Posted in JLPT, Kanji, Study methods

HOW TO PRACTISE KANJI

I’m being asked one particular question quite often:

How do you practise [choose a language skill]?

I’m always eager to answer any language learning questions (especially concerning my way of doing things) when people approach me, but after some time of giving the same answers, I realised that writing a post like this might be a good idea to sum up my observations and solutions (i.e. used by me). Or, ideally, writing a few posts should serve this purpose, each entry covering a different language skill.

I will be mostly focusing on how I practise them in terms of Japanese, however, this advice is so versatile it can be applied to other languages learnt as a foreign language. In the very first entry, I’m going to concentrate on kanji, however, so it might also prove useful with languages that require memorising an alphabet distinct to the one(s) you already know. In the future, I will also discuss reading, writing, listening, grammar, vocabulary as well as speaking. I’m about to start taking conversation lessons, so I will be able to include this aspect’s pros and cons too, yet I do believe that there are other ways of practising your speaking skills which do not require attending a class.

But first – how to learn and take a liking to learning kanji?

I personally love learning kanji. I remember that when I had mastered hiragana and katakana, my sensei warned me that we were about to enter a new phase in learning Japanese and she was actually nervous if I would manage learning kanji. It was mostly because I was so reluctant when it came to learning the basic Japanese syllabaries (I memorised them 1 day prior to the deadline I was given). Needless to say, she needn’t have worried, because as soon as I received a worksheet with my first kanji to commit to memory (the ones for numbers), I was just hooked. I felt too good to learn them and somehow it was easier than hiragana or katakana. I asked my sensei to give me more on the next lesson, even though I was given 2 weeks to learn the first batch properly.

My sensei was also the first person who introduced certain methods of acquiring kanji to me. As a former university student who majored in Japanese and held an MA in Japanese philology, she was required to master large numbers of kanji every year she spent at university – it wasn’t surprising she learned a trick or two to doing so quickly. Thanks to her advice, I came up with my own system of learning and revising kanji later.

However, currently, I’ve already altered the old system slightly and have been using it for the past year quite successfully. Yet, there are some things I did notice that had worked better in the older system than they do in the new one. As a result, I’m going to present both systems I’ve used during my Japanese journey: the old one and the new one.

Column titles from the left: kanji, kunyomi, onyomi, meaning, compounds. The meanings as well as the compounds’ translations are written in Polish, my native tongue.

OLD SYSTEM (N5-N4 LEVELS)

As I have mentioned before, the core of this system was introduced to me by my first sensei but over the time I added a few features myself. However, everything revolved around one particular element: a kanji compendium.

I shifted the notebook to the side. The boxes were larger, the table longer and they could fit more content that way.

My kanji compendium is, basically, a large notebook in which I registered all kanji I have ever learnt. Every page contained a table with 5 columns: kanji (with their stroke order marked), kunyomi, onyomi, meaning and compounds. As my knowledge of kanji grew, so did my compounds. It means that at first, I wrote the readings for kanji I hadn’t known in hiragana instead and, as I continued to learn, I could write more and more compounds without using hiragana.

Apart from the compendium, I usually kept a notebook or a notepad, though occasional loose sheets of paper also worked for the next step: writing the kanji and its kunyomi and onyomi from memory. I usually opened my compendium at the very beginning and began the revision process from there. Later, as I hit several hundred entries, I started to review them in batches. For instance, one day I would go over kanji numbered from 200 till 300, then 301 till 400 and so on.

I usually wrote readings with Latin alphabet, especially back then – it was faster than using kana.

This also worked for freshly learnt kanji – I used to skip towards the end of the compendium and began revising in the reverse order. Sometimes I revised fresh kanji for a few days straight, to make them stick. This was especially true for kanji with numerous strokes or only one or two uses (which, in consequence, I encountered rarely in reading passages) – they were much harder to remember.

