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 Choices and sacrifices, Languages, Motivation, Study methods

2019 IN MY STUDY PLANER

Wow, I can’t believe it’s already been a full year since I started using my study planner! It went by so fast and there are already 12 months registered in it. At first, it was supposed to be a plain planner but I was unable to overcome my urge to decorate it… even just a little bit. So it’s not super fancy, but each month has a theme that usually matches my bullet journal’s theme for the same month. Also, the names of the months are in Polish – my native tongue.

I use a variety of abbreviations in my study planner – the boxes aren’t that wide and I try to fit each point within one line (for aesthetic reasons; it’s also more transparent that way). I also tend to shorten the titles of textbooks or shows that I register. With anime that’s usually easy because for most of them a shorter version already exists in the fandom. For instance, Cardfight!! Vanguard, which appears on some of the following pages, is often referred to as CFV so I implemented this abbreviation into the planner. For some shows, I had to create shorter versions of my own.

In addition, I had to come up with my own indicators for certain types of resources and language skills. They are as follows:

A = animation, anime; audiobook,
D = drama (Japanese live action tv series),
DR(CD) = drama CD,
SB = student’s book or the main book,
WB = workbook,
M = mock exam or mock questions,
K = kanji,
GR = grammar,
VOC(AB) = vocabulary,
🎧  = listening,
日記 = writing a dairy entry,
R = review,
N = new (usually refers to flashcards and means that I input new ones),
OFF = a day off, no studying was done.
DONE = yay, I’ve finished the thing!

If somewhere along with the entries small letters appear next to a number in the brackets, it means I was able to finish only a part of a certain chapter or a section. Rather than opening the textbook and checking how many pages or exercises I had done exactly, I just plant a small letter so that I know I was not done with something in one session.

If anyone’s curious, I’m using a blank monthly schedule from Muji along with a black Muji 0.38 gel pen. You can get those in Muji store (also available online, that’s how I purchase my Muji stuff).

JANUARY 2019

There isn’t much on January pages since I haven’t kept a proper study planner back then! I got the idea at the end of January, actually – the inspiration sparked thanks to one of Instagram posts that showed in my feed (unfortunately, despite trying, I was unable to find THE post that inspired me – sorry guys).

However, I decided to include January in the planner anyway, even though I started registering what I do as February began because I had already studied in January and I could remember what I did that month. It wasn’t much, especially that my journey had only restarted, but I managed to review two N4 prep books (from Nihongo Challenge series). While doing the reading section, I actually discovered that I enjoy reading short passages a lot hence the first book of So-Matome N3 series I began was, in fact, the dokusho (reading) one.

Apart from Nihongo Challenge, my biggest achievement of that month was purchasing and reading the first entire manga volume in Japanese. It was hard, it was painful and my head was throbbing at the end of it, but I managed to read the first volume of Chihayafuru in about 2-3 days. I still remember how slow I was and how many times I had to open my dictionary to check even the simplest words and kanji. That experience made me realise how much I had forgotten over the past few years. However, because it was Chihayafuru, one of my favourite manga/anime series of all time, I couldn’t just put it away at that time. I did later when I began volume 2 and then didn’t finish it until about half a year later – I came back to reading it in September, I believe.

FEBRUARY 2019

I was on a real fire back in February. As I overcame the first struggles connected with revising what I had learnt way before, I began expanding my knowledge – still only on N4 level (despite having passed it already).

I also focused on gaining back my kanji recognition skills, so I reviewed around 400 kanji I used to know from Basic Kanji Book vol. 1 (and other sources) and then jumped into Basic Kanji Book the workbook. It was a good choice since the workbook is a better fit for revising rather than accompanying the main book as you go through it chapter by chapter. The workbook contains many reading passages as well as writing and listening exercises with the use of kanji that were taught in the main book (they are divided thematically). Also, the grammar used in the workbook is of N4 level, so it isn’t a good choice for beginners (even though the main book is!).

Apart from kanji practice, February was the first month when I implemented two things that later became the core element of my daily studies: Anki along with Fluent Forever method (introduced in a book by the same title) as well as massive immersion via rewatching Japanese tv shows such as anime or dramas in the original. In this month I felt like watching Yowamushi Pedal again and so I did. It’s a very long anime series (4 seasons are currently out so that’s around 100 episodes), so it took me well into March to finish watching it without any subtitles. 

One last major thing that happened in February was starting the Try! book for N4 level – in order to review grammar. I also noticed how well this book was structured not only in the case of grammar points but also in listening and reading practice. Till this day it’s my book of choice when it comes to learning grammar and I can’t wait to dig into the N2 copy I have. But that is going to happen after I review N3 level over the first quarter of 2020 (at least that’s the plan).

MARCH 2019

March was also a good month and as you can see, I actually achieved a lot over those 31 days. There were many shows I had completed but not so many books. Well, it isn’t surprising at all since back in January and February I was reviewing basic things and after some time I just remembered things I used to know before. At the end of March, however, I began to delve into N3 studies so obviously, my progress slowed down as learning new things takes more time than revising old ones.

Still, there was one more thing that I added to the learning mix: drama CDs. They are something I wish to elaborate more in the future posts but in a nutshell, they are a recording of voice actors acting out a scene. They’re a little different from an audiobook as there usually isn’t any narration. Instead, they kind of resemble a movie without the picture – you can hear what the characters are doing and saying (that includes noises made, like the wind blowing or a door squeaking as it is being opened).

Anyway, the snow melted so I was finally able to take my car out of the garage (we live in a mountainous area so my tiny city car without a four-wheel drive is basically useless in winter). As I was driving around, I came up with an idea to pop one of a few drama CDs I possess into the car’s CD slot. Consequently, listening to drama CDs had become one of the best activities I can do in the car – and also one of the most pleasant ones.

APRIL 2019

In this month I had slowed down significantly. I mean, I kept regular studies, but I wasn’t going as crazy as I used to over the first 3 months. I continued to watch anime alongside studying, but there were also days when I just watched a show and didn’t work with any textbooks or novels.

Due to Easter, I also took a bit of a break, but the family gathering wasn’t the only time I gave up studying – as you can see, there were some ‘off’ days outside Easter period as well. To tell the truth, in April high season at my job kicked off so at first, I struggled a little with adjustment to a new regime at work. Yet, after some time I adapted to my new schedule and workload as thus I was able to get my studies back on the right track which was later reflected in what my May looked like.

April was also the month when I forsook Kanzen Master because I noticed it was too difficult for a person who had just started their preparations for N3 level. I finished the first section of the vocabulary and reading textbooks and, consequently, didn’t even open the grammar one. Instead, I gave So-Matome series a try and they were a much better fit for N3 entry-level studies. I still cannot fathom, though, why I had put off using Try! N3 for later when I enjoyed my revision with its N4 counterpart so much. I guess I wanted to leave Try! for N3 wrap-up period since it nicely explains the grammar and also lets you practise listening exercises for the exam as well as do some reading.

MAY 2019

It was a really good month. I was back in my game, keeping the right balance between work, family life and Japanese. In total, I took only 4 days off over the entire month! Given the professional workload I usually have in May, being able to make quite nice progress towards reaching the mid-N3 level.

It was also a month of putting new solutions into action. I received my 500 mon N3 book early that month and immediately began using it. 500 mon is a series of books which include mock exam questions, them being divided into 3 categories: kanji readings, vocabulary and grammar. On each page, 3 questions are asked and 4 possible answers are provided. On the next page, there are the answers as well as explanations why those answers are correct. I got to admit, as I was using this book, I picked up a ton of new knowledge. What’s more, you can go over it multiple times, thanks to a row of small boxes being presents next to each question – so you can tick whether you got the question right. Thanks to that, when you use that book for the second or further time, you can compare how well you did then and currently.

Another invention which actually got implemented at the end of April, but took full bloom in May (funny, since most flowers do bloom in May here!), was nikki (Japanese for “diary”). I started writing entries – not daily, but when I felt like it and, obviously, when something worth describing happened – in a simple notebook. Too bad I stopped doing it in summer because it gave me valuable hints on grammar points I couldn’t remember and needed to revise.

The last innovation that took place in May was getting access to Japanese Kindle. I was so glad I was provided with the opportunity and I have to admit that it boosted my reading frequency A LOT. I love using my tablet so I was that much more glad I could use it for practising my Japanese reading skills as well. Plus reading Kindle manga is awesome and their prices are not that bad. What’s more, if you are skilful, you can utilise their discount and save tons of money. I was genuinely surprised how often they do a 100% discount (yes, you read that right, a hundred per cent discount!) on the first 1, 2 or 3 volumes of a manga series to get you hooked. And those aren’t just indie or low-ranking titles. No! You can find well-known and bestseller titles being discounted 100%! I probably don’t have to tell you that thanks to visiting their online store often and watching out for such promotions, I stocked up a fair amount of manga and books to read for FREE?

JUNE 2019

June was one of the first worst months in 2019. Why? Because the heatwaves hit. The temperatures increased up to over 30 C (around 90 F for you American folks) and stayed in my country for DAYS, so obviously most people started to feel overwhelmed after some time – me included. I felt so lazy that I was unable to do much. Even heavier professional workload – because summer holidays started and my work is highly dependent on holiday seasons – didn’t help either because I was too tired to study after work and preferred to spend my time relaxing rather than committing to the books.

So, in consequence, June was the time when I utilised the most basic rule I had for my studies most – I focused on at least keeping up with flashcards revision. Despite having no energy for even a slight reading, I dedicated those 5 minutes of my time daily to run Anki and review my flashcards. I didn’t input new ones, though.

JULY 2019

Oh, boy.
There it goes.
The worst month of the year!

Seriously, July is just my personal black mark when it comes to 2019 studying. I almost hadn’t done anything, I had even forgone revising my flashcards some days. The beginning was especially hard since the heatwaves were still present in my country so the consequences were similar to June’s – I didn’t do sh*t.

Another reason why I hadn’t done much studying that month was the fact that we adopted a cat at the very end of June. Over the first week Stefan was kept in my mother’s bedroom and he, being a little kitty, functioned in this typical baby routine consisting of eating, doing his business and napping (on repeat) so I was able to escape the bedroom and do my stuff while he was dozing off.

However, when he got accustomed to his new home, we let him explore the rest of the house so that he could get used to it and its residents too – and that was when my personal nightmare began. Stefan was such an energetic and ‘cat-ish’ cat (meaning he was everywhere he could reach doing the usual cat things) that I was disturbed every time I tried to sit down with my books. He harassed my pens, my books, everything that was lying on the desk so I had to hide most things and, of course, there couldn’t be much studying done. Fortunately, in August I came up with an idea of how to study while being under a constant kitty attack.

AUGUST 2019

I was so mad after July that when August came, I made this small resolution to turn things around and get back to studying. The weather also helped because the usual August chills settled in so I could focus more easily thanks to that. It was also the month when I discovered that I could find refuge from our new family member, Stefan the cat, in my study. Study as in a room. I have a separate room for client meetings in the house. So I grabbed my books and pencil case and retreated to that room in the evenings.

It was a real game-changer, there’s no doubt in that. August pages clearly show that I was able to study more and more often. Sure, there were some ‘off’ days as well, but not as many as there were in June and July. I was also able to get back to writing my Japanese diary and reading mangas in the original.

Speaking of manga, that month I discovered a little gem on Kindle – a manga titled Hananoi-kun to Koi no Yamai (花野井くんと恋の病). It’s a shoujo manga (i.e. manga dedicated to girls, mostly covering typical teenage life and its problems, first love, first kiss etc.) about a plain girl who is asked by a handsome boy to go out with him. Surprisingly to her, she says yes and that’s how their slowly budding romance begins. What I love about this series is that even though the heroine is a plain girl, she’s a very nice person who wishes to work things out in a relationship rather than making a fuss over stupid things. It was a nice change from the usual drama when the characters don’t talk to each other when there’s a misunderstanding between them.

