Tag Archives: JLPT

Life after JLPT N1

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A few weeks ago I anxiously logged onto the JLPT website to check my N1 result. I passed! Great! Now what? The long journey towards fluency is now over, right? Not even close. I still come across new words and phrases on a daily basis. I spend more time studying (or rather, being exposed to) Japanese than ever before. The journey has only but begun!

Recently I have been investing a lot of time into reading native material. Reading Japanese (print) books has always been a pain for me. Looking up unknown words/kanji can be difficult if you are not sure how to write them. You can quickly lose motivation if you stumble into a string of new words. Is there a better way?

Enter the Kindle app (I’m reading on a Nexus 7). If you long-press over any word a popup will appear with the reading and definition (in Japanese). If that is not enough, you can also easily copy words/phrases into any other app of your choosing (e.g. other dictionaries, Anki, etc.). Highlighting words will create a bookmark allowing you to view them again in context later. I usually do this for all new words and phrases. The Kindle app makes reading Japanese a much more pleasant experience!

Amazon Japan has a large selection of both digitalized novels and manga. I enjoyed reading 雨の日も、晴れ男 (a novel) and 日本人の知らない日本語 (manga). I have been trying to read for about 1 hour everyday before bed – a modest target that hopefully ensures I won’t burn out. I think eBooks are great for non-native speakers – give it a try!

Category: Japanese, JLSP | Tags: , , ,

Going offline with Nihongo no Mori

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I wrote about the Nihongo no Mori group (日本語の森) before in a previous blog post – they are a Waseda student group who produce YouTube videos teaching Japanese grammar, vocabulary, special language topics (e.g. regional accents), etc. Their videos were extremely helpful in my N1 study and I strongly recommend them to anyone looking for alternative study materials. Their non-JLPT videos are also pretty entertaining to watch and give a glimpse into various Japanese cultural topics (who doesn’t want to learn about Samurai?).

Last week they held an ‘オフ会’ (offline meeting/party) in Shibuya and I decided to attend to meet the students (teachers!) and thank them in person. I invited my friend Aysel who happens to be a Waseda (exchange) student and who became an immediate fan of 日本語の森 after I linked it to her. We knew the event would be recorded (and made into a YouTube video) so we were a bit nervous, but it turned out to be very fun and we were able to meet some interesting people here in Tokyo!

They rented a large room and had chairs arranged in rows, with a desk for the teachers at the front. Honestly, the setup looked a bit like a press conference at the UN rather than a YouTube party! They gave us a goody bag as we entered the room and we took some seats. The event started a bit later than expected so we had a chance to talk to the other people in the room. Unsurprisingly, they were all non-Japanese (from many different countries!) studying for JLPT. I even found someone from Vietnam! But decided against trying to communicate to them in my poor Vietnamese – at this point, my Japanese is definitely a lot stronger!

There wasn’t really an opportunity to talk with the teachers directly – instead we spent most of the time playing three games. The first was a variant of Rock Paper Scissors / Janken (たたいて・かぶって・ジャンケンポン), with the added rule that the winner has to grab the (inflatable) hammer and hit the loser on the head, while the loser has to grab the helmet and wear it to protect himself. The teachers gave us a demonstration and then we joined in afterwards. If we won against a teacher of our choice, we got to take a picture with them – I chose and won a picture with Yuha-sensei! It felt like we were taking pictures with pop idols rather than ‘ordinary’ university students, but I didn’t let that thought ruin the fun… I await the day somebody takes part in a convoluted game of Rock Paper Scissors just to win a photo opportunity with ME!



Aysel was not so lucky...

Aysel was not so lucky…

The second game was the ‘Wasabi Challenge’. They put large amounts of wasabi inside a single piece of sushi (out of many), and the teachers each took a piece in turn and ate it. The job of the rest of us was to guess who had ate the wasabi-filled piece, from the facial expressions/reactions of those eating. We also played a reverse version of the same game – all except one had large amounts of wasabi while the single piece had none. They were pretty good at acting so I couldn’t really tell who it was – as expected for a YouTube group! Aysel took part in the student version of the game, fooling almost everyone with her class acting skills.

Aysel taking a mouthful of wasabi... Or is she??

Aysel taking a mouthful of wasabi… Or is she??

For the final game, one of the teachers placed mystery items in a box and the others took turns to guess what was inside by touching it with their hands. The audience could see what was inside (generally ordinary stuff like soft toys, pencil sharpener) but we gave our best (over)reaction to put off the person guessing. At one point there was a piece of raw chicken in the box, whose texture would have surely freaked anyone else out, but Misato-sensei was surprisingly unfazed and stayed extremely calm – 余裕!

I don't like touching raw chicken even when I know what it is...

I don’t like touching raw chicken even when I know what it is…

After the games we took more pictures together and filmed a short clip with everyone dancing. They said they would be using that clip at the end of every(!) Nihongo no Mori video to encourage people to subscribe. I am very happy to have participated in this event, even if there are some embarrassing moments captured on video. I think studying Japanese is incredibly important for anyone who wants to be here for the medium-long term and I support any initiatives bringing foreigners one step closer to fluency!

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!

JLPT… We meet again!

