame on myself.
4. Paper flashcards
Before I discovered Anki, I had used paper flashcards for about a month. I wanted to be a fancy Japanese freak and purchased those ring flashcards all Japanese people seem to use at school. And they were cool but very small, so I could only limit myself to the translation method. That’s when I realised that in some cases the translations were exactly the same, even though the Japanese word – and/or the context it was used in – was different. I tried synonyms, but it still didn’t work when recalling the word. Fortunately, I got to know Anki soon after, so I ditched paper flashcards straight away because of their certain limitations (I’m seriously going to explain it all in a post about flashcards, please bear with this lack of knowledge for a while).
5. Audiobooks for immersion
Immersion is great and you don’t have to go to your target language country to experience it. But as I’ve pointed out before, not all resources are suitable for immersion and can actually backfire on you if you’re too tired or too under-levelled for them. In my case, the second option happened when I was trying to listen to audiobooks while studying. They were Harry Potter ones, so I’m totally familiar with the story (POTTERHEAD SITTING RIGHT HERE) and thought it was going to be similar to watching a known anime or something (so it would work like it did in the “Worked” section). I was so wrong. Audiobooks are an entirely different level of focus. They only worked when I wasn’t doing anything else. Okay, listening to them in tandem with cleaning kind of worked because my mind was focused on the audiobook and my hands were working automatically. However, doing my bullet journal or studying from a textbook was not happening. I was too distracted and tended to stop focusing on the audiobook, even if I had my headphones on.
Before Anki, my flashcard world revolved around Memrise. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work with complicated, richer flashcards I wanted to create. It’s a very precise tool, so if you type another word as the answer – even if it’s a synonym – it won’t count as a correct one, unfortunately. That limitation made it very frustrating to use it and after my discovery of Anki, I quickly stopped using Memrise for good (even though I had a valid subscription at the time). It just wasn’t worth using up that yearly subscription only to feel that I’m actually using what I paid for – when it clearly wasn’t working for me anymore. This is something worth learning as you’re experimenting with your studies – don’t be afraid to drop something that doesn’t work simply because you spent money on it. I know it hurts to waste that hard-earned cash, but is it really okay to hinder your progress because of it?
7. What textbooks for which skill
Again, let’s sum up what books DIDN’T WORK as planned.
Kanzen Master wasn’t a good first choice, but it can work as a review tool. But all those [insert your JLPT level] 2500/1500 Goi books with a fancy red screen should go to hell – I stopped using lists to memorise vocabulary long ago and I’m still surprised how many people are unaware of alternative (and more effective) methods of acquiring vocabulary (here I’m speaking from professional experience rather than Instagram experience, so no offence – everybody uses what’s best for them).
Here go two textbooks, one of them being quite popular on Instagram – Kanzen Master and So-Matome! Congratulations! Their structure is so unhelpful I can’t believe they’re being used! If I were to choose between the two, I’d go with So-Matome simply because it AT LEAST has most structures (YES, NOT EVERY STRUCTURE!) broken down to its core elements like a verb form, added particles and so on. Each chapter covers 3-4 grammar structures and then checks the knowledge with two exercises. After 6 chapters, there’s a 3-page review chapter. The exercises are repetitive but at least they practise different grammar tasks a JLPT examinee is given. What they did lack, though, is the translation or at least an explanation when to use presented structures! Sometimes a short explanation of a context in which you can use it was inserted, but in most cases you were supposed to deduce its meaning from a short comic shown at the beginning of the chapter. I can’t fathom who thought people were going to guess that every time. So yeah, I had to refer to a grammar dictionary or some wise websites for guidance. That’s definitely not how a grammar textbook should work.
Kanzen Master on N3 level is still in English (thank God, N2 and N1 books have only the Japanese explanation) and provides examples of presented structures. Each chapter introduces about 6 structures AND, low and behold, there are no practice exercises for 2 CHAPTERS STRAIGHT! After 2 chapters there’s a review and, low and behold AGAIN, a multiple-choice one! The other types of exercises are implemented at the very end of the book (like the star tasks as well as the fill in the gaps passages). What. The. Fook?
I’ve only used one textbook and that is the So-Matome one. I might try the Kanzen Master one when I will be doing my N3 review, but I’m not so sure about that, especially after my experience with So-Matome. The book isn’t bad per se, but when you’re doing immersion regularly, such trivial listening exercises are just boring and too easy. I only enjoyed doing the review chapters, though, because they were structures like a JLPT mock test. Apart from that, I think a listening textbook is unnecessary. Yes, it provides some tips on how to listen for information and I acquired some nice vocabulary items from there (set phrases and formal language in particular), but I didn’t find it necessary to pass JLPT. I haven’t even finished it before the exam.
I’ve already said that, but reading authentic materials proves to be a better practice than reading textbooks. If I were to choose a winner, though, I’d go with Kanzen Master because of its increased difficulty. Still, not really necessary in my opinion. I haven’t finished my So-Matome and Kanzen Master reading textbooks either. I haven’t created flashcards with vocabulary introduced in those books either, although I have to admit that I’d found some interesting and useful phrases in So-Matome.
As I love kanji, there aren’t many textbooks that don’t satisfy me. However, there was one which I had to put away – not because it was bad, I love this series, but it had less kanji than the number required for the exam. It was also rich in exercises and reading passages, so I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to finish it on time. And that book is Basic Kanji Book vol. 2 plus its workbook counterpart. I’m actually happy to dig into it again after finally taking the exam because this book is FUN! I recommend it to everyone starting their kanji acquisition (start with vol. 1, of course; and leave the workbook for revision because it’s not a typical workbook, more like a grand revision book). Just bear in mind that the learning process with this book is slow (but “slow” in a good way!) due to each kanji being introduced separately with its compounds as well as space to practise writing it.