I also liked how chapters are titled – each chapter covers one of the ‘firsts’ that happen to a couple. So we have the first holding hands moment, the first kiss, first visit to each other’s rooms, first part-time job, first Valentine’s Day and so on. It’s a very heart-warming story and also quite easy to understand. I also adore the author’s drawing style – it matches the story perfectly.

The newest, 5th volume should be out later this month (January 2020) or in February and I am so looking forward to reading more of Hananoi kun (the boyfriend) and Hotaru’s (the heroine) story.

SEPTEMBER 2019

Fortunately, I kind of realised I had less than 3 months left till the exam so I started doing some real work in this month. I came back to watching anime with Japanese subtitles which was a marvellous solution for boosting both listening and reading skills. Netflix was especially great for that because, in case of Japanese shows, the subtitles contain exactly the same lines as the uttered ones so you can follow the conversation on the screen AND learn how it is written at the same time. This doesn’t work for foreign shows, though – the dubbing and the subtitles unfortunately usually do not match.

In September I finally got to studying with Try! I still cannot understand why I put off using that book for so long because after I began working with it, grammar was so much easier to comprehend than with So-Matome series. Plus the reading passages available in Try! are simply interesting.

One more thing happened in this month – I grabbed Chihayafuru the manga again. The last time I did this was in January as you remember. I was genuinely and positively surprised to find out how much progress I had made throughout the previous half a year. First of all, my reading speed has increased significantly and I could also understand and read much more without the use of a dictionary. This was also the moment when I forsook my vocabulary notebook for Chihayafuru. I used to keep one for volume 1 but as my skills progressed, I found it an unnecessary hassle to keep. I just wanted to enjoy my manga. Thanks to such attitude, I was able to breeze through the next 2 volumes before I switched to mock reading exercises for the upcoming JLPT.

OCTOBER 2019

Haha. Another funny month. Even though there are many breaks registered in this month, they weren’t the lazy kind of breaks. Instead of studying, I got into writing. I was on real fire with the story I am currently working on so I welcomed this all-consuming passion for writing with opened arms. As a result, I was able to break 60k worth of text over the course of 3 weeks thus completing my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge a whole month early (as it takes place in November every year). Looking back, I think it was a good choice because thanks to that in November I was able to focus exclusively on last revisions and preparations before JLPT rather than being torn between participating in the challenge and studying Japanese.

At the end of October, I got back to studying (the fact that there was a little over a month left till D day definitely influenced my actions) but before that, I spent the time I had free from writing on gaming. At that time I was writing those posts about visual novel games as well as my personal recommendations of such here on this blog, so obviously I returned to some of them to check how much my language level had improved. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a noticeable difference between how I perceived those games’ language difficult then and back in October. I knew more kanji and more vocabulary and I didn’t have to reach for a dictionary that often. It was an amazing and rewarding experience – much like when I started reading Chihayafuru again, after half a year, and could recognise my progress with Japanese.

NOVEMBER 2019

I should be proud when looking at those pages. But am I really? Partially yes, but mostly no. I am perfectly aware that achieving that performance was possible because I had that thought of JLPT closing in at the back of my head all the time. I was also pressured to finish the prep books before the real deal so that I was as prepared as I could be. So somewhere along the month I kinda lost the joy of studying Japanese. A week before the exam I couldn’t look at my textbooks anymore and I began to drift away from sitting down and studying in order to save myself.

Some might say it was a good solution – one should clear their head and relax just before the exam – but I just knew that if I hadn’t taken the breaks my intuition had told me to take, I would have cracked. I didn’t want that to happen to my beloved Japanese because I remembered what happened to my university studies after years of forced studying – I didn’t care anymore as a result.

To not let history repeat itself, I took massive breaks just before the finishing line. I was kind of lucky because I found a good book series at the time and was able to forget about the exam thanks to it. Did I regret it then? A little. But after I took the exam itself, my regrets cleared up because I knew I did well and immediately felt excused for my indulgence.

DECEMBER 2019

Well, I could have expected that to happen. The exam took place on December 1st so obviously, I needed to take a break post-exam. However, due to Christmas time, all the preparations I had to do before THE dinner, I spent little time with Japanese. The only thing I did regularly was gaming since I got a Japanese RPG game – Persona 4 Golden – as my Saint Nicholas’ Day gift. Of course, it was good practice in terms of both reading and listening, but apart from that, I hadn’t done much else.

Yes, before New Year’s Eve I welcomed my desk and textbooks back, especially that I wanted to finish a few mangas I had started in 2019 in order to boost my count for the year but that was it.

Now, here we are, in January 2020 and I am back on the track again. I started reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (or ハリーポッターとアズカバンの囚人 in Japanese) as I promised myself in my New Year’s resolutions for 2020. I also began using Tobira which I anticipated before I took JLPT. I hope this year will be as successful as 2019 was. And I hope yours too, dear readers! See you every week in 2020! Happy New Year!

Posted in Languages, Listening, Reading, Study methods, Video games

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL TITLES (INTERMEDIATE LEVEL)

It’s time for the next tier of games – and you do not realise how tricky it was to pick those up! I moved a lot of titles to the next level when I realised how their gameplay could affect the gaming experience A LOT. And by a lot, I mean that apart from proper Japanese language levels some of them are going to require some good gaming skills as well (and a lot of nerve in some cases).

However, we’re on intermediate tier now and that means higher language difficulty, but a person on N3 level should be able to deal with these without major problems. Some games in this list include other game genre elements which make the gameplay more complicated. I’ve also chosen games the plot of which is simply more complex or uses specific vocabulary because of its setting (e.g. in Code Realize you encounter tons of technical vocabulary because it’s set in steampunk England. Also, a few characters are quite passionate about science or technology and that fact impacts your ability to understand what they’re talking about and what’s actually going on).

Well, it’s time to dig into this level’s recommended titles!

CODE REALIZE

Japanese title: Code:Realize ~創世の姫君~
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, otome, steampunk
No. of games: 3
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C (B for the sequel)
Anime: Yes (1 season, 13 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: Yes (all 3 games)
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/code-realize/

Synopsis: Cardia lives day to day isolated from the world in a restricted, abandoned mansion in order to fulfil her promise to her father. Her body carries a deadly poison that rots or melts anything that her skin touches – causing the locals to call her “monster” so her father told her to stay away from people and falling in love, but he suddenly disappears. One day, her quiet solitude is interrupted when the Royal Guards break in to capture her. That’s when she meets the chivalrous thief Arsène Lupin who helps her break free from the Royal Guards. Cardia then finds herself on a journey with Lupin to locate her father. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: Code Realize games got really popular which resulted in the creation of 3 games in the series as well as the anime version of the first game coming out soon after. There’s a great reason for all that – the game’s just marvellous. Apart from clear, steampunk setting, an awesome cast featuring some of the most famous male seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) as well as amazing soundtrack which only adds up to the whole setting, Code Realize offers a solid story with an interesting twist in terms of well-known characters like Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin, Frankenstein or Van Helsing.

Now, after I’ve written this very commercial-like sum up of Code Realize’s greatest features, I can tell you more about it from the linguistic (and Japanese-learning) standpoint. Even if you’re a fan of steampunk (I’m personally not, but I picked up this game anyway), if I were you, I’d refrain from buying this title for your first game of intermediate tier of visual novels. Despite simple gameplay which only requires making a correct choice of you here and there (like almost all visual novels do, especially otome games), the world of the game as well as the language used are not entirely easy to understand. I mean, the dialogues between the parties and the narration are relatively easy to understand – the kanji use is quite natural, meaning if you’ve just started N3 level, you’d find this game problematic. For a person who’s completed N3 level, you’ll recognise most kanji thus making it easier to play the game.

However, it’s the technology behind all the plot that can confuse you and require that dictionary being on constant standby. If you’ve ever read or watched a story set in a steampunk world, you’re very much aware of how much the technology influences the plot and how much it is talked through and mentioned. Code Realize isn’t any different from other stories of this particular setting. So, yes, you can expect times when the dictionary use will be heavy, but most time you’ll do fine – if you’re either already on N3 level or have completed it, that is.

The general plot is quite simple and gets you hooked quite easily, the characters are just gorgeous and I personally had a problem choosing my favourite guy. Even if you’re not into any of them, their personal stories are so well-written, you just want to find out about it all – which isn’t a common thing, actually. It’s very rare and something to clap on if the creators made you play all the routes available instead of picking “the one and only” and focusing on him. Just bear in mind that if you’re fond of Lupin, his story won’t get unlocked until you’ve completed the other 4 guys’ routes. That’s when you’re able to start a new game in Lupin’ route. 

One more advantage is the graphics which is something to be stared at, including the backgrounds. I just drooled over them most times. The soundtrack isn’t memorable, but it fits the overall story and setting quite nicely, so it’s quite easy to get involved in the story and the characters’ peril.

Oh, and the last and, in my opinion, the most important thing – Cardia just rocks. She’s a very strong very independent lead female, very different from your typical otome game protagonist which needs constant protection from the bad guys or life itself. Cardia isn’t like that. Yes, there are times when Lupin and the gang need to save her last minute, but she can think, she can plan and she can execute. She also isn’t a harmless womanly woman, but due to her powers, she can do serious damage and turn the tides in dangerous situations which is something I LOVE of female protagonists. I LOVE when they AREN’T a damsel in distress all the time. It’s also a delight to watch how she grows to live among other people and to trust them, despite her upbringing sank in seclusion. Consequently, Cardia is one of those things that make the story and this game itself great. Definitely try this one, but maybe save it for the upper spectrum of intermediate level. If you’ve just entered it, I’d recommend trying some other games presented in this list.

7’SCARLET

Japanese title: 7’scarlet
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, otome, mystery
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: Yes
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/7scarlet/

Synopsis: The game follows Ichiko Hanamaki, a college student whose brother has disappeared in the town of Okunezato a year prior to the start of the game. She and her childhood friend Hino Kagutsuchi find a website discussing mysteries surrounding the town, which will host an offline meetup in the town during the summer; Ichiko and Hino go there to investigate Ichiko’s brother’s disappearance. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: My honest thoughts of this game? Mixed. I mean I loved the trailer when it first came out. It looked so aesthetically pleasing that I preordered it immediately. The plot also sounded intriguing – finally some mystery being released! Did it live up to my expectations? Yes and no. I kind of got what I was expecting, but was not fully satisfied.

For instance, the mystery around the protagonist’s brother’s disappearance is quite good and to reveal all secret you must play all the guys’ routes with the inn owner at the end – similarly to Code Realize, his route gets unlocked after you finished the rest of the male cast. On the other hand, the romantic aspect of this game lacks and one route is just terrifying rather than being romantic. I know some girls are into yandere (a Japanese term for a person who is initially very loving and gentle to someone (or at least innocent) before their devotion becomes destructive in nature, often through violence and/or brutality. Source: Animanga Wiki) stuff, but I’m not, so one route was very off-putting and I even put the game itself away. However, my usual curiosity got the best of me and I just had to find out what is the mystery of this small town our protagonist and her childhood friend are visiting.

But bear in mind that if you’re looking for a detective mystery, you won’t find it here. Code Realize would be a better choice in that regard as it involves a conspiracy. In 7’scarlet you’re going to find a small-town mystery, people being wary of outsiders, pretending the protagonist’s brother had never arrived and not letting them find out secrets of their town. This was just the kind of story I was looking for – and it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t an amazing story, but a good one. Actually, if you’re looking for something LESS heavy in romance and plot mechanisms characteristic for an otome game, 7’scarlet might be just for you. As it was also released in English, you can easily check whether you understood all the tangles between every character, the town and the protagonist’s brother as well as the finale.