There were several advantages and disadvantages of the old system. I have put them in two lists for a better transparency:

Advantages:

  • cheap, any notebook can work as a compendium (I personally recommend a hardcover notebook, though – mine is 12 years old now and only a bit tattered, though pages inside had gotten loose – I could only imagine what a softcover would look like after such long time),
  • great if you don’t have printed materials or use online resources for studying as you can compile your knowledge into a single physical notebook,
  • knowledge sticks better and for a longer time (after my 4-year break I could still write and remember most readings for N5 kanji thanks to that),
  • more attention is paid to kanji’s proper stroke order and its readings rather than its compounds.

Disadvantages:

  • slower process of learning which requires more reviews,
  • inputting new kanji into compendium takes time (you have to write the entries and the table as well),
  • once an entry is written, it cannot be changed. After you learn more, some compounds you input are too easy or turn out to be unnecessary (because as you make progress, you learn what words occur more or less often; at first, I was blindly rewriting them from a dictionary or a textbook because I had no experience in deciding which one would be useful later yet. Of course, if you use an erasable pen or a pencil, that’s another story, but when I started learning, Frixon pens didn’t exist in my country yet),
  • easy to input the same kanji twice or more times (for this reason, after I hit 300+ entries, I created a spreadsheet to quickly check if I had written a kanji in my compendium before).
One of my first entries back on N5 level (meaning those entries are around 10 years old now! Look how the pen ink has bled to the other side of the page!)

Now, let’s put this system into a few easy steps to follow:

  1. Find new kanji to learn (either from your textbook, JLPT prep book, manga or any other resources you are using at the moment),
  2. Create an entry in the compendium (include the kanji itself along with its stroke order, readings, meaning and a few compounds),
  3. Practice the kanji in a blank notebook, notepad or a sheet of paper: try to recall the meaning first, then write down the readings. Repeat for as many kanji as you want or as many as you are learning in the batch.
  4. Repeat every other day. Reduce the time gap as it sticks in your memory.

Remember to prepare space for your compendium entries in advance to save time and not to lose focus when you are studying!

With 差 you can see that I practised the readings first and then switched to its compounds

NEW SYSTEM (N3 LEVEL):

When I restarted my Japanese journey, I stuck to the old system for kanji review. It was understandable – I had such a long break that I could barely remember basic kanji. I was fine with the N5 ones, but post 150+ ones were a challenge then. As a result, I had to first remember what kanji I had learnt before and my compendium was a marvellous option for that – after all, it contained all the characters I have ever learnt.

I had never thought of including compounds in my past reviews somehow – this element appeared in the new system and was one of the reasons why I decided to change things a little bit. Another reason was that as I began N3 studies, I realised how many kanji I have to master before I could take JLPT. N5 level is a breeze, N4 is not so much worse but N3 is basically twice as many characters to learn.

After around one month of using my old system for N3 kanji, I noticed that my progress was slow and it was already May. The exam was only half a year away. There was no way I was going to make it in time if I stuck to the old system so I started making changes.

Incidentally, those changes coincided with me purchasing some Japanese kanji practice notebooks. Those are notebooks used by Japanese school kids when they learn their writing systems and contain big squares with a side rectangle to write furigana. What’s more, you can choose different sizes of the squares – I personally use the 150 size (meaning there are 150 boxes per page; the pages being B5 size) but I’m thinking of trying the 200 size in the future. In essence, the lower the number, the fewer boxes there are on the page – those might work great for young children who are learning how to write at all but if you already know how to hold a pen and write, you don’t need such large squares. Unless that’s what you fancy, of course!

At first, I just practised writing the signs in the notebook and completely ignored the furigana feature. But I soon realised that utilising it might prove useful in the studies and enhance my learning speed. It also worked well with So-matome N3 kanji prep book since the characters taught are divided based on how they work together in compounds. It’s no wonder I soon began writing kanji compounds instead of singular signs as I had done before.

That’s what a kanji notebook looks like inside. First you’ve got the kanji box and then furigana box to its right. On the right page you can see new kanji being learnt – hence the repetition of 厚 or 泣, for instance. On the left page I reviewed kanji acquired before thus only the compounds appear.

Of course, when I learn a new kanji, I first start with learning how to write it properly (that is, keeping the correct stroke order) and focus on its kunyomi reading as it mostly is an existing word already (or it becomes one if you add an affix; I usually like to spare the kanji boxes and write suffixes and prefixes in furigana space).

