After having spent last year mostly away from language studies, doing web technology stuff and other programming projects, this year I find myself spending much of my spare time on improving my Japanese. My goal is to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 1 – the highest level – this year. And not only pass it, but pass it with a good margin, or I’m not satisfied.
Two years ago, in 2006, I decided early during the year to take JLPT level 2. I didn’t think I’d pass and neither did my Japanese teacher, but study I did and pass it I did with a score of 81% (60% is necessary to pass). This year I am aiming for over 80% again, preferably closer to 90% (for level 1, 70% is necessary to pass).
But this time I’m using different methods than I did in 2006 to pass JLPT level 2. Back then, I spent time studying kanji, memorizing grammatical patterns, and doing reading exercises from a course book featuring the same kind of texts and questions that appear on the actual test, and also a similar course book for listening. I used the UNICOM books targeting JLPT2, and found the reading and listening books very good, albeit short. I also bought the grammar and vocabulary books, but they were not good. For grammar and vocabulary, I found two books called 日本語総まとめ問題集 grammar (文法編) and vocabulary (語彙編) that were very good. Pictures and fun all over.
For reference, my strong point then was writing/vocabulary, and the weak point was listening. People say if you live in Japan, listening is easy because you hear Japanese all day, but it wasn’t for me. After the test I bought a TV, mostly to improve my listening.
This year I’ve also got the Unicom books, and the Kanzen master grammar and kanji/vocabulary books. As before, I think the Unicom reading book is great, but still short. I haven’t tried the listening book yet. As I wrote I was using different methods. Except for the reading comprehension, but that doesn’t take you very far since the book is so short. The theme for learning Japanese this year is having fun doing it.
I’m not studying kanji this year. One reason is that kanji is no longer a problem (relatively, of course). The other is that I think I will pick up enough kanji from increased reading. Also if you get dwelling on all the peculiarities of kanji, you risk spending too much time on that. At least I do, since I find the peculiarities interesting.
Grammar: I’m no longer memorizing patterns and functions, I’m copying all the example sentences from the Kanzen master book to flash cards and drilling them. Writing the flash cards is tedious, but drilling them is not (particularly). I’m writing on average about 4 example sentences for around 200 grammatical patterns. I plan to finish next month… I go through some of these flash cards on average a few times every day.
My thinking is that instead of, like I did on the JLPT 2 test, analyzing the grammatical structure of the sentence and remembering how the four alternative answers fit into that structure, this year my brain will do all pattern matching work for me. Like “this reminds me of that sentence, so that answer it is”. On top of that, it’s great for learnign vocabulary and expressions as well!
But that’s all old school – the core of this poodle consists of something entirely different! The first one is reading books. Real books, in Japanese. When you get to JLPT1 level that is very much possible. I was planning to start reading books this summer, hoping to have picked up enough grammar and vocabulary by then. But then my workmate told me he’s been reading the Harry Potter series in Japanese and recommended them for simple reading. So I borrowed the first book from him and started reading it – and now I’m hooked. Not hooked on Harry Potter, but on reading books in Japanese.
Harry Potter is really good, since it includes furigana for pretty much all kanji. One could argue this is not good for learning kanji, but I think it is. I don’t want to learn incorrect readings – I might think I know the reading when in fact I have just made it up myself, and anyway as I mentioned before I’m not focusing on kanji – I think that will come by itself. Harry Potter is also good because it’s a Western book. That makes it easier to read when even when you don’t have 100% comprehension – at least you don’t have to struggle with cultural understanding. The story isn’t very complicated either.
So that’s one thing: reading books in Japanese. Grammar, vocabulary, expressions, and reading speed all at once, and it’s fun. The other revolutionary idea came from the same coworker. He had an old, analog radio on his desk at work for a while. I work in a high tech software company targeting the next, successor of the next, successor of the successor of the next, and successor of the successor of the successor of the next series Japanese mobile phones. Having an analog radio on your desk is weird. Initially I just thought it eccentric. But then it hit me: how much time I’ve spent looking for good Japanese podcasts, online radio, and just about any piece of spoken Japanese on the web. A cheap-ass analog radio is actually all that you need! Free (if you avoid paying the NHK fee), simple access to spoken Japanese blurted out like there’s no tomorrow, any time of the day, on any subject you can think of.
So I got myself a small portable radio for 2,000 yen at the local electronics store in the alley. It’s great! I can get on average around 2 hours of listening every work day. At work! It makes both learning Japanese and working fun. I think the radio is what will make the difference between a good score and a great score on the JLPT in December. For anyone in Japan who’s above JLPT2 level I’d really recommend it. This year the listening section will be a breeze.
If only one could get some licensing agreement set up to broadcast all Japanese radio on the web for all the people struggling to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test who are not in Japan, that would be great. But probably unfeasible.