There isn’t much to say about the language. I’d definitely put it above Shinobi Koi Utsutsu presented further below, but it wasn’t something an N3 level student wouldn’t handle. Sure, the story is rich in small details that end up mattering later or connections between people and places, but it can be dealt with a little dictionary time. Or simple immersion in the story. Honestly, I even took some notes on the aforementioned connections so that I wouldn’t lose track of those small but important details and that also helped a lot. Not to mention the fact that in this game you sometimes get to choose what things you’re buying and having certain objects in your inventory directs the plot in a certain way. As a result, it is advisable to write down those choices as well (or simply use the walkthrough if you’re struggling to enter a particular route). Also, be careful of bad endings. There are quite a few moments when you can lose all your progress because of a decision you’d made a few minutes earlier, so save as often as you can and keep several saves (that’s actually a tip true for all the games you’re playing, not only visual novels).

ROOT LETTER

Japanese title: √Letter (ルートレター)
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, PC (Steam), Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, mystery adventure, point-and-click
No. of games: 2 (but “Last Answer” is an enhanced edition of the original game with additional endings and a live action mode)
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: Yes
Game’s website: http://www.r-letter.com/

Synopsis: Root Letter is set in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, where the protagonist arrives in search of Fumino Aya, a pen pal friend from high school who had disappeared for 15 years. After he finds a letter dedicated to him from her that was never sent, he sets out to interrogate her classmates as he wonders if everything Aya had told him had been a lie. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: Wow! Finally a game which isn’t an otome one! Although it does feature a romance. However, in Root Letter you’re a guy who has set on a journey to find an old pen pal – a girl – who you used to exchange letters with 15 years before. You’re curious to find out what happened to Aya, especially that her last letter states that she has killed someone. 

The game contains several cool features that made me binge-play it over several days. Yes, DAYS – the story is long, but very linear, so as long as you keep saves in proper moments, you can replay the game to get all the endings (and trust me – it’s so worth getting all the solutions why Aya disappeared – one of them is so absurd I laugh about it till this day) without wasting much time. What’s more, I gotta admit that this game made me laugh so hard occasionally – specifically, there’s this one character, a pervy old guy that suddenly appears in the most inappropriate moments (especially when you’re having a bath in hot springs) which brings a welcomed comic relief to this very much a sad story.

Also, contrary to typical otome games, you don’t pick any “guys” or other characters around which the plot then revolves. Instead, in Root Letter, your goal is to discover what happened to Aya and there are several explanations (i.e. endings; both bad and happy) about what happened.

Throughout the game, you reread the letters you got from Aya and try to remember what you wrote back. This is where the game mechanics get very interesting – since you and Aya were penpals 15 years before, you struggle to remember what your response was. As a result, during the game, you get to choose what you responded with and that choice influences the game’s outcome – a typical “choose 1 option” visual novel mechanic, but in a very creative format. Here’s where I can give you a tip – save as you’re about to make a choice about your answer to Aya’s letter. That’s where the routes split, resulting in different endings.

Another part of the game is pure INTERROGATION. If you’ve ever played an Ace Attorney game, then you’re quite familiar with a concept of cross-examination where you get to interrogate the witness about the case and you can present various evidence to them if needed. A similar idea is used in Root Letter – you get to question the game’s characters and can show them some objects you’ve gathered while snooping around Aya’s hometown. Based on your talk and the objects you can make people tell you things they hide or which are relevant to the story. As a result, you walk quite much around the town and visit different places relevant to Aya’s life, obtaining more and more information on her story.

An interesting thing about this game is its enhanced edition. The story in that edition is very much the same, but if you’re not a fan of anime graphics, you can trigger a “live-action” mode which will feature actors instead of drawn characters. The clips were also remade with the actors’ play. Music was great since the very beginning – it isn’t memorable, but nicely fits all the scenes – the scenery of a small town, the intensity of questioning the characters as well as a certain nostalgic vibe during flashbacks.

If we were to talk about the language used, it’s quite simple. As long as you remember places’ names, you’re fine (fortunately you move from spot to spot by choosing your destination on a map). The plot is not super complex, either. What may prove to be a bit of a challenge is the interrogation, though. During its climax, you’re faced with some timed responses you need to make. At first, you may have trouble with reading them, because they’re swapping so fast, but you can always save the game before questioning somebody and reload it if you fail. It’s such a minor difficulty, though, that I decided to put it in this game tier. The story and other game mechanics, after all, are totally of intermediate level.

SHINOBI KOI UTSUTSU

Japanese title: 忍び、恋うつつ
Platform: Playstation Portable, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4
Genre: visual novel, otome, ninja
No. of games: 2
Limited edition: Yes (and twin edition with both games too)
CERO: C
Anime: No
Drama CDs: Yes
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/nin_koi/banka/

Synopsis: Katagiri Kae, whose aim is to become a ninja, meets a vice-president of Sanada High School in a tea house she works at. He asks her if she would enrol in the school. In order to do that, it is necessary to transfer to the ninja training centre first and achieve good results in the midterm exam – only then Kae will become an actual student of the school and start preparing to become a full-fledged ninja. Wanting to make her dreams come true, Kae agrees to the vice’s proposal. However, on her very first day, she activates an unusual ninja technique allowing her to captivate men. Will Kae become a real ninja or will her secret technique blow in her face?

My comment: I’m so sentimental when it comes to this game. To tell the truth, it was the first otome game I’d actually finished! Well, partially. It was the first otome game I’d finished a route in (although I was close to doing that before when playing Norn 9 back in 2013 – I was just 1 chapter away from the end, unaware at the time!). That says something since I hadn’t even completed my N4 studies when I started playing Shinobi Koi Utsutsu. As an old Naruto fan, I just had to pick a ninja otome game. If you’re in the same boat, feeling too old for Naruto (if that’s even possible), but would like to try something centred more on romance than overpowered fights (though battle scenes and ninja work is still present in this game!). Similarly to Code Realize, the graphics are heavily ninja-inspired (that even includes the loading symbol) as well as the soundtrack. The background music is a nice mix of modern and ninja era music. If you’ve ever watched Naruto, you know what I’m talking about – when the scene gets intense, that nice heavier beat kicks in, making the scene more exciting while most of the time you can hear traditional Japanese instruments as a part of a track.

Language-wise I’d say that this game is perfect for N3 level. It includes a lot of kanji you learn on that level. For others, you’d quickly learn to recognise them. I’ve also noticed a lot of grammar points discussed at N3 in the dialogues and narration of the game. So, if you’re mid-N3, you’ll play this game with ease and certain comfort of staying away from the dictionary. Early N3 is also possible, but with more frequent dictionary checks. As I’ve mentioned, I had played this game as an N4 student and had actually completed it (it took me around 2 weeks to finish one route, though).

What’s also great about the language is the fact that despite the plot being set in ninja times, the language used both by the characters and in the narration is very much modern. Some characters use several words or figures of speech characteristic for those times (like 我 [われ] or でござる), but that’s it. You don’t have to worry about old Japanese present at all, which only serves as this game’s advantage – you get to enjoy a different type of story without struggling to understand what is being said.

The plot isn’t anything great, it revolves around ninja school life, meaning training, missions and battering with other students (especially that other kunoichi – female ninja – are jealous of the protagonist’s power), very much like in a typical high school setting. Of course, at some point in the game, you get to choose one of the guys (here as your training partner) and later end up developing romantic feelings for each other. 

However, Shinobi Koi Utsutsu features a lot of well-known seiyuu – especially because in the enhanced version for Playstation Vita, you get 4 more potential romance targets than the original 6 in the first version of the game, which was released on PSP. It means more male seiyuu to listen to and fall in love with. It also makes this game a good value for money – you get 10 routes to play and each route is of standard length (meaning a few hours per each character and if you’re stopping for dictionary searches or translation, that adds up to even longer playtime). 

If you’re a fan of ninja stories, there’s one more otome game I can prompt you to play and that’s Nightshade (Japanese: 百花百狼). I haven’t played it myself, so I can’t speak for its language level, but it was released in English on Steam (PC) and based on my friends’ experience with this title, I can definitely tell it’s an awesome play and I’m interested in checking it out myself. In Japanese, it’s available on Playstation Vita.

ZETTAI KAIKYUU GAKUEN ~EDEN WITH ROSES AND PHANTASM~

Japanese title: 絶対階級学園~Eden with roses and phantasm~
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: No
CERO: D
Anime: No
Drama CDs: Yes, a few
English version: No
Game’s website: https://www.prot.co.jp/psv/kaikyu/index.html

Synopsis: The protagonist, Fujieda Neri, lives in the poor district within the “Ring Area”, which surrounds the Tokyo Bay. She lives a modest, yet peaceful lifestyle. However, one day, her father, her only family, suddenly disappears.

“Go to Kaikyuu Academy.” – That was all what was written on the mysterious letter left behind by him.

The private Kaikyuu Academy… A prestigious boarding school attended by sons and daughters from privileged families, founded upon the goal of educating them well in order to give them the tools to support future Japan.

Following the letter left by her father, Neri transferrs into Kaikyuu Academy, a school where celebrities gather. It is extremely luxurious, however, being grounded upon a social caste system, the academy is dominated by “social class discrimination”.

At the very top of the social hierarchy is the “Queen”. Endowed with incredible political influence, she rules over the students. Superior to everyone else but the Queen are the chosen elites belonging to the privileged class, “The Roses in Full Bloom”. The commoner class, in which most of the students belong in, is called  “The Nameless Honeybees”.

And then there are “The Ignored Stones”… Even though they’re fellow students, those in The Ignored Stones are regarded as having the same rights as a servant – they’re usually oppressed and enslaved. Finally, there is “The Resistance”, which is an organisation composed of students who oppose the social hierarchy system and wish to demolish it.

In a society far more disparate than she had ever imagined, Neri finds “love”, and gradually, a certain “truth” about the academy surfaces. What is this “truth?” and how is it connected to her father’s mysterious disappearance? (source: the game’s website)


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.

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods, Video games

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL TITLES (ON RELATIVELY EASY LEVEL)

Last week I introduced visual novel games’ usefulness as a language resource to you. This week I’m going to reveal my top list of visual novel titles, sorted into three different groups of language proficiency: relatively easy, intermediate and hard games (language-wise). With some games, I’ve also considered the game mechanics as well, since, in my opinion, this factor also influences whether the gameplay is hard or not. In this entry, I will also be talking about Japanese CERO rating which can be useful in deciding whether any other game that you want to play will be appropriate for your language level (ergo, if you can play it without throwing the pad, or the console itself, at the wall in frustration).

However, as I was writing this post I realised that this entry turned out to be tremendously long and thus I decided to cut this post into 3 separate posts which will be published later this month. In return, instead of only 3 titles I initially planned to recommend for each language level, I’m going to introduce 5 titles instead. This solution would, in my opinion, be better than cutting down the list that greatly exceeded 3 titles for every tier anyway. Not to mention the fact that I’m in the middle of playing some visual novel games and I wish to include them in the higher tier lists when I have played enough of them to form an opinion.

The first category I came up with covers games that can be tried quite early and the language in which is relatively easy to understand – the recommendations for this category will be covered in today’s post. For example, at this level, some words are written in hiragana instead of their usual kanji writing or the language used mostly contains informal Japanese. I, personally, had started playing games in Japanese very early when it came to my Japanese level – as far as I remember, I imported my first game just when I was out of N5 level and began my N4 studies. That was very early, only about 2 years into learning the Japanese language, with around 200 kanji known to me and many important grammar structures which are introduced on N4 level, still unknown to me.

