Language Study: The Quest for Japanese Fluency

by phillipsauve on April 17, 2010

I am studying for the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level N1 (formerly 1-kyu).  The JLPT is a four-hour exam on a Sunday afternoon (three hours of actual testing) consisting of three sections: kanji (Chinese characters) and vocabulary, reading and grammar, and listening.  While any language test that leaves out a speaking section may not be considered an accurate assessment of one’s fluency, this test is the most widely used and recognized test of one’s Japanese ability.  I am determined to pass the test this coming July 4th and here’s why:

I first took the exam back in December 2009 and failed it pretty badly.  I was ill-prepared and lacked the study time I needed.  I have vowed not to let this happen again, because in the words of P.Diddy, “Can’t nobody hold me down.”  How am I doing this?  I am taking apart the test section by section, analyzing where to focus my effort and time.  Having taken the test last December, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect and I also know which sections I performed better on.  This is how I am attacking each section:


I spend thirty minutes a day studying both new and old kanji and vocabulary.  I use a free intelligent flashcard program called Anki, which will automatically review cards you have already studied based on how well you know them.  This has allowed me to vastly improve the number of characters that I can recognize.  The JLPT not only tests you on the meaning of the words and characters, but also their usage in sentence context.  To prepare for this I am using a kanji textbook, which has the kanji along with many example sentences.


This is where I did the best last time.  I live in Japan and am surrounded by Japanese everyday.  My listening ability and recognition has improved immensely since coming to Japan in August 2007, and continues to do so.  However, that is not to say that I have mastered this area- far from it.  In December, I didn’t pass this section either.  But I am not as concerned with this part.  Even though I generally try to minimize my daily media intake, I make an exception for anything (well, almost anything) that is in Japanese.  Television shows and movies can be a great resource for listening practice.  A good way to watch them when subtitles are available is to view the program three times: once with English subtitles, once with Japanese subtitles, and once with no subtitles.  I also listen to 2-4 free podcasts from each week, which include a model conversation followed by a detailed explanation of the lesson’s grammar and expressions.


This is where I did the worst in December, and thus have spent the most time studying since then.  If you only focus your efforts on one section, this would be it.  The grammar is essential to study because there are so many similar grammar points which are differentiated by only a subtle nuance.  Additionally, thorough grammar study that includes several example sentences will bring many different words and kanji before you.  A great deal of these are new and require you to look them up, thus giving you vocabulary practice as well.

To improve my reading speed I have begun reading popular books in Japanese.  I recently read the first Harry Potter book, having never read any of them before, and completed my goal of finishing it within a month (one renewal period from the library).  My next book will be the first installment of the Twilight series.  These are good books to read because you can easily check with someone who has read them in English before (it seems almost everyone has) in order to confirm your own comprehension.

‘Well, what about speaking?’

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Mark Twain

So if I am spending so much of my resources (time!) in preparing for a test that doesn’t include speaking, my speaking ability is bound to suffer, right?  Well, perhaps, but this can be avoided or at least minimized.  I now see a tutor once a week and we only converse in Japanese.  I bring all the grammar points that I have studied that week and we go over how to use them, particularly those that involve more colloquial Japanese expressions.  Most importantly, there is my physical presence in Japan.  If you have the desire to learn a language and are willing to really put in the effort, go and live in that country.  The longer the better.  It will do more for your language ability than anything else.

頑張ります!  (I’ll do my best!)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Squire Starsquid April 19, 2010 at 5:23 am

Ganbatte!!! Nice blog (same as my blog’s theme!).


Mark Sauve April 21, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Hi Phil,
Interesting insights.
We don’t have KatsuDon here,
Just Uncle Don.
It’s your Mom and Dad’s Anniversary
Is Sushi very popular there ?
Enjoy your rice today !
Uncle Mark


phillipsauve April 25, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Sushi is popular, but its just one of many regular foods available here. It’s overrepresented in America as “Japanese food”. It’s sort of how a lot of Japanese people think that everyone in America has a burger and a Coke everyday.


Prairie April 24, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I love to keep up with you Uncle Phillip. But, um, can you post more often ’cause we miss you.



Haikugirl June 11, 2010 at 12:35 am

Thanks for stopping by on my blog and leaving a comment. Just read your bio and you seem to have some very interesting (and admirable) goals. Good luck with the Japanese! I passed 3 Kyu last year (only just), so I can only imagine how hard you must be studying now! がんばって!


Caroline Cochran June 11, 2010 at 2:00 am

I am so impressed with you! Keep going, going, going! You’re amazing!


phillipsauve June 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

Thanks sensei!


proofreading services scholarship January 26, 2017 at 2:36 pm

I wish you luck in this difficult matter. After all, the Japanese language is one of the most difficult languages. I hope you will succeed.


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