Back in April, I’d made my mind up.
Despite slowly learning Japanese, I didn’t actually have anything to prove the language skills I had. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t particularly like exams themselves, but I do really like passing them.
I’d been in education until the age of 23, and while I’ve gained several qualifications in the high school – college – university cycle, I always wanted to do more. I was taking regular dance exams outside of school until I left my hometown to get my degree, and when I returned four years later I started singing classes while completing the dissertation for my masters, which led to me working towards a certificate in musical theatre.
I’m not very good at slowing down and I’m not sure I even know how to stop. But I was sure that I would channel that energy into producing something. I was going to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) and I would finally have something tangible to be able to back up my claim of basic Japanese ability.
However, I was still going to play it safe. I’ve taken many exams but none identical to this one, so instead of jumping up to N4 straight away, I chose the N5. Besides, I may go to weekly Japanese classes but they don’t cover the JLPT syllabus so I was going to be on my own.
Self-studying is pretty difficult, even with the all the determination in the world. I’ve recently found out I passed so I figured I’d share the methods that I used, to hopefully make it feel a bit less daunting…
1.) Regular study
To me, one of the most important parts of studying is consistency. Even if you only do a little each day, it’s more than nothing. That’s why I used quizzes like Duolingo and Wanikani every day, especially days when I didn’t have time to study traditionally. Just ten minutes can refresh the basics, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on them too much
As I mentioned before, I also had weekly classes and even if they weren’t tailored to the JLPT, it gave me more of an excuse to focus on the language. Obviously, it’s not easy for everyone to access classes (I couldn’t for a long time) so maybe dedicating a time slot each week will help instead.
To keep track of everything, I made a sticker chart which actually helped me stay motivated, surprisingly enough.
2.) Online resources
It’s no surprise that a blogger would be a little reliant on the internet. While I’d be the first to admit that I spend too much time on sites like YouTube, there are a lot of good language learning tools online.
My top two are JapanesePod101.com and Nihongo Ichiban. JapanesePod101 has hundreds, if not thousands of podcasts, and they’re a good way of getting in some listening practice. They’re also a great way of filling out ‘dead time’: time that’d normally not be used to its full potential. I would listen to a podcast every day on the way to work, as I’d have about 15-20 minutes before I reached the train station.
Nihongo Ichiban is a good site that proved invaluable. Not only does it have entire lists of verbs and vocab needed for N5, but they also have a free downloadable kanji workbook with all 103 characters in the exam. I didn’t want to spend valuable yen on printing out the whole booklet at the conbini printer, so I bought myself a cheap kanji notebook from Daiso (¥108 inc. tax) then followed the stroke order instructions from the PDF. They won’t test you on stroke order but there are benefits to learning it. If you can’t get hold of a specialised kanji notebook, square ruled paper should work just as well.
3.) Practice test
So far, the only thing I’ve found that truly prepared me for the exam was the practice test. While doing it alone in my room, I was hit by a memory from my high school days, where my mum would tell a slightly begrudging Jenny that I should study the past papers of every GCSE I’d signed up for (not a small task given that I’d agreed to do extra). I clearly internalised that message, because nearly a decade after leaving compulsory education, I was still taking that advice.
Unfortunately, there’s only one official JLPT practice test, so I waited until about 1 or 2 weeks before the real thing, which gave me enough time to figure out any problem areas, but still kept the format of the exam fresh in my mind.
I get it. Textbooks don’t work for everyone. But if you are one of the people who like to do it the old fashioned way, there’s quite a variety available. Each one is slightly different in its approach but as long as it has an N5 written somewhere, it’ll cover what you need for the exam.
I have both Genki I and the first Manabou! Nihongo but I focused on using Manabou! Nihongo because a) it’s all written in Japanese so it forced me to use my existing language skills to pick up things naturally and b) it was the book I was told to use by my Japanese teachers in Fukuoka, probably for that very reason. With a little research, you can figure out which book works for you depending on your learning style. I’ve recently decided to try out Nihongo Sou Matome for N4 because it’s supposed to fit in a little bit of study every day, and like I said before, I work well when I have some kind of consistency.At the time of writing, I have just under 12 weeks until the December exam session so that’s more than enough time for revision.
I’d also spend a little extra time copying my rough notes into a neat notebook dedicated to Japanese. That would mean I’d look back over the work I’d done, and I’d also have a more beautiful version of it, all organised and decorated nicely.
I’m fortunate enough to be living among my target language, but even you don’t have that opportunity, I can’t stress the importance of immersion enough. Maybe it’s the linguistics grad side showing, but the human brain is a sponge and any relevant input will help, even if it’s just getting you into the right mindset for Japanese.
For people not in Japan, listening to Japanese radio online is one way to passively absorb the language. Putting on anime in the background could work too (as long as you don’t pay attention to actually watching it), but radio sounds way more natural! I used my city’s local station quite a few times, filling out more ‘dead time’ by having it on in the kitchen while cooking dinner.
You could also try writing your notes in Japanese as much as possible, only adding English or your native language when absolutely necessary. It’s what I do, and lets me practice my hiragana, katakana and N5 kanji (although I am a perfectionist at heart so I add as much kanji as I can). It may feel uncomfortable to start with, but leaving the ‘safety blanket’ behind means that your learning is more effective in the long run.
Please take these tips with a grain of salt, because different people learn in different ways. It’s by no means a fail-safe guide but I hope that some of these tips do help. I’m currently working towards the N4 so if any of you have some that I haven’t mentioned, please leave them in the comments!