What’s more, the setting of those „relatively easy” games is often the school/student setting, so basically most interactions the game protagonist has are connected with their family life, school, first love or hobbies. Those topics are usually covered quite early in Japanese studies and if you’re watching anime or dramas OR reading mangas, then you probably know lots of vocabulary from those topics already. As a result, such games would prove easier to play for you.

The second tier is intermediate. Here I placed games that provide more linguistic challenge than the first group OR the game’s gameplay gets more complicated, thus increasing the difficulty of the gaming experience in general. For instance, I included Code Realize, which uses steampunk setting, in this level’s list. It is because some vocabulary appearing in this game might cause trouble when playing (AKA you have to open that dictionary of yours). What’s more, I’d consider this vocabulary quite useless – unless you really need to know how to say „steam engine” or some other technical/mechanical stuff in Japanese.

The final group covers difficult games. That difficulty can origin in various factors of the game: complicated plot, tricky game mechanics, used vocabulary, frequent formal language, vast narration to read, numerous kanji used in sentences and so on. That’s the category where I put most mixed-genre games, especially RPGs or point-and-click games, since the latter usually requires logical thinking and when you don’t understand something, you’re basically quickly on your way to either a dead end or a bad end (because visual novels usually include numerous bad ends which cause instant game over – don’t worry, if you save your game often, you can just load that save and you’re fine. For this reason, I recommend keeping numerous saves though, as some bad ends occur even after a few wrong choices made – and that could be a few hours of play!). In consequence, the amount of time you have to spend with such a game increases dramatically, not to mention the frustration if one misunderstood detail drags you away from making progress in the game.

As for where to purchase video games (as well as books, mangas and other Japanese resources), I plan to write a post on that in the nearest future, so be sure to check it out if you’re eager to import some of those titles I’m going to suggest today! However, if my list does not satisfy you, do not worry, I won’t be mad. Nobody likes everything they’re served and I find it perfectly fine to choose some other game you are looking forward to playing instead. But I’m going to give you a little tip on choosing games for your language level anyway.

Here’s where this CERO rating, which I’ve mentioned above, comes to play.

CERO is Japan’s video game content rating similar to PEGI (Europe) or PG (the US). It ranges from A to Z. Well, technically it ranges from A to D and includes Z as a special, restricted category. The letters represent the recommended minimum age for play. And thus CERO rating corresponds to:

A = up to 12 years old
B = 12+
C = 15+
D = 17+
Z = 18+ (the only one officially restricted, meaning you might have to show your ID when purchasing, as these games usually involve heavy violence, erotic content or any other content that is suitable only for adults)

Why is this important? Because if we apply the Japanese education system onto CERO rating, we’d get:

A = primary school (ages 6-12)
B = middle school (ages 12-15)
C = high school 1st and 2nd grade (ages 15-16)
D = high school 3rd grade (ages 17-18)

If you know a thing or two about the Japanese school system and especially about the tempo of their kanji acquisition, you’ll start connecting the dots at this point. Japanese kids learn around 1000 kanji throughout 6 years they spent in primary school. The second 1000 kanji are learned throughout their secondary education, that is middle school and high school.

As a result, games with A or B CERO rating are easier to read and understand than higher-rated games. That’s because during their secondary education, apart from more kanji, the Japanese also learn more advanced vocabulary (as you probably did during your mother tongue classes at school, too), while games targeted at primary school kids would be easier to read (less kanji and simpler vocabulary) and comprehend since these kids have just started learning to write in their mother tongue, just like the beginners in Japanese have.

I figured out this relevance when playing games in Japanese. I noticed that B rated games usually use simpler language and some words are swapped with their hiragana spelling (instead of using the kanji the word is usually spelt with). The plot is usually simpler, too. In contrast, C or D rated games usually include a more complex story with multiple subplots (and also the game itself is vast and rich in details, taking longer time to beat it). The language used (especially the kanji load) is obviously more difficult, too.

This relationship can be clearly seen in the list of games I prepared for you. So, if you want to play any other game which is not included in this list – check out its CERO rating first. This will give you a rough idea on its language level. Taking a peek at the gameplay itself can also give you a clue whether the game would be tricky for you or not. Youtube is a very good source for this one, even if the game hasn’t been released yet, the producers usually upload promotion videos (プロモーションムービー) or so-called „play movies” (プレイムービー) with sample gameplay. I often check those out before deciding on a purchase. Of course, watching sample gameplays comes AFTER I decide if a game picks up my interest at all! 😉

As for the price range of visual novels, the cost really depends on the platform. I mostly play on Playstation consoles so I’m most familiar with them. The average cost of a game starts at around 5800 (for a Playstation Vita/PSP game) to over 20000 yen for a limited edition of the title. However, regular editions (that means only the game software itself, without any additional bonuses) cost between 5800 and 7000 yen. That price does not include the shipping if you’re importing the game. You can, of course, also buy them cheaper, especially if they’re on sale or you’re buying used copies. It really depends on where you’re buying them from. But I’m going to cover my game shops in the future post (about the shops I purchase my Japanese resources at), not here.

HOW TO READ THE RECOMMENDED SECTION

Platform: what gaming platforms this game was released on,
Genre: what game genres, apart from visual novel, it includes,
No. of games: how many games (e.g. prequels, sequels, side stories, spin-offs) were released in the series,
Limited edition: whether a special box with the game’s software as well as a few bonuses, such as CDs, booklets, artbooks, postcards, files, plushies etc. was released,
CERO: official CERO rating of the game (visible on its box),
Anime: whether anime based on the game was released (this might be helpful if you’re not sure you understood the plot well or if you want more fun since often the anime and the game’s plots vary at some points),
Drama CDs: whether drama CDs were recorded for this title (apart from drama CDs available in the limited edition of the game),
English version: whether the game’s been translated to English and released to the western market (it can also be useful to check if you understood the game, especially if anime hadn’t been made; there’s such a case with game titled „7’s Scarlet”, which got English release but no anime or manga),
Synopsis: Short summary of the plot,
My comment: my additional remarks, info or warnings about the plot, the gameplay and so on.

Well, without further ado, here are my recommendations:

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL GAMES

RELATIVELY EASY LANGUAGE LEVEL
(can be tried on early/mid-N4 level)

PRINCE OF STRIDE

Japanese title: プリンス・オフ・ストライド
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, romance (otome – targeted at women)
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (1 season, 12 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://posweb.jp/

Synopsis: The series Prince of Stride: Alternative revolves around the extreme sport “Stride”, a sport where a team of 5 plus a relationer runs relay races in towns. The story takes place at Hōnan Academy where first-year high school students Takeru Fujiwara and Nana Sakurai try to re-establish the school’s “Stride” team by recruiting 6 members. Their goal is to join other schools to compete and win Eastern Japan’s top Stride competition, called the “End of Summer”. Takeru asked Nana to become a relationer as well as a manager. They asked Riku Yagami to join the team, but he turns them down stating that “Stride” is something that he does not want to do, but has to after finishing in a dead-heat against the upperclassmen. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: Prince of Stride started as a special joint project by Dengeki Girls’ Style (a popular otome game magazine) and Reject (a well- know otome game and other otome-themed media producer). As a result, everything is just different about this game. First of all, there is rarely a sports otome game created. And a GOOD game, too! This title has AMAZING plot, it glues you to the screen. As I mentioned in the previous post – I couldn’t put this game down for a few weeks in a row, until I played all the routes! The main stride team is a fun bunch and the relationer, that is you, is a very well-written protagonist. Which is a valid point, because otome games protagonists tend to be quite irritating to western players, especially women. We’re just different from Japanese women in terms of behaviour and shyness. This is why I find Nana, Prince of Stride’s main character, a great advantage to the game. She also has her own special skills – she’s an integral part of the stride team and does her job very well. Speaking of her job – as she’s a relationer, so she doesn’t exactly run in the relay. Other members do. But as stride is run throughout the city, the runners don’t see the upcoming runner and thus a third person is needed to time and tell the next runner to set and go. That third person is a relationer, who observes the track and the runners on a map displayed on monitors and is in contact with the team via wireless technology (just like, for example, F1 racers are with their team). This part, the race, is my favourite part of the game, As for a visual novel, it was done very well and the races are exciting and engaging. Your job, as the player, is simple – you have to time the relay correctly to get the best score possible for the race. Other elements of the race, like choosing the team’s order or cheering on your team members are also taken into consideration. Basically, the more points you have, the more likely you are to win the race. If you don’t meet the minimum requirement – it’s an immediate game over, but you can reload the race of course. The producers also thought of replays and put an option to skip the race if you’d beaten it before. It’s a plus since the race takes around 20-30 minutes of play to finish it!Another important thing is that for most of the game, I didn’t feel that I was playing an otome game at all. In fact, the first signals of a romance appear in the second HALF of the game! So that’s a big chunk of the story you first read before you get into your guy’s route. Still, the love growing between the protagonist and one of the guys was entertaining and well incorporated into a very sports-themed game. Actually, there were lovey-dovey scenes I almost wanted to skip (like when they go on a date just before the last relay) because I was more interested in the competition itself rather than characters’ romantic relationship developing. But the ending, oh, the ending made me scream, it was so GOOD and satisfying!
Also, I’ll be mentioning soundtracks a lot in this list, as I find BGM important in the gaming experience, but Prince of Stride’s soundtrack is just un-be-lie- va-ble! One of the best visual novel game soundtrack I’ve ever encountered for sure. The only disadvantage of it is that it was NEVER released as a CD or something!So the only choice you’re left with is to listen to the songs in the extras section in the title menu (it’s a standard for otome games to have a soundtrack player included in the menu). It’s no wonder this project was a huge success which resulted in anime production launching right after the game was released! Yet, because of that popularity, it’s a bit difficult to get a hold of a copy of the game now. I still regret that I hadn’t ordered the limited edition when I was considering it. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated this game’s potential and went for the regular edition when preordering. Damn!

BROTHERS CONFLICT

Japanese title: ブラザーズ コンフリクト
Platform: Playstation Vita, PSP, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 3 (actually 2, as Precious Baby is a remake which includes first 2 games)
Limited Edition: No
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (1 season, 13 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/bc/pb/

Synopsis: Ema Hinata (or later known as Ema Asahina) is the daughter of the famous expat, Rintaro Hinata. One day, Ema finds out that her dad is going to remarry a successful clothing maker named Miwa Asahina. Rather than bothering them, she decides to move into the Sunrise Residence complex that is owned by Miwa. From there, she discovers that she has 13 stepbrothers. As time moves on, her stepbrothers develop feelings for her and compete in ways to win her heart when all Ema wants to have is a loving family. Can she make all of her 13 stepbrothers happy or will she only pick one of them? Ema has a pet that helps her when times are tough and only her and her new brother can understand. She is faced with many challenges like finding out she adopted and having to apply for college. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: A very simple but enjoyable game with a very good soundtrack and fantastic cast – you’ll find real male seiyuu (Japanese voice actor) stars here! The scenes in the game usually involve daily life and everyday activities so we will find the characters preparing food together, going shopping together, celebrating birthdays together, going to the beach together etc. The great advantage of this game, especially of Precious Baby for Playstation Vita and Nintendo Switch is that it incorporates two games in one. The first two games in the series were released as separate titles, each including 6-7 romantic routes with different brothers (1 route per brother) plus 1 secret route for somebody else. As a result, if you purchase Precious Baby, you’ll get two games (and all possible boyfriend material) for the price of one. And because there are many brothers to choose from, you’d definitely find your type. Each brother also has their own, iconic BGM track. The gameplay can be a bit tricky, especially during the first playthrough, as you have to choose your activities in a calendar. What you choose to do influences the gameplay – meaning, if you choose to interact with a particular brother on a specific day, you can get a special chapter with him. The more those chapters you find and experience, the closer you get to the happy ending with your chosen one. However, it’s difficult to predict WHEN someone will have that extra scene with the protagonist so honestly, I used a walkthrough with this one. IN JAPANESE, so I forgive myself for doing this. You should too.