After that, I add and repeatedly write down compounds and shift my focus to onyomi. As I’ve mentioned before, this is why So-matome kanji books work so well for me – they give you a character, its readings as well as compounds so I don’t even have to check a dictionary at first. I do later, though, especially if I’m aware that a certain kanji appears in some other words I already know or I want to further explore the character’s use.

This system also works well with the old system’s kanji revision – instead of the compendium being the base, however, a prep book was used. I tailored my reviews to how the book’s chapters were structured. The chapters also imposed how many signs I reviewed each session. Again, I could do plenty or I could just stick to the last batch learnt if it still felt too fresh in my memory.

Now, let’s summarise the system’s pros and cons.

Advantages:

  • more attention is paid to kanji shape and stroke order, resulting in more accurate shape as well as memorisation,
  • much faster, better suited for higher levels of JLPT where the number of characters to master increases significantly with each level,
  • writing in a kanji notebook is immensely visually satisfying and repeating the same character over and over brings a certain pleasure,
  • works well with JLPT prep books,
  • takes less time to study (no compendium is kept, the studies are based on textbooks),
  • easier to remember readings when you remember words the kanji is used in, rather than learning readings by heart without the context.

Disadvantages:

  • More expensive as importing kanji notebooks cost more than a standard notebook you can find in the stores near you (not to mention the costs of importing them),
  • Recalling readings is more difficult as they are mainly remembered and recalled through compounds (so if you don’t remember the compounds, you most likely won’t remember the onyomi),
  • also requires frequent reviews, especially when the kanji is still fresh, but the learning and reviewing process is much faster,
  • there isn’t any collective compendium that stores all the kanji you have learnt to serve as a general guide (however, I later bypassed this disadvantage by creating an Excel spreadsheet and inputting all the kanji I have actively learnt – including the ones from the compendium – into it). 

Now, let’s put this new system into an easy step-by-step guide as well:

  1. Find new kanji to learn (either from your textbook, JLPT prep book, manga or any other resources you are using at the moment). If you’re using a textbook or a prep book, do the chapter first: highlight new words (be it kanji’s readings or compounds it creates) and do the exercises for the chapter. If you’re using So-matome series for this, the chapters are only 2 pages long and take around 10-15 minutes to wrap up,
  2. Open your kanji notebook and write down the first kanji to practise how it is written. Focus on kunyomi first (you can save boxes in your notebook by including affixes in the furigana space; I usually place a dot between kunyomi and the affix),
  3. Check the kanji’s compounds. If your textbook doesn’t provide many or you don’t feel content with the number it does provide, check the dictionary (either a kanji dictionary or a general dictionary such as jisho.org). Write them down with their reading in furigana space. If you feel that you know some compounds by heart, you can skip them or swap them with some new ones.
  4. Repeat for all kanji in the chapter.

Apart from the two systems, there were other things I have tested to boost my kanji learning. I have summarised them in the section below.

ADDITIONAL CONCLUSIONS:

