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Studying for JLPT N1

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I’ve registered to take the JLPT N1 exam this July – I hope to, once and for all, bring a successful end to my JLPT journey! For the sake of anyone planning to take the exam, and indeed for my own sake (introspection is always good!), I want to give a quick overview on some of things I feel are contributing to my progress. I will also mention some things that I have found useful for increasing general Japanese ability (but perhaps not so much for the exam).

– Japanese Tutor
Many people swear by self-study, but I find it difficult to stay focused for an extended period of time without external feedback and checkpointing. During university, I often skipped lectures and classes under the pretence that I could, in theory, study more efficiently by myself during the same period of time. While I don’t dispute that claim even today, what often happened in practice was that I would get distracted, procrastination would take over, and I would end up doing less productive activities.

I owe a lot of my current JLPT success to the steady pace and rhythm provided by my tutor. You can find Japanese tutors using Labochi. I have private classes 4 times per week (before work), generally working my way through JLPT textbooks (described later) and any real-world articles, documents, emails, etc. that I am having trouble understanding.

– Textbooks
新完全マスター文法N1 – This is a staple for most N1 students and I don’t have any particular complaints about it. The entire book is in Japanese with no English, and so it may be helpful to have a native speaker around. I’ve worked my way through it from start to end, and although have yet to commit all of the grammar points to memory, feel like it has enough breadth and depth to serve as my sole grammar textbook. If you have previously used the N2 edition of this book, the N1 edition should make you feel right at home.

新完全マスター読解N1 – This book should help build out your reading comprehension. I am about 70% of the way through, and it remains very challenging (this is a good thing!). A lot of the material in this book is stuff that I would not likely come across in my normal life (novels, essays, etc.) and would have no chance to practice otherwise. I enjoy learning new vocabulary via this book – there is always lot of context ensuring a good chance of remembering the meaning and usage.

日本語パワードリル N1 文字・語彙 – I am not a fan of typical vocabulary textbooks (i.e. ones that mostly consist of a long list of words), so I decided instead to study vocabulary/kanji with exam-style questions. This book is simply pages and pages of practice questions. Some of the questions offer answers with very similar meanings so I often find myself asking a native speaker to explain the nuances. Any new words I come across I put into Anki.

日本語能力試験 20日で合格 N1文字・語彙・文法 – This is similar to the previous book, but also covers grammar. The Kanzen Master series doesn’t offer a lot in the way of practice, so I turn to other sources. A single ‘day’ (of which there are 20) in this book takes me about 1.5/2 hours to complete. A lot of stuff is covered in a single chapter – great for grammar revision!

– Anki
Anki is a free spaced-repetition application for PC and mobile. I prefer it over iKnow! for when I am creating my own content since it gives me a lot more control over the format and layout. I mostly use it for reviewing vocabulary that I have come across in the above-mentioned textbooks or in real-life. On each card, I write the Japanese word/phrase, reading in kana, meaning in English, and meaning in Japanese (taken from a Japanese dictionary). Anki has a pretty good Android app so I can review wherever and whenever. There are some pre-made decks for N1 but I find it a lot easier to remember cards that I have created cards myself.

– Japanese Dictionaries
At N1 level, Japanese-Japanese dictionaries start making a whole lot of sense. I mainly use the one found on the Yahoo! Japan site (it is actually a meta-dictionary, aggregating results from other dictionaries). Not only do you get to understand the meaning of the word you are looking up, you can get some bonus memory hits in the definition itself. A Japanese-English dictionary entry usually just contains synonyms of the word in English without much explanation. On the other hand, a Japanese-Japanese dictionary entry describes the meaning using short sentences offering a lot more context.

I also use Google Translate, Rikaikun and JED for my occasional Japanese-English needs.

– Nihongo No Mori (YouTube)
There is a good JLPT N1 grammar series on YouTube by Nihongo No Mori. The teacher (who seems to be a current university student) reads out some sentences and explains grammar principles within them. They recently remade the grammar videos and added subtitles and ‘special effects’. The tone is very casual and I find it very useful in conjunction with the Kanzen Master grammar book. It doesn’t take long to watch all of the videos – do it several times! There are also vocab and grammar videos for other Japanese levels, as well as videos on specialist topics (like Kansai accent).

– JapanesePod101
Although perhaps not as helpful for N1, this site has been a very good source of Japanese learning material. This is a paid site requiring a monthly subscription (totally worth it, IMO). Each podcast episode has a short dialogue in Japanese, followed by analysis of the dialogue and introduction of related vocab/grammar in Japanese and English. The grammar explanations are easy to remember and serve as good revision. The tone is usually light-hearted and fun, making it very easy to listen to.

– Other podcasts / radio
There are a lot of Japanese podcasts on iTunes, but I have yet to find one that I particularly like. If anyone has any suggestions please let me know! Instead, I often listen to Japanese Radio via Radiko. There are several stations, and they usually talk about current affairs and interview people. The Japanese here is the real deal and it is not always easy to understand, but is good for building general listening comprehension and exposure to Japanese culture. I don’t own a TV so this is the next best thing!

– Working in Japan
Since joining Origami last year, I’ve picked up a lot of standard business phrases as well as technical (programming) vocabulary. Business emails in the N1 reading section now seem pretty familiar despite the extreme levels of politeness. Perhaps the most useful thing is simply being exposed to native speakers on a regular basis, listening to conversations and reading emails between each other. People rarely bother to correct me unless I ask them to, so it is often more productive to copy phrases used by others rather than going creative. I don’t come across a lot of N1 grammar during work, but it is pretty useful for consolidating vocabulary.

I also try to read articles from Japanese websites that people share. These are usually highly-related to my work and so make for memorable reading practice. I often look at articles about various startups from TechCrunch Japan and The Bridge. Rikaikun is pretty useful to quickly look-up unknown words when viewing a website.

– Talking to friends / Language exchange
I have quite a few friends who I talk to exclusively in Japanese. This is great for both listening and speaking practice, but I find that I don’t learn a lot of new material, particular things related to N1. For general survival in Japan however, developing your speaking skills is of course crucial. When speaking to a Japanese person, they sometimes slow down their speech or use different words compared to speaking to another native speaker. I find speaking to Japanese in a group (of native speakers) the most challenging.

I have also done some language exchanges (with people who are otherwise strangers), but the conversation rarely gets past a self-introduction. Once you have practiced answering basic questions about yourself a few dozen times, it is more fruitful to talk to people with whom you have a deeper relationship (you can talk about more varied subjects).

Registration for JLPT N1 (and all other levels) is currently open; I wish the best of luck to all those who will join me in taking it!