UTA NO PRINCE SAMA

Japanese title: うたの☆プリンスさまっ♪
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, rhythm game, otome
No. of games: 10 (6 main games and 4 spin-offs)
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (4 seasons, 53 eps + 1 movie)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No (but there’s an English version of a spin-off mobile game)
Game’s website: https://www.utapri.com/

Synopsis: With dreams of becoming a composer and someday writing a song for her favourite idol, Haruka Nanami enters the Saotome Academy, a prestigious performing arts school. Surrounded by potential idols and producers, Haruka gets to know six of her classmates, who are all competing to become idols. For her project, she must team up with another student as an idol-producer team, and if they are successful, they will join Shining Agency after graduation. Besides, romance is strictly prohibited at their school. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: Uta no Prince sama (or UtaPri for short) is the only game in this set that involves another game genre – a rhythm game. That’s kind of understandable, since UtaPri is set in a music school for idols and music composers and the objective of the game is to get paired with one of the main guys and do a song together (him – singing, you, the protagonist – writing the music and the lyrics). Consequently, there are several occasions in the game when you’ll encounter a rhythm game where you have to push specific buttons when they appear on the screen – just like you’d do in Dance Dance Revolution (though this one involves a special dance mat and you dance for real). I loved this mini game! The songs created for these games and just awesome and they quickly went to my playlist. Also, the game lets you choose the difficulty of the mini game – which is a great move by Broccoli, the producing company, because if you’re not very musical or have no experience with such games – you can choose the easy mode (the other’s hard). However, the difficulty of the mini game increases over the play anyway – it still is considered “easy”, but with time you get more buttons to push with the song. It’s as if each mode had level 1, level 2, level 3 – each time this mini game appears, you need to get more skillful. But don’t worry, you can practice the mini game, choosing it in the game’s title menu. At one point I was so into it, I stopped my progress with the plot and kept on playing the rhythm game… As I said, the songs are SO GOOD.
As for the plot, since you get paired with your guy as a part of your school assignment, you’re obviously gonna fall in love. I really liked the “no love allowed” rule imposed by the school here, since you and your guy are trying so hard at first NOT to let those feelings grow and later you decide to fight the system! Will you succeed? Check it out yourself, but I got to admit, that this plot point added this extra spice to the story.

DIABOLIK LOVERS

Japanese title: ディアボリックラヴァーズ
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4
Genre: visual novel, otome, dark fantasy (vampires)
No. of games: 7
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C or D (depends on the title in the series)
Anime: Yes (2 seasons, 25 episodes)
Drama CDs: Yes, TONS
English version: No
Game’s website: http://dialover.net/

Synopsis: The main heroine, Yui Komori, was just a normal teenage girl until high school when her father, a priest, has to go overseas for work. As a result, Yui is sent to a new town and arrives alone at the mansion she was told will be her new home. At the mansion, no-one greets her however the door swings open on its own accord. Yui enters the mansion to find herself alone, as she explores she finds a handsome young man sleeping with no heartbeat on a couch. To her shock, he awakens and five other young men gradually appear. Yui soon notices something different about all of them, she discovers that all six of them are brothers but by three different mothers, and they all turn out to be sadistic vampires. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: I personally didn’t like this game too much and for this reason, I stopped collecting it after the 2nd game (which I bought only to play the route of my favourite character). The plot is silly and repetitive, as the protagonist usually gets cornered in every chapter by one of the brothers to be abused, bad-mouthed and have her blood forcefully sucked. If you’re sick of males trashing women and treating them as if they were his possession – don’t play this, because the main „hot” guys are sadistic (and sexist) garbage beings and they DON’T CHANGE over the course of the plot, unfortunately (I was very disappointed when I ran the 2nd game and expected the continuation of the budding romance that began in the 1st game only to discover than the whole progress of the main protagonist and the guy of your choice made went down the drain because they have a kind of AMNESIA). What’s good about this game, then? It’s very easy language-wise! Because of the repetitive plot and scenes as well as reused vocabulary, this game is very easy to adapt to and play. There aren’t any unusual game mechanics, either (there are only the standard questions with choices to make once or twice per chapter). The art is just GORGEOUS, not only the special CGs, but the sprites themselves as well as the art used in e.g. the opening and ending videos. This game also has fantastic songs sung by the voice actors (and the game’s cast includes the best male Japanese voice actors!) – you can just play those songs on constant repeat, great music! Plus the job those male voice actors did is just marvellous: the sucking noises, the moans or the sighs of the vampires are just ecstatic poetry to your ear – and exactly everything you’d want from an otome game. No wonder this entire series sells like hotcakes – I’d really recommend playing it on headphones and while you’re alone unless you want to get hot while other people are around.

TRIGGER KISS

Japanese title: 熱血異能部活譚 Trigger Kiss
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/tk/

Synopsis: In the future, some people are born with superpowers. Akizuki High School won the national championship in superpowers club fights but was banned from the tournament for 2 years due to heavy violence of the members during the championship finals. Two years later, the club’s captain, Azuma, is told by the principal that the club will be disbanded if they do not win the national tournament. At the same time, a second-grader named Futaba Sendou, who also has superpowers, is transferred to Akizuki High School. Even though Futaba hates her abilities, she is tricked into joining the club and competing in 3-on-3 battles with different schools.

My comment: This actually was my very first otome game and also first pure visual novel game in Japanese I manged to finish (after the fiasco with Norn9 which is DEFINITELY a higher difficulty tier game – you’ll see this title in future posts). I still hold it dear and enjoy it. There are several factors which make this highly underrated game quite attractive for language learners. First of all, the graphics. Instead of a typical text box in the lower parts of the screen, the characters’ lines appear in typical comic bubbles all over the screen. This makes the game appear to be a kind of interactive manga than a visual novel. Secondly, the language used by the members is quite simple and repetitive – after you get used to some vocabulary used to describe the superpowers and battle, it gets pretty easy. Thirdly, the female protagonist is one of the best if not THE BEST protagonist I’ve met in any otome game. She’s strong, she’s independent and she’s not shy. She doesn’t have a problem to tell the boys that they’re acting wrong. She also takes the initiative herself, rather than waiting for a knight in shining armour to save her ass – which is something most otome game protagonists lack. Also, she throws great punchlines – she’s so sarcastic and playful! As a result, Futaba is one of the reasons why Trigger Kiss is so fun to play. The game mechanics don’t add anything special, too – the only new thing is touching the screen when the protagonist chooses to use her superpowers (and it feels quite awesome to do that!). The game doesn’t require any special skills to play, really. I mean, I played it when I’d just began my N4 course and I was a total newbie in visual novel games department at that time, too, and I had no problem enjoying this game. The plot is interesting, the interaction between the members of the club is quite… standard (I mean, you’d definitely seen such club members’ interaction scenes in anime or manga before, so you’d have no trouble understanding what’s going on even if you can’t grasp what the characters are saying word-for-word). The soundtrack is also good – I have several tracks from this game on my motivational tracks playlist. The only tricky part is the lengthy narration during the battles, but as I’ve said before, after a few opponents you more or less start to recognise and remember the vocabulary used for describing them.

DISCLAIMER!

The titles above are all, as you’ve probably noticed, otome games, that is games targeted at women which usually concerns a single female protagonist surrounded by hot men who, obviously, start to have feelings for the protagonist. However, since easy games usually score A or B in CERO rating, that means that the romance itself is slightly subdued and in some titles very shallow, especially if the title focuses on something else other than just romance. And that’s actually the case with Prince of Stride and Trigger Kiss which follow adventures of two school clubs participating in national championships and that competition is what the plot strongly revolves around. The romance involved is very minimal but is still present. What’s more, B rating means that the game involves nothing more than a love confession and the usual kiss after a confession. So if romance is not your thing, but you’d like to play some game with relatively easy language – give these two titles a try, the plot, apart from its romance component, is definitely worth it and very entertaining.

Other story genres than romance will be included further in the list – it’s just that romance is very easy to read and follow while more sophisticated and complex stories require higher level of language proficiency. So if you’re up to the challenge, read my upcoming entry for other types of stories and more game genres mixed in!

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods, Video games

THE PERFECT GAME GENRE FOR LANGUAGE ENTHUSIASTS

I’ve always liked playing video games. It has all started when I was around 5 and my dad bought a Pegasus and, obviously, Mario Bros to go with it. We often played together or I tried my skills alone and we often compared who managed to progress further – mind you, those were the times when save function wasn’t a thing in games! So every time you ran a game, you had to start it from the very beginning!

Later I discovered computer’s DOS games (Jazz Jackrabbit was lit!) and the world of computer games for Windows opened up to me. My family knew all about my hobby and, surprisingly, supported it with birthday or Christmas presents! Before you blink your eyes and reread the previous sentence, completely confused, remember that those were the 90s and gaming in my country was still considered pretty much a boys’ hobby and a bad, unhealthy hobby, too – girls like me were supposed to love Barbies and plushies. Thank God my parents were of modern thinking which meant games and Lego for me – I’d never shown much interest in dolls. Still, video gaming was restricted for most of my childhood – I got 30-60 minutes of play per day and my beloved GameBoy Color was being taken away for the school year and returned to me for summer and winter holidays. Still, I used every opportunity to play games in my free time and I still do, over 20 years later.

When I started learning English, it wouldn’t surprise you that I learnt A LOT from the games I played – especially that in 90s game translation was a rare thing in my country. We got tons of games which were not translated at all and basically imported untouched (thus available only in English, or they just translated the box and the manual, but the gameplay was entirely in English). At the time, it was frustrating, because some games you wanted to play were not translated and playing them was trial and error at first in order to figure out HOW exactly to play the game. That was especially true with Nintendo and Playstation games. I don’t remember when first translated Playstation titles hit, but it was pretty late (I’d even guess post-Playstation 2). Anyway, we had to deal with gaming in English – apart from the language benefits it was a double-edged sword because we were kids and kids are kids – if you didn’t understand something, you got angry and you dropped it, getting no language practice out of it as a result. But when you’re a kid, you don’t perceive games in another language that way.

When it came to language teaching methodology, nobody was talking about using video games as a language resource at that point as well. Everybody who played games was wasting their time in front of the screen, in the others’ opinion. This is one of the reasons why I’d never really recognised how much progress I made in English thanks to games. Fortunately, I finally did when I started learning Japanese – it was already late 2000s, times changed, I grew up and was more aware of how I study and consume knowledge. So when I asked myself what would be the most pleasurable thing for me to consume in Japanese, my mind immediately hinted that I should play some games.

But which games wouldn’t require a high level of proficiency in a language? I mean, it’s one thing when you can take your time to read and understand and, if things get too difficult, finally open that dictionary you hate so much. But it’s another story when a game moves forward before you have even finished reading a sentence simply because the game itself was programmed to do so after a few seconds… Or when you cannot move forward with your game because you don’t understand how its gameplay and mechanics work and thus you put the game away. This is something that actually happened to me when I ran Pokemon Blue for the first time (I was only a kid at the time and my English skills weren’t great, obviously, as I had just started learning it), I couldn’t pass further than the second town because I didn’t understand that I was supposed to go back to the first town to deliver a parcel. So I got stuck until I stumbled upon a Polish walkthrough and was finally able to move on. On a side note, Pokemon games were a major factor that contributed to my English proficiency – I played all of them until Sun and Moon series and replayed most of them several times. The fact that you have to repeatedly choose specific attacks and perform other repetitive actions really add up to your language skills if you’re a gamer.