  • putting kanji in Anki didn’t work, even though I tried dividing each kanji into several flashcards, each asking about a different aspect of it so that I could revise, for instance, kunyomi, onyomi, the meaning, sample compounds, and even stroke order (!) separately. The spaced repetition system was unsuitable for such kanji review because I had no power over the order in which the flashcards were presented to me. It led to absurd situations such as Anki asking me to provide the readings first and later checking if I could write the same kanji for memory – which, of course, didn’t work as it should when I was shown the very same character just a second ago.
  • the same situation happened for kanji apps – there wasn’t even one I had stuck to (including the famous Kanji Tree) but it’s my personal preference to learn kanji by writing them on paper and even using a stylus to write on a screen wasn’t as appealing as writing the characters down with a pen. If you like using apps to study and you’re up to giving kanji apps a go, then, by all means, do it!
  • I don’t recommend learning all kanji you encounter; focus on them either by their JLPT level or their jouyou level (order in which Japanese kids learn the kanji at school). Most of the high-level kanji are used less often than the ones from, for instance, first grades of Japanese primary school or N5-N4 JLPT levels. My compendium has always included kanji I learnt as they were introduced in textbooks or JLPT prep books. If I stumble upon an unknown kanji while reading, I tend to ignore it unless it appears multiple times over a short period of time – that’s when I check the dictionary.
    However, I do not create an entry because of that. As a result, there’s a slight discrepancy between how many kanji I can recognise and how many I can recall from memory. This is perfectly normal and happens to everyone so do not beat yourself up when it happens to you. After all, it wouldn’t be fun to read a book or play a game if you had to stop every second to look up some kanji and then write them down in a notebook… Been there, done that and I stopped doing it because it killed all the fun of reading. I touched this topic in my post about reading without using a dictionary but I intend to delve into it a little bit more when I write an entry about why I skipped using a notebook entirely.
  • of course, just learning kanji from general or dedicated textbooks won’t work, you have to encounter those characters in real contexts and authentic materials. Which is why I recommend implementing those into your studies from the very beginning (for absolute beginners you can find easy readers tailored to their limited experience, for example). Reading real manga, book, playing a game or even watching a show with Japanese subtitles (seriously, try the latter one, you won’t believe how effective it is) makes all the difference. Plus it boosts your vocabulary and grammar knowledge. As much as I like writing down all those kanji in my practice notebook and revise them, I can recognise many more characters thanks to how many authentic materials I snort daily. Obviously, that leads to the discrepancy I’ve mentioned above – there are lots of kanji I can recognise as I see them but I cannot write them down from memory. Anyway, suck in as much real context, not just the scientifically engineered for textbooks ones. Trust me, it will help all your Japanese language skills tremendously.
Posted in Attitude, JLPT, Languages, Plans, Study methods

WHAT DID AND DIDN’T WORK IN MY JLPT N3 PREPARATIONS

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.

WORKED

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.

6. Immersion

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):

VOCABULARY

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.

GRAMMAR

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.

LISTENING

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

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.

KANJI

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!

DIDN’T WORK

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.

6. Memrise

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.

VOCABULARY

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).

GRAMMAR

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?

LISTENING

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.

READING

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.

KANJI

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.

Posted in JLPT, Plans, Study methods

MY JLPT 2019 EXPERIENCE

This year’s December JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Exam) session is finally over. I can’t believe that it has already passed! When I started this journey leading me to N3, I had almost a year till the exam date. I remember I was afraid that I might have to postpone my exam yet again since I had to start with previous levels’ revision – after all, I hadn’t studied Japanese for about 4 years before last January. It’s such a long time that in case of learning a language, you will forget things. Sometimes even lots of things.

So with such fear in my heart, I decided to give it a try regardless. There was still half a year before the registration for the exam (it’s usually in the second half of August for December session), after all, so I put off the final decision for that time. The beginning was rough and off-putting. I don’t want to write much about it here as I want to delve into the topic more in my 2019 studies summary post, but I have to admit that there were moments over the course of this year when I did not believe I would be able to pull it off and take JLPT as planned.

However, a quick thought always put me in place and motivated me for greater work despite all the struggle – if not this December, then December 2020. Because July does not work for me – even though we have it available in Poland, I have work and summer is high season for my company, so there’s no way I could take a weekend off, leave everything alone and go.

But there were other reasons why I didn’t want to postpone the exam. One is that July was out of the question and waiting an extra year felt like more time than necessary to achieve N3 and I would be circling in place at some point, revising the same stuff until the examination. So, if I put it off, it would make more sense to forgo N3 and strive for N2 (this way I wouldn’t have to do that circling thing), but in 2021 or even 2022.

Moreover, there were two more reasons why I couldn’t wait for that 2021/2022. First is that I collect JLPTs, I already have the N5 and the N4 ones under my belt and I want that N3 in my collection as much as I want that N2 and finally N1 in a few years. The last reason is that I’m turning 30 next year and I wanted to get one more JLPT level before that happens so that I can leave the advanced tier of JLPT for my thirties.

Luckily, everything worked out, although it was not a clear and easy path, but more of a rugged one. And there was lots of stuff I’d done last minute, too. Well, let’s not worry about that, what is done is done and now all we can do is to wait for the results.

How do I really feel about my performance, though?