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On Sunday, I took the JLPT exam (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) here in Tokyo. The JLPT has several levels ranging from N5 (the least difficult) to N1 (the most difficult). Having recently passed N3 in July, I decided to give N2 a try this time round! N2 is generally considered the minimum level required to live and work in a Japanese environment without major problems. Improving my Japanese will help me in all aspects of my life (as long as I remain in Japan) and so it only make sense to spend the time to study properly. I think I sat this a bit prematurely, but it gave me a concrete target to aim for and has helped to guide my study in the past few months. Pass or fail, I am happy some progress was made!

In Japan, you can take the exam up to twice a year. You apply for a particular level a few months in advance, paying a nominal fee (5500 yen). The test location seems to be decided based on your address – I was assigned to Tokyo City University – Setagaya campus. The test site was 15 minutes walk from the nearest train station. I was worried the place might be hard to find, but there were many, many other people (1000s?) also sitting the exam, and we formed a long line from the station all the way up to the test site. The other candidates seemed to be predominately Asian (Chinese, Vietnamese), but there were also people from many other countries too. Everyone seemed to be in their early 20s, and judging from a few overheard conversations, mostly university students.

There were several exam rooms across several buildings, with each room having about 100 students. They were extremely strict on what was allowed and not allowed on your desk – in particular, several people were told off for having erasers still inside their cases. All of the instructions from the examiners were in Japanese, but they generally stuck to set phrases and used simple language. It was interesting to see how well (and not well) my fellow students could understand the oral instructions!

The N2 exam is broken into two sections, ‘Language Knowledge’ (vocabulary, grammar, reading) and listening. The first section, including prep time, was about 2 hours, while the second lasted about 1 hour. There was a generous break (about 30 minutes) in-between. Time management was a bit of a problem on the language knowledge section, but I managed to make it to half-way through the last question before time ran out. There were quite a few words I didn’t recognize in the vocab section, and it took me more than a while to read the long passages in the reading section, but grammar went reasonably well. I was feeling mentally drained going into the listening section, but had no choice but to keep as focused as I could throughout. Most questions and key points are only mentioned once, and so a brief slip in concentration could spell disaster. I made many notes whilst listening, but still missed a few things when it came to answering the questions. If the audio was played twice, this would be be the easiest section of the exam by far. But the extreme level of concentration required (along with being generally tired after the language knowledge section) keeps this somewhat challenging.

The results will be announced in early February 2014(!), so I have quite a while to go before I find out how well I did. I will keep studying in the meantime – hopefully 1 year from now I will be in a position to confidently sit JLPT N1! Time to ramp up my study for 2014!

Category: Japanese | Tags: , , ,

Learning for the sake of learning

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We were finally able to meet everyone on our course, just in time for the orientation at the university. We were able to experience first hand, the horrors of overcrowding on the Tokyo subway during the morning rush hour – an experience we will now have to endure every single day! The journey from Shimotakaido to Ichigaya takes about 45-60 minutes. The novelty factor meant that we were still reasonably cheerful, but I suspect that the jokes about ‘getting close to each other’ will soon wear thin as time goes on. Like sumo wrestling, there is only so much that we can take. The subway trains are well air-conditioned and very clean, so it is generally quite a pleasant experience (minus the overcrowding).

When we arrived at the university, we were given a talk by one of the course coordinators about the housing contract and general rules and regulations. She alternated between English and Japanese and I tried my best to look like I could understand the gist of both (with well-timed nods!). We filled in a bunch of forms and questionnaires about our level of Japanese proficiency and the courses that we would like to take. The different classes [class A to class E] roughly follow the different levels of the international Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Fortunately, we were told that those who had not studied Japanese before did not need to attempt the listening and writing placement tests and were only required for an interview. It seems like most of Cambridge as well as the Finns will be in the beginner’s class (class A), which is good since we have been hanging out together a lot anyway. [“A is for awesome!”]

The coordinator remarked about how the programme was quite strict, but only 60% attendance of the classes is required. This seems to me to be a very lax figure – I could effectively skip class for an entire month and still pass! There are also a ridiculous amount of public holidays [almost one day per week] where we don’t have classes, and so I don’t except there to be too much pressure. Since I have already graduated, the transfer credits are inconsequential to me and I am effectively learning Japanese only for the sake of learning Japanese. This represents a refreshing change to my time at Cambridge where I felt pressured to try and maximise exam performance at the sake of learning about things I was interested in.

We got a first taste of the Nihon cafeteria and I found the food to be very good quality and generous in portion size. For about 600 JPY we were able to get a set meal of miso soup, salad, rice, and fried pork cutlet. We bought the commuter pass that allows us to travel freely between Shimotakaido and Ichigaya, and it cost about a whopping 30,000 JPY (just over £230) for three months. To contrast, a one-month ‘zone 1 only’ travelcard in London costs £99.10 and so the commuter pass in Tokyo is relatively good value. However, it only provides free travel for one particular route and so we will still need to pay for tickets when we go outside it.

The Finns received a significant monetary grant from the university and so we decided to go back to Harajuku to spend some of their money and kit out in Tokyo fashion! The Brits were unfortunately feeling a bit poor after paying for the commuter pass, but I was still able to find some cool flip-flops and invest in a 100-yen umbrella. Today was the first day it rained in Tokyo since we arrived, and I perhaps even prefer it to the sunshine. The air was much cooler and the streets were less busy – a touch of London nostalgia perhaps? I thought I wouldn’t miss the UK at all (particularly the weather) but it seems there is still a soft spot for it in me somewhere…

Category: JLSP | Tags: , , , , ,