Taking my above-mentioned gaming experience into account, I immediately knew that I didn’t want to play a game in Japanese I wouldn’t enjoy, simply because it would be less rich in text or of a disliked genre (for example, I don’t play sports games or shooters) at the cost of it having a lower level of language difficulty. Luckily, 2 years earlier I’d started to play games of a particular genre which was just perfect for the job: the game didn’t move from one text to another without you clicking to confirm it, it had simple game mechanics, so you don’t have to focus too much on understanding them (and they are also almost the same in most titles of this genre, so once you learn how to play them, you can play any game of this genre, just learn one or two differences in the title’s mechanics and you’re good to play it without any manual every time) AND, what was the best and most valuable feature of it, almost all of the text appearing in the game was DUBBED by voice actors, so I wouldn’t have to worry about encountering a word I could understand but didn’t know how it was written – the in-game characters were talking to me, the player, and what they were saying was displayed on the screen at the same time – this feature really cut down on my dictionary search time.

That genre is visual novel.

The mechanics of visual novel are very simple and friendly even to a person inexperienced in video gaming – your only job is to click or hit a specific button (e.g. on Playstation it’s X or O on the gamepad) in order to make the appearing text progress and you have to make some choice once in a while – usually you, as the game’s protagonist, are supposed to choose between 3-4 different options you’re offered (it can be a line the protagonist is supposed to response with or an action they choose to perform) and depending on that choice the game progresses in different ways (and leads to different endings – each visual novel usually has multiple possible endings). If you’ve ever played heavily plot-driven games like Life is StrangeHeavy RainBeyondThe Walking Dead – you know what I’m talking about.

Yet, visual novels are much more simple, there usually isn’t any walking on the screen, it’s more static – you can see the text box, the background image and a character sprite on the screen. Let me show you an example: 

Zettai Kaikyuu Gakuen, my favourite visual novel game

In the game, you mainly read a bunch of text while the characters, background scenery and text appearing on the screen change. The purpose of the game is to, basically, read the whole story, as you would read a book from cover to cover. Sounds boring? But pour some background music, sound effects (like broken glass or rain), voice acting, diversity of characters’ images (with different facial expressions, too!), rich plot, occasional extra detailed image (they’re commonly known as CGs, i.e. computer graphics and they usually show a scene from the game that you’re experiencing at the moment), gamepad or console vibration to the mix and you get an exciting and engaging emotional roller-coaster, that is visual novel games.

When a CG is inserted in the game, the plot still progresses, but instead of usual sprites on a background, you get a beautifully drawn image depicting the scene

In a sense, visual novels are like typical paper novels, but more interactive in their nature, as you can influence the outcome of the plot (the story usually has various endings – both good and bad ones – and it’s quite fun to discover them all), you can also see the characters (and their facial expressions too, since sprites are not the same all the time – the game usually includes several sprites of the same character with different facial expressions and clothes, which only adds to the experience), see the setting of a scene, hear the sound effects, listen to the background music (actually, they have great soundtracks and, to tell the truth, most of my favourite motivational tracks come from video games!), hear the characters’ voices and so on (I mean, especially in otome games, if you put the headphones on, it’s an amazing, out-of-the-world experience, as they use a special equipment called “dummy head mic” to record the voices. Because of that, if a game character is supposed to whisper in your ear – you’re under the impression that he/she REALLY is whispering straight into your ear. This is why I enjoy those games so, so much).

This is a perfect example of HOW MANY different sprites were created for just ONE CHARACTER in Persona 4 game – and this guy isn’t the protagonist!

So, in a way, visual novels are like a book but in a game format. However, you get as much reading practice as you would with a book, just with some handicap – because most of the text is displayed and read by the voice actors at the same time (usually excluding the protagonist’s and the narrator’s lines – but that makes a nice change and a welcomed challenge in-between the dubbed parts). You can also turn the voice acting completely off in the menu if you want a real challenge. Or just mute chosen characters – most visual novels include such options in the game’s settings.

Yuki Kaji, Japanese voice actor and a dummy head mic

I mostly play otome games, which is a romance in visual novel format. Of course, like it is with books, you can get visual novels of basically any genre – horrors, sci-fi, drama, comedy, slice of life, mystery and so on. The same thing goes with their language version – English and Japanese ones are the most common, but many visual novels have been translated to major European languages, like Spanish, German or French, so you can purchase those instead if that’s your target language. Just pick your poison and get some practice! 

Horror and mystery game called Death Mark (it’s available in English, too!)

What’s more, visual novels can be nicely fused with other game genres – I know very successful and engaging fusions between RPGs and visual novels (e.g. PokemonPersonaYsTrails of and Tales of franchises), horror and visual novels (Corpse PartyDeath Mark) or point-and-click games and visual novels (Virtue’s Last Reward and the entire 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors franchise, Danganronpa or Ace Attorney). Not to mention the fact that you can also replay games you’ve already conquered in another language – not necessarily visual novels, but of other genres too! If you know the game’s mechanics, it makes it that much easier for you to play them, as you only have to focus on the dialogues and the plot – and they’re also something you’ve already read before, so it’s like reading Harry Potter in another language – you know the plot by heart, but you discover how it was translated or, as it is with Japanese visual novels, how they sounded in the original – I actually find it fascinating to get to know how some jokes sounded in Japanese, how closely something was translated, what was lost in the translation process and so on.

For instance, I’m a hardcore JRPG fan and love their rich plots as well as game mechanics, so I often play those (and they also feature tons of standard visual novels elements, like rich dialogues or voice acting, especially when the in-game characters are talking with each other! Just take a look at the example below). After giving visual novels a try, I made a brave choice to include JRPGs in my Japanese gaming mix – but only those I’d finished before, so I know their gameplay mechanics inside out. As of last week, I purchased a game of my favourite JRPG franchises of all time, that is Persona. I got myself a copy of Persona 4 Golden in Japanese as a result. I can’t wait for it to come and play it in the original! I’m definitely going to tell you about my experience with this one!

Persona 4’s visual novel elements
Persona 4’s RPG elements (battle)

As I’ve said in my last entry, the great thing is that because a visual novel is a game, it tends to draw you in, as games usually do, and you get curious about what’s going to happen next. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every time you don’t understand something, you usually continue playing without that dictionary search. That is why games are great for what I’ve talked about the last time – immersion and understanding the unknown from the context. And you can benefit from visual novels especially, with their rich and captivating plots and long gameplay. Getting every ending takes around 20-30 hours of playing – that varies from title to title, of course, but it’s usually that much.

Yet, if you use games for language practice, you have to take into consideration that this hour estimate is about games you can play comfortably, that is without taking breaks to check your dictionary (so either when you’re already advanced in a language or the game’s in your mother tongue). I usually take much more time when I’m playing in Japanese because I’m not fluent yet – in total, it can take several weeks before I finish a game.

As for the games’ prices and where to import them from, I plan on writing a separate post about my games, manga and books shopping tips and sources – I’m going to publish a post on that in 2 weeks. The next week’s topic is going to be an extension of this entry – since I’d revealed that I was going to publish a post about video gaming and language learning, many people approached me, asking what game I would recommend for their level. This is why the next blog post is going to cover my personal recommendations for visual novels on 3 levels of Japanese language proficiency – easy, intermediate and hard – as well as how to evaluate whether a game we’re interested in is going to be suitable for our language level. Stay tuned for next week!

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T USE A DICTIONARY WHILE READING

My parents and school teachers always told me that if I read a lot, I would pick up orthography and new words more quickly. It was especially true for Polish, my mother tongue, since its orthography and grammar are quite complex and difficult, and mastering them takes almost 6 years of primary school and the majority of your time at junior high (currently probably less, since junior high has been abolished in the recent reforms and instead of 6 years of primary school and 3 years of both junior high and high school, we reverted to 8 years of primary school and 4 years of high school). As a result, we, Polish kids, spent a lot of time just completing tons of grammar and orthography exercises during our Polish classes, in tandem with learning about our country’s literature.

So when I started learning Japanese and I first had to learn both hiragana and katakana – I wasn’t surprised that it was going to take some time. In fact, I kind of expected it and my Japanese sensei (teacher) only confirmed my speculations. So, learning both basic Japanese syllabaries was accompanied with hours and hours of reading and writing practice. And it still is, because after you open the door to that world of around 2000 kanjis (borrowed Chinese characters used in Japanese; you usually start learning them after you grasp hiragana and katakana) and their readings, you realise that mastering them is definitely going to take time.

Here’s another one of my quick remarks: I’m perfectly aware that not all languages use such a distinct writing system. Lots of languages people choose to learn use your typical Latin alphabet and I’m going to address reading in such languages further down in this post. But for now, I’m going to discuss the problem of reading in a language which has its own writing system.

I wasn’t surprised that one of the first pieces of advice that my sensei gave me was to “read as often and as much as you can, as it will help you recognise those characters more quickly“. Sensei‘s advice brought that slow acquisition of Polish orthography to my mind, so I adhered to her tip straight away, believing that it was going to bring the same results as reading in Polish did – and just as fast, too.

So I started to read. However, since Japanese writing system is far more complex, I immediately hit a wall – in opposition to Polish, which used Latin alphabet, I soon realised that simply “reading” sentences wasn’t going to be THAT easy! The reason for that was that a Japanese sentence consists of characters written with the use of hiragana, katakana AND kanji. Even if you can already read the first two, the latter creates many problems even for native Japanese – each character usually has several readings which only adds to their complexity and, as a result, makes it very difficult to read correctly, especially for a beginner. Yes, there are texts which use just hiragana (like most beginner textbooks use only hiragana and katakana at first, to get you used to those and then slowly exchanges words with their actual kanji that it teaches you over the course of the book) or with furigana (which is an annotation in hiragana, located above a word written in kanji, that shows how this word should be read) so if you’ve only started learning Japanese – go for kids books or special readers targeted at beginners. This way you won’t have to check for words you understand, but don’t know how to write them yet (this is perfectly normal with Japanese – you gradually switch from writing and knowing a word in hiragana only to their standard spelling in kanji). But there always comes a time when, even in beginners’ books, appears a kanji which doesn’t have furigana and you don’t know how to read that word yet. That’s when a dictionary should be the first “person” you go to.

However, checking that dictionary is a mundane and boring hold up that usually brings frustration, especially if you have to do it several times in a row (sometimes even a few times within ONE sentence), because you don’t know how to READ this and that word. It’s even more frustrating when the word turns out to be one of those you actually know the meaning of, but you just simply weren’t aware it’s written this way. And of course, after checking it in the dictionary, even if you encounter it just a few lines later – you don’t remember it anymore, because you checked so many words on the way that it becomes confusing. What to do then?

Keep a notebook and write down those new words, maybe?

I’m in strong opposition to keeping vocabulary notebooks. I’ve rarely done it at school (only because the teachers required it) and I’m not going to start now – well, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t tried to do so in the past. I had, in fact. Quite a few times. Was it helpful? No, because searching for a word written down on paper takes much more time than using an electronic or online dictionary’s search bar to get the same result. Not to mention the fact that it didn’t help me remember the words – as I said, if you write down too many new words at once, they get mixed in your mind and you have trouble recalling them. Time-wise, it’s much more effective to check them in your dictionary again.

But you can incorporate a little trick of mine into that dictionary search: try recalling the word first before looking it up. Think about the context in which you first stumbled upon that word. What was it connected with? What images did it bring to your mind? What was going on in the plot by then? Was this word used in a line a character said? If asking yourself such questions doesn’t help you trigger your memory, then go ahead and use that dictionary. But repeat the trick every time you see a word that you know you had encountered and checked before – after some time a memory of that word will pop up and believe me, there’s nothing more satisfactory than recalling a word on your own and then just making sure that you were correct (with the use of a dictionary).