Pretty good, but not super good. I mean, I feel I did better on mock exams. Still, I’m pretty confident I did my best and I should pass the bottom line at least and pass the exam on the whole. That’s what my gut tells me.

KANJI AND VOCABULARY

The first part of the JLPT exam on N3 level tests your knowledge of kanji and vocabulary. As for kanji, they check whether you’re able to choose a proper kanji for a particular reading and the other way around – you have to choose the correct kanji spelling for the word given. Kanji is one of my strong suits, I love kanji and I love acquiring new ones. Kanji practice is usually my go-to task when I feel down and don’t feel like studying at all since I can practice it with some kind of a show, podcast or audiobook playing in the background. That doesn’t mean that I perceive kanji as a way to study more leisurely, no – I’ve always liked writing, I’ve always worked on my penmanship and continue to do so till this day. So I genuinely enjoy those endless writing practices I do in my kanji notebook – it feels so good when you nail a kanji (writing-wise).

The kanji I’d got on the exam were alright and quite easy for me although I did make a mistake with two words (almost three! but I followed my gut on the third one and it turned out to be correct). As a result, 印象(いんしょう; impression)is going to haunt me till the end of my days (I chose いんそう for the reading EVEN THOUGH I marked いんしょう initially! God, how many times I have to remind myself to TRUST MY INSTINCTS!).

As for vocabulary, I felt insecure about it before I opened the exam paper. The truth is that I was so inconsequent about learning new words and making new flashcards that it came back to bite me in the ass. I’d noticed that problem way before, around May, but still wasn’t able to overcome the fact that even though I enjoy learning from flashcards I make, I am weak in will when it comes to sitting down and making them, as they’re quite rich in content and thus take more time to prepare (even though making flashcards still counts as studying to me and not only; there are studies which show that making a cheat sheet or flashcards helps you remember words). As a result, I’ve turned only around half of the N3 words into flashcards. I did finish the whole vocabulary prep book, though, half of the words from that book just didn’t make it to my flashcard pile in time.

Consequently, I was over the moon when I saw the examples they’d prepared for the exam paper. I knew all of them! I was especially glad to see the examples in the last task, where you’re given a word and you’re supposed to choose one sentence where this word is used correctly in a given context. I knew all of them AND I perfectly knew what contexts they work in, so I had no doubts which answer to pick. This mattered to me a lot – because on the mock exams there were examples where I THOUGHT I knew the meaning and its usual context, but I mistook it for a similar word or found out that I cannot use some word in the context I’d chosen. And of course, you can get the most points for each example in this task, so the more reason why I was relieved that the last task went smoothly.

GRAMMAR AND READING

My attitude towards grammar is neutral. I see its importance, I’d definitely noticed how important studying it is when I saw it used on the tv shows I’ve watched raw this year, but generally, I don’t like to study grammar. I mean, I don’t like to sit down and study it from a textbook. I much prefer to pick up grammar from what I consume, like tv shows, games, mangas and other media. That’s how I picked up English, after all, and it worked well.

However, I did notice how much more I am able to understand now THANKS TO the time I’d put into grammar prep books this year. It’s just amazing and I will continue to study grammar from my favourite sources on the advanced levels in order to help me understand and know more.

Yet, when I opened the exam paper, I was surprised because grammar this year was mostly word-based in my opinion. If you’ve ever done any mock questions for JLPT, you know that they like to provide answers that sound similar or that examinees tend to mix up. For example, in N3 prep books, there were multiple questions where you had to choose between によって、による、によると and so on. Not to mention the fact that some structures have multiple meanings and they want to check if you, for example, remember that のために not only means “for (somebody, something)”, but also “because of (some reason)”. I was baffled when I saw that double meaning for the first time, actually, and it took me quite a while to remember that.

However, this year they used words. For instance, in a text with gaps where you’re supposed to choose what structure fits in the gap, they asked for words like “firstly” or “even” rather than typical structures. It wasn’t a bad set of questions, but for me, it felt repetitive after I’d just taken the vocabulary part even if they used different types of tasks to test your grammar.

Some people are probably curious about how I handle the “star” task. For people who are not familiar with JLPT format, this is what sample question looks like:

To solve it, you have to put answers 1-4 in the correct order. The word marked with the star is the answer you should choose.