There’s also another consequence of keeping a vocabulary notebook: the more new words you add, the more your frustration builds up and results in faster fatigue when reading and/or even leaving reading for some time altogether due to demotivation hitting in. Not to mention the fact that a mere thought of reading AGAIN puts you off and that’s something you don’t want to happen. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language should be a pleasure, not a burden.

After several times of enthusiastically starting a new notebook for a new manga or short story and dropping them when that fatigue struck and discouraged me too strongly, I did what I do best: I drew conclusions after observing my behaviour while practising reading in Japanese. You should do the very same thing. Just ask yourself:

What is the best and most rewarding way to read in TL for ME?

In my case it was manga, tv series (including anime) and… video games. Because manga is a comic, it’s much easier to understand what is happening. In novels, you have to read those (sometimes quite vast) descriptions and narration in order to fully comprehend what’s going on. In manga, everything is presented with pictures, the only bits left to read are the monologues/dialogues, minor narration (like “3 months later the protagonist did…”) and onomatopoeia. Consequently, you don’t have to worry too much about not understanding what the characters of the story are doing – you can deduce a lot just from the frames, characters’ facial expressions and mimics as well as their actions. Manga’s also a much faster read – in fact, I keep a daily routine connected with it. Around 2 months ago, I obliged myself to read at least 1 manga chapter a day – the shortest chapters, published weekly, are only 19 pages long, so if I have a very bad day in terms of reading, I choose one of those to keep my routine. Normally I read around 30-50 pages of manga a day – again, depends on chapter’s length. There are also days when I read more chapters, but that’s entirely up to me. What’s more, as my own rule, reading more chapters does not count towards next days – meaning that if I read 3 chapters in one day, I cannot slack off for the next two days because I “read those days’ ration”. No, I have to read at least 1 chapter anyway and I’m proud to say that I stick to this resolution most times (I usually give myself 1 day off a week).

Another great source of reading practice for me is video games. I’ve been playing them for years, ever since I was a child, and at first I played them only in my mother tongue, obviously, then I used them to learn English. Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t use them consciously as a source of language practice – I was too young for such ideas. But there were a lot of games I wanted to play and there wasn’t a Polish version available, so the only solution was to buy and play the English version. As a result, I acquired most of my English skills from playing games and because of that positive experience with them language-wise, I gave them a try with my Japanese.

What’s great is the fact that because they’re games, they tend to draw you in. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every 5 seconds when you don’t understand something that appears on the screen, you just say “Ah, screw it!” and continue playing it without taking breaks for a dictionary search. When you get into the game’s plot like you would while reading a good book, you automatically start to read more and more – simply because you’re curious what’s going to happen next. And that curiosity facilitates something I find a crucial skill in reading in your TL – guessing the meaning of a word/sentence from the context.

As a matter of fact, if you ask around, only a small number of people who are learning a foreign language do that! People tend to reach for a dictionary the second they encounter something they don’t understand instead of letting their brains do what they do best – fill in the missing information and use the context to fill that gap. Our brains are incredible in that department if you only let them! So, if you don’t understand something, read more, let your brain stomach the information it just received and let it try to give you the answer based on the context. It might surprise how much you can actually understand from the text itself, the arts (if you’re reading comics or playing a game) or your previous experience with a book (if you’d read it in your mother tongue before, for example).

What is more, if the languages you already know and the language(s) you’re studying are somehow related (e.g. they have words of Latinate origin, they belong to the same language family etc.), you can use their similarities to carry over the meaning of a word from the language you know to your target language. The same principle concerns different parts of speech – if you already know the adjective, you can figure out on your own that some word is a noun from the same word family.

Besides, the more you read this way, the more adapted to this method your brain becomes and, consequently, the more skilful in grasping what you’re reading about it becomes. Because as you read, your brain constantly acquires that new vocabulary without you realising it. And the more you come across a word in different contexts, the more your brain narrows down and specifies its actual definition. After some time you can notice that you essentially KNOW some word and even several uses of it!

This is how I learnt English – by grasping the meaning from the context rather than actual at-desk textbook studying. Funnily enough, when I’m asked what a word or phrase translates to in my mother tongue, I have trouble with this because I’d never checked equivalent of some words before, as I’d understood their meanings almost subconsciously upon encounter. However, I could provide tons of contexts and situations in which you would use a specific word/phrase and that, in my opinion, is more valuable than being able to translate the words. After all, when you’re speaking, you should subconsciously choose what words suit best in the conversation you’re having, rather than translating what you want to say from your mother tongue (AKA consciously creating a sentence). It is, unfortunately, what many people do. But that is an issue suitable for another blog entry.

Moreover, if you put your dictionary down and trust your brain’s instinct, you become that much closer to immersion in your target language – something that tremendously boosts your language acquisition and comprehension. If you don’t rely on your dictionary, you don’t force your brain to constantly switch between two languages. It stays focused on one language, only making that immersion easier. It’s like when want to cook something on two separate frying pans, but keep on jumping between them and switching off the one you’re not using at the moment because you don’t want your food to get burnt. When you get back to it, it has to heat up again. Similar thing happens to your brain when you switch between languages – it hast to boot and get into that „mother tongue” or „target language” mode all over again. However, if you stay immersed in one language (even if it’s just during your study or reading session) then that boot doesn’t have to happen repeatedly and, in consequence, your brain gets „better” at operating in the foreign language.

A lot of people say that for real immersion you should just pack and go to a country where your target language is spoken. It’s true, I’ve done and experienced it myself, but I believe that it can also be done (to some extent of course) within your four walls. That requires some dedication and free time, but it CAN BE DONE. You just have to surround yourself with as much language input as possible and limit your mother tongue input or any other distractions to a minimum. For example, ask your family not to bother you while you’re having a study session. On the other hand, increase that target language input to the maximum – read, play, watch something. Leave that dictionary alone (unless it’s monolingual dictionary – then you’re still staying within your target language) and let your brain do its magic and absorb as much language as it can (you will feel it overheating, just like you probably do when overstudying and your brain begs you for a break).

For instance, when I was playing a game called Prince of Stride, which is about a high school stride club (in the game, stride is a new type of team sport, a parkour-like relay on a prepared course), apart from the text, it incorporated some new mechanics that appeared only when the protagonist’s team was competing – like you had to pick the order in which your team would run or you had to perfectly time the runners’ relay itself in order to win and so on. Combined with the plot, the art, the characters (and their voice actors) and the soundtrack, it was so enjoyable, that I binge-played this game for 4-5 hours straight every day after work and it took me around 3 weeks to complete it in full (to get all the endings) and I basically hadn’t used the dictionary AT ALL (just a few times maybe, when I really couldn’t grasp the context). As a result, after a few days, I was in a total immersion mode and started DREAMING in Japanese. My mouth moved on its own to express myself in Japanese while having trouble to speak in my mother tongue – the exposure to TL was just so immense that my mind had to answer with me producing the language. Fantastic feeling and one of the many reasons I recommend gaming to any language learners. In fact, I’m going to write more on games in my next post where I’ll present my choices of game genres that are particularly useful and friendly to language learners even if they don’t have much gaming experience or skills. So stay tuned for next week!

Prince of Stride: Team order choice screen

As you can see, you don’t really have to use your dictionary while reading. As a result, you get much more pleasurable and smooth reading experience. Of course, if you come across a sentence or a passage so packed with new vocabulary or grammar structures that you cannot decipher it – feel free to use that dictionary! I do that too, but I limit its usage to those extreme cases. Apart from that, I use the context and I recommend this way to you as well, as I find it more satisfactory and, obviously, much faster. It also feels very rewarding to be able to understand more and more without depending on a dictionary. Many pleasant readings!

Posted in Attitude, Choices and sacrifices, Motivation, Study methods

THE IMPORTANCE OF MAKING CHOICES AND SACRIFICES

I really like Instagram. Sure, I like Facebook too, but I truly grew to like Instagram over the last 3 years since I opened @mikuwashi. At the moment, I’m following a variety of accounts: bullet journal-related, watercolour-related, Japan-related and a few months ago so-called language studygrams joined my “following” list, too.

As more and more posts uploaded by self-study language learners started to pop out in my feed, I began to notice that while most of the posts had this positive undertone in regard to that person’s studies, some posts were of complaining or demotivational nature, like: “I’m studying X atm, such a pain” or “I finally finished topic X, almost died doing it”. I often approached such people via dm (as I find it completely understandable that most people don’t like some pointing-out remarks being thrown in their face in the comment section) and asked them WHY they are/were studying such a topic then if it doesn’t “spark joy” in them (if we were to quote Marie Kondo’s famous words). 

Here’s a quick remark – I’m not talking about topics people find difficult for them. Everyone has their strong and weak spots in terms of topics, grammar structures, even words (some of them just can’t stick, no matter what you do to remember them). In such cases, it’s only natural that people need more time to grasp a particular term or structure that they find confusing – it depends on a person and is completely normal. It’s also a separate issue when you’re going to school or university and the teachers ask you to learn something because it’s in the curriculum and you need to learn it in order to pass a subject or to get a better grade. Yet, as I’ve already underlined in one of my previous posts, I believe it’s possible to give yourself room for choice and freedom in your official education. Just not as much as you can when studying on your own. However, here I’m talking about learning a topic, vocabulary or some other aspect of a language or target culture that doesn’t interest you or that you find completely unnecessary in your studies, yet you go over it anyway – just „BECAUSE”.

Most people I asked were independent learners and they were unable to tell why exactly they do that. Some even gave it a longer thought because it had never occurred to them before that they HAVE A CHOICE not to follow the textbook 100%. “Because it’s in the book and I do it from cover to cover”, “because I saw other people learning it so I’m doing it too” or “because I have to” – those were most common answers I received. But another question immediately popped in my head: who imposes this topic it on you if you’re self-studying? The answer is simple: only yourself. So why aren’t you questioning your material? Why don’t you stop for a second and give yourself room to think: do I really need this?

Why do we tend to learn everything we encounter without filtering information? For example, if we have just started our journey with a language and right now we’re learning its first grammar aspects like basic tenses, why do we tend to learn ALL the uses of a particular tense? “Because I won’t have to go back and learn it later” – sure, but are you going to use all, give or take, 7 uses of Present Simple (if you’re learning English)? Do you really need to know that you can use it to comment a football match or is the fact, that you can use it to talk about your daily routine enough for a beginner?

Of course, you don’t need to know that and you even shouldn’t. At least not in the beginning – unless you want to feel as if you’re going in circles without making any progress as you’re too focused on stopping and learning everything there is instead of moving forward. Give yourself time, you’re not going to become fluent in one day. There will come a day when that match commentary will be crucial to you and that’s when you will learn that Present Simple can be used there. You have to realise that fluency is a long journey, it takes a lot of time and effort and (unfortunately) it never ends – languages evolve and change all the time, so we have to update our knowledge. Instead, be patient and do things at your own pace – don’t look how fast the others are going, don’t get discouraged that somebody could grasp a particular topic faster than you – they’re probably thinking the same thing when you breeze through something else they found difficult and time-consuming.

This is one of the reasons I love “Try!” books so much (grammar books for Japanese). They’re divided by their JLPT level (where level 1 is the highest, advanced, and level 5 is the lowest, elementary) and even if some structure was introduced on the elementary level, they gradually present its additional uses in the next books. For example, in the book for N4 level, I learned that なら (nara) is used to create a conditional sentence. In the book for N3, I learned that besides the conditional, you can also use it to make a suggestion or to give advice. Providing information bit by bit is something I truly appreciate in grammar books – instead of throwing all there is to know about a structure in your face, they reveal more and more uses before you with each book, just as your language competency grows and you’re ready for that next twist.