I currently don’t have any problems with those, but it used to be different in the past. When I first encountered this type of task, I struggled as most people do. But when I put my puzzle-solving and sudoku love into this task, it became much easier and I mostly do it without errors. On the exam itself, though, I think I might have done 1 example wrong unless I guessed the meaning of some words correctly. We will see.

Reading passages were quite fun, to tell the truth. I really enjoyed reading all of them and I thought it was quite easy to understand the general idea behind each text. However, I do believe that the questions were very logic-based and required greater focus to actually understand what they were really asking of an examinee such as myself. So my reading results might be a hit or miss, depending on how well I understood the intentions behind the questions.

LISTENING

And here comes the fun part.

Listening skills.

They are my forte, they’re something I feel very confident at in any language I decide to learn. Such is my ability – I don’t want to brag, but that is the truth. With any language, at some point, I reach a level where I can hear EVERYTHING. Grasping it is another thing, of course, but I also reach that level at some, later, point as well. And I won’t deny that it is because I do a hella lot of passive listening – basically every day, sometimes for multiple hours. And yes, it works wonders. I cannot recommend doing that enough.

So why the fun part?

Because this year the JLPT examiners decided to butcher everybody with the listening part. And this wasn’t only my own impression, but other examinees’ I kept in touch with as well. 

Heck, when they played the CD, my first thought was “Did the examiner push the fast forward button on accident or something?” because the people were speaking super fast. It took me like 3 recordings to adjust to that speed – as I’ve mentioned before, I listen to tons of native material, so I’m pretty used to their natural speed.

But even with that, when you had done a certain number of mock test and got used to the general N3 speed – you will be thrown off for a second. And that’s what happened to me.

After I put myself together and started to HEAR what was being said again, I calmed down, but in later tasks, I also had a moment or two when my mind got stuck processing the previous example when the next one had already started playing.

Overall, it was a good listening, but it definitely wasn’t the best performance I can usually manage.

From what I’ve gathered from other people, their impressions were similar in regard to N3 listening exam. What’s more, that fact didn’t apply to N3 exclusively – I’d contacted people writing N5, N4 and N2 levels and all of them told me that the listening went so bad that they’re worried if they’re going to pass the exam at all. And for most levels, the pace of speech in the recordings was faster than normal, too.

After I came back home and thought about it, it kind of made sense why they increased the level of the listening part. Actually, they could’ve done so about any other part, but they chose listening. Why? I personally think I might have the answer to that. That’s just my theory, though, so nothing’s set in stone here.

About a month prior to JLPT, I received an email from my examination centre that they’re going to prepare an extra examination site just for N1 examinees. I found it odd, but it didn’t concern me, an N3 candidate, so I just ignored it. I was supposed to write in the standard examination centre and that mattered.

But maybe I should’ve read deeper and discover what that little email meant.

If they had to prepare an extra place – and mind you, they rent an entire SCHOOL with MULTIPLE classrooms for the exam in Poland, so there’s always enough space to fit everybody. In my JLPT experience, it has never happened that there was another place rented for an entire JLPT level. What does it mean? Of course, there were so many people taking the exam this year that they run out of space. And it could be true for other countries as well.

As it is with entrance exams, if there are too many candidates, the university has to raise the bar. I think a similar thing might’ve happened with this session’s JLPT. Too many people are eager to get a certificate – let’s prepare a harder exam so that fewer people pass. Simple as that.

Well, I hope my gut feeling is right and I will pass. I’m about to start my N2 preparations, after all. I might not take N2 next year, but I’m definitely aiming for December 2021 or 2022. It really depends on the pace of my preparations and I can already tell you that I don’t want to go as crazy with them as I did with my N3. It was a bumpy – as well as awesome – rollercoaster ride with many first times but also with many lessons learnt. So I’m gonna derive from those and slow down with my love. After all, it should reach a new stage like with any love relationship does – first, you’re infatuated and do crazy things, wanting everything there and now and then you get smarter and enjoy the bond you have. ゆっくり、so “slowly”.

And I intend to enjoy my tender bond with Japanese so, so much.