Yet, even if we do pace ourselves and try to do things our way, why do we still treat textbooks as some kind of a bible that tells us what exactly needs to be studied? They don’t always cover everything, after all. It doesn’t include certain topics that you’re curious about – you’re left on your own trying to submerge into the Internet for answers and information. And also – why are we reluctant to skip something that doesn’t interest us or doesn’t bring pleasure but we decide to succumb to pain and endurance instead? Does covering all the material bring satisfaction? Yes, perfectionism brings pleasure somehow, but is it worth the discomfort and/or decrease of motivation?

The answer is simple: no, it isn’t.

It’s one of the first conclusions that had come to me, even before I graduated. I hated the fact that I was forced to study something I didn’t perceive as useful or interesting. It made me sick to my stomach to think of learning such material. There were times when I sat in the class and wondered “Hey, what am I doing here? I’m wasting my time.”

Do you want to waste your time?

Or do you want to feel you’re on the right track and making progress towards your goal?

Then make choices in your own studies.

But also learn to make sacrifices.

Because if you start to choose what to learn, you will have to sacrifice something at the same time. That’s what choices in studying means – they are intertwined with sacrifices. That’s exactly what happens when you take responsibility for your own studies rather than rely on somebody else’s judgement (like school’s, in form of a curriculum or teacher’s demands) in terms of the studied material. You have to learn to omit, to skip, to sacrifice things on your way towards fluency. TO omit, not HOW to omit. Before all else, you need to realise that you CAN actually omit stuff you don’t like or don’t want to learn. HOW to do that surfaces later and is a very personal matter – it’s all about you and your choices in the end. But first, take a breath and do that initial step – embrace the freedom of choice that was given to you and make the most of it. Because I’m guessing you’re gunning for that fluency, right? You want to understand your target language, speak it, devour it, chew it and then release your progress to the world?

After you start thinking about those two aspects, you’ve already become a different, more aware learner. This is something school doesn’t teach you, at least it didn’t teach me – it asked me to blindly follow what was imposed. So I did, I didn’t ask questions WHY we have to study this. Nobody taught me to think differently. But at some point, when my frustration was on the verge of exploding, I started questioning myself: does studying really have to look like that?

No, it doesn’t.

After realising that simple fact, your world of studying starts to change. It’s terrifying at first – you don’t yet know how to make that choice CORRECTLY. But let me reassure you – there’s no right or wrong here. It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes and take your decision back. Yes, they’re reversible! After all, you’re growing in your studies, you’re gaining knowledge, so of course your choices are going to differ, too. Heck, even things outside your studies change, you’re maturing as a person, your life situation and preferences become different – so obviously they’re going to influence the way you study and alter it.

My N4 vocabulary textbook with 3 types of vocabulary highlights I use

For instance, when I learn vocabulary, I tend to highlight words. I actually have a separate colour (grass green) dedicated to, as I call them, “bullsh*t” words that I choose to skip. This colour helps me recognise them and go “Oh, THAT word. What was it? (Checks the word) Oh. Okay. Let’s move on.” For example, when I was doing my vocabulary textbook for the N4 exam, I stumbled upon the word for the catholic church. I hovered over it with my usual highlighter for new vocabulary (orange) and then suddenly thought: “You know what? I don’t need this. I’m not going to waste my time memorising something I find unnecessary”. And that’s when I chose another highlighter for words I’m skipping. Why do I highlight them at all if I don’t want to pay attention to them? Simple enough: as I create flashcards, my eyes just search for any highlights on the page – if I see green, my brain already knows that even though it’s a new word, I can carry on looking for other highlights without bothering with the green ones. If I see orange, I know it’s a new one and needs to be added to my flashcards for sure.

To tell the truth, I use a third colour too – dirty yellow. It indicates that I had trouble recalling what that word meant but I have definitely encountered it before and I label it as necessary to my studies. What’s more, if I use that yellow to highlight, I leave myself a bit freedom, as it’s a signal that I can postpone the final choice whether I want to learn this word till the time flashcards will be made. As a result of such colour-coding, I don’t have to read the entire page again, I just scan it for highlights every time I create new flashcards.

You can actually see how I remade my decision on two words

The same situation happened with Japanese words 輸出 (yushutsu; export) and 輸入 (yunyuu; import), which I have highlighted with green at first, as I thought: “Hey, I’m not going to read stuff about economy, so I don’t need them”. The funny thing is, these two came back to bite me in the ass and I’ve encountered them numerous time since I first saw them in my vocabulary book, not only in economic context! So I went back and rehighlighted them with orange and then quickly added them to my flashcards.

This is one more thing that’s important about choices – don’t be ashamed of them. If it turns out you actually need something you initially omitted, don’t be afraid to MAKE YOUR CHOICE again and welcome something back in your studies. Nobody’s going to stick it to you and don’t let them if they try – you’re learning for yourself, not somebody else. Others don’t have to like it. YOU DO. YOU – and your choices – are the most important element of your studies.

Posted in Motivation, Study methods

7 STUDY RULES I FOLLOW

1. DECIDE ON THE SPOT

That’s right. I do not plan what I’m going to study when I sit down to do it. I do not make grande plans like “I will do 3 chapters tonight” or “I will focus on book X tonight”. No, I don’t tell myself stuff like that. Instead, I sit down and ask myself: “So, what do I feel like doing tonight?” and I just do it. And it feels great!

Honestly, this was something I found so irritating at school and university. I had a set book to go over. I had set homework to do. I had a set chapter to read. I absolutely hated it! If the chapter was boring, I couldn’t skip it. If a paper or task was dull to write/do, I couldn’t skip it without damaging my grade.

But when I study on my own, of my own motivation – I can. I can skip exercises I don’t like. This is something I also learned to do – if an exercise is a bore, don’t do it. Don’t kill your motivation for the sake of finishing the whole book PERFECTLY. Go to the task you really wanna do. Of course, you have to be moderate with this, don’t skip all the tasks! 😉 I, for instance, tend to skip some writing exercises like WRITE A DIALOGUE, because those bore me to death. And I don’t feel guilty about doing that AT ALL.

Why? Because I noticed that forcing myself to do something I don’t wanna kills my motivation and I don’t want that to happen. Maintaining your motivation helps you sit down every day. Think about this – how many times, while at school, you got sick in your stomach simply THINKING that there’s this mundane homework that’s waiting for you on your desk? And you put off doing it for as long as it was possible? That’s what I’m talking about. It feels much, much better to make your own decisions about your studying process, rather than blindly following every exercise in a textbook or following just one textbook, when you really feel like reading a passage of that novel you bought the other day.

The other thing connected with this point is the amount of work you wanna do. As I wrote before, I do not plan to “do 3 chapters tonight”. Why? Because I’m a working adult with a family. If you share my situation, you know that sometimes plans don’t work out – you’re tired, your family needs you, something simply happens and needs your attention. This is another reason why I don’t plan – I do not feel guilty when something comes up. Yet, I try to do something daily. Even if it’s just flashcards revision, reading a little or watching an episode in my target language.

2. STUDY PLANNER

This was the first thing I did, even before I opened a textbook back in January 2019. It’s not my own solution, I once saw somebody do it on Instagram and I thought “this is it!”. As a bullet journal user, I can totally relate to writing down what you want to study on a particular day. However, I did my planner differently – I write down what I HAD DONE on a day. And it works wonders since it’s connected to no. 1 on this list – I’m not bound by plans. I simply go with the flow. Yet, I track what I do and it feels great to sum up what you’ve done over the month. You look at your planner (in my case it should actually be called a “register”) and say “Hey, I wasn’t fooling around as much as I thought – look how much I actually did!” And that is why my usual study planner month looks like this:

I do take some days off. Sometimes it’s good to just relax and do something different or to take care of something that came up. I mark such days with “OFF”, so I know I skipped studying. It also helps to boost my motivation when I take too many days off. I tell myself „Oi, girl, gotta get your sh*t together! Sit down right now!”. Yes, I do feel guilty sometimes. But it vanishes the moment I sit down again and can mark my progress in the planner.

3. TEXTBOOK TRACKERS

Bullet journal user speaks again here: track your progress with a book/course/tutorial/video series (or whatever else you use)! I do mine this way:

I tend to do it in different ways, depending on the book. I either mark a chapter as a whole or break it down into smaller sections (e.g. reading, writing, listening, whatever the book is structured like), especially if it’s long. After I’m done, I can place a dot. After I finish the whole book, I can tick it off. It feels great to look at it again, seeing and feeling that pride that I finished it. I also track my textbooks on GoodReads – it shows you how many percents you’re in (and how many are left). It feels really good to update my book status both in my bujo and on GoodReads. Plus it can help you track how much time you spent with a book, since GoodReads shows the date when you started reading a book.

4. HUGE GOAL AHEAD

It’s good to have one major goal in front of you – it could be an exam (e.g. mine for 2019 is passing JLPT N3 level), it could be a book you wanna read and finish, traveling goals, people goals (e.g. communicating with your foreign family, friends or SO in their mother tongue) and more! Choose something that feels „big” for you – it doesn’t necessarily have to feel „big” for others and don’t worry if it doesn’t. It’s your choice, your studies, and your progress, not somebody else’s.

5. SMALLER GOALS ON THE WAY

Apart from that big goal, choose several smaller ones while you’re progressing towards your main goal. They can be time-related, like “read 1 book this month” or “learn 100 words this month”. Mine include finishing off a tv series, book, manga or anime series before the month ends, learning a set amount of vocabulary, doing Anki almost daily, doing a section of a textbook, preparing my own flashcards and so on.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget – reward yourself when you achieve one of the goals! I love to treat myself with a bag of unhealthy, fatty, salty chips since I have a thing for them 😉 For the main goal, use a bigger reward – again, “big” is subjective here, just use something that makes you super hyped for the reward and, consequently, boosts your motivation much more than “just” a bag of chips. For example, for taking JLPT N3 this December, I’m gonna reward myself with a limited edition of a Playstation game in Japanese, so I can enjoy it after those exam preparations. I already know it’s gonna be awesome to finally play it after being done with JLPT!

6. SOME THINGS HAVE TO DONE DAILY

Even if you’re taking a day off, make sure to do at least 1 thing every day – in my case, it’s my flashcards. I really recommend using a spaced repetition system (like Anki, Memrise, Quizlet, TinyCards or simple paper flashcards and a box) for your vocabulary. And this should be done every day, unless you want those revision flashcards to pile up, which is counter motivating – if you see too many of them to review, you don’t want to do them. If their number is small, you will go over them more eagerly. Regularity is the key here. This trick also kills your “I haven’t done anything today” guilt, because you’ve done at least this one regular thing, so you’re off your mind’s hook.

7. EVERYTHING COUNTS

I see people studying and being frustrated with themselves, saying “I haven’t done much today” while, in fact, they did. They just don’t count much stuff they do. Some people only consider textbook or class studying as real studying. I don’t. I count EVERYTHING I do in the languages I’m learning. And that includes:

  • browsing the Internet in your target language (TL),
  • watching tv series for pleasure (no subtitles or with subtitles in your TL),
  • reading something (be it a novel, a comic, a magazine, an Internet article, etc.) in your TL for pleasure,
  • playing games,
  • watching youtube,
  • speaking with someone in your TL (either in or outside the classroom, even if you just ask somebody for directions, IT COUNTS),
  • creating flashcards,
  • revising flashcards,
  • writing a diary in your TL, and so on.

Basically, anything you do in your TL, count it! And don’t forget to register it in your planner, so you can later see how much smaller, but still significant, progress you made!