(Note: This post is specifically aimed at advanced learners of Japanese, but many of these tips apply to learning at any level.)
As a coordinator for international relations, the only hard requirement for my job is a certain level of fluency in Japanese (roughly N2 or higher, to be exact). I use Japanese in most of my work (translation, interpretation, school visits, etc.), I would consider myself fluent–possibly, depending on one’s definition of “fluent.” I am fully functional in Japanese and can get by no problem (or without major problems) in most life situations.
However, I draw the line here between “fluent” and “native-like;” I am by no means native-like. I still can’t comprehend 100% of what I hear. I still don’t know a lot of grammar (albeit, mostly upper level grammar that one wouldn’t necessarily come into contact on a daily basis). I can read a newspaper, but still need a dictionary for many of specialized vocabulary words. My pronunciation at times falters back from nasal-y Japanese sounds to throaty, English-like Japanese, especially if I’ve been speaking for a long time, am not comfortable in the subject matter, or am just plain tired. I don’t think I would pass the N1 if I were to take it right now because, well, it’s the N1 with a lot of obscure grammar and very specific vocabulary that you need to study specifically for. While I have never bothered with the JLPT, I am certain I could pass the N2 no problem, although to be completely frank, there are still some grammar points from N2 and even occasionally the N3 level that I am not entirely confident regarding how to use or differentiate from other similar parts of grammar.
Such is the nature of language learning. You keep learning and studying, and you get to a dreaded point. I’m sure every serious language learner has heard of the intermediate (or higher) “plateau,” where you just feel like you’re getting nowhere, despite your best efforts. The plateau, even in the advanced level, does not mean there is nothing else left to study. There are even things about your native language you don’t know–even if you have never even considered it, I promise you it’s true (take a look at the SAT English vocabulary, Shakespeare plays, or famous speeches that you can surely understand but probably not be able to crank out yourself). Even though I am required to use Japanese in my daily life–and rightly do so–it doesn’t mean I know everything. As stated before, far from it.
To be honest, the higher up you get in learning, the tougher it is to keep up motivation to study and break out of the plateau. I can understand most or at least the gist of what’s going on around me or on TV, can read novels no problem, and breaking out the flashcards and grammar workbooks is so exhausting after work. Passive learning is great and effective (to a point), but looking back on what I’ve been doing, I’m not going anywhere without active study. It’s easy to make excuses and stay in the lazy comfort (passive) zone–I’ve been stuck in this zone for a very long time.
This zone is basically like the brain’s version of comfort food: sometimes you just really need it, and you feel better in it. However, it’s easy to get in the habit of eating Oreos every day/turning your nose to the pile of flashcards slowly growing on your desk after you started once upon a time, and in the end, you feel pretty gross. I’m the type of person who needs to keep learning and developing myself, and if you’re reading this, you probably are too.
That said, I’ve gotten my much needed second wind the past month, and I’ve been energized, motivated, and inspired to start studying again. Now how to go about this is the key/problem.
It’s safe to say that there aren’t too many (non-boring) study materials for advanced learners of Japanese. In Japan, books and resources are plentiful; however, they can be a bit dry. I’ve had my ALC N3-N1 grammar pattern textbook(?) for years, and have still never gotten past the first few chapters, mainly because it doesn’t give me homework, I’m not actively using most of the grammar to solidify it, and it’s overwhelming. It’s a lot of condensed information–500 grammar patterns (many of them seeming to be the same) in about 250 pages of content. I don’t have a study buddy–I started going to local Japanese classes on one morning each weekend, but much of the content is still a bit too low in level for me (although that’s still not to say I’m not learning anything).
Just typing that above paragraph made my head (and heart) hurt so much, I really want to quit writing this post now and put it off till later (lazy comfort zone). No, self–I’m going to keep chugging along.
Before I get into my recent regime (as I have had very few concrete tasks in work this week, I’ve devoted many an hour to language study during work), let me first give a bit of background on where I’m coming from:
I started studying Japanese about 10 years ago (although I dislike saying I’ve been studying Japanese for 10 years, as several of those years have been passively spent). I learned almost completely through self-study, and so I am very aware of what works for me and what doesn’t. That also means that, having dabbled in basically every study material out there, I can sometimes have a very sporadic understanding of many parts of Japanese, as I never went front-to-back textbook-to-textbook. I started out first learning Japanese through song lyrics (so from a very early stage, I was solidifying random words and phrases like 涙が溢れる and 奇跡の色 and 温もりが溢れる and 見上げた空 and 溢れる想い–just everything is overflowing in Japanese lyricature), and most importantly, using Lang-8 for writing practice (if you’ve never used Lang-8, stop reading this and sign up right now. This is one of the best resources out there, but I am going to gloss past it for right now). These are not the only ways I studied Japanese, but the main things I used regularly. Therefore, to date, I would put my 4 skills as the following:
Reading: Very strong
I am an incredibly visual learner, and for many reasons, struggle with listening in all the languages I study. Same with numbers, but that’s another story.
Now into what I actually do, broken up into sections.
I use Anki for vocabulary (like Lang-8, if you don’t know Anki or have a favorite SRS, stop reading this now and go to the link). When I was studying in high school, I had shoeboxes (plural) full of flashcards, but I’m a grown-ass adult now, so I use technology.
Err, to an extent. I still use good-old retro flashcards because staring at a screen hurts my eyes, and it’s sometimes harder to get distracted or say no to a physical pile of flashcards (more on that coming later).
I’ve fallen into the trap of Anki-ing in bursts when I’m motivated and wanting to learn everything ever and studying about a million flashcards in a week, then seeing my review pile the next week, and becoming immediately discouraged/burning out. Just the other day I went through my 20+ decks of flashcards and weeded out the ones I know I will not use sometime in the immediate future. De-cluttering is important for focus, like being unable to work with a messy desk. So there’s tip #1 for you.
Tip #2: Always, ALWAYS learn words in context. Even at the beginning stage, when you’re learning non-controversial words such as ペン and 果物, even if you keep one card with just the word and the English on the back, make sure you add another one with a sample phrase or sentence–even if that sentence is sometimes as basic as ペンです. Honestly, this is a tip that I wish someone had told and drilled into me when I was younger in my studies, as it would have saved me a lot of time learning a bunch of similar-sounding words without being able to use them properly or in context. (This is why I have been buckling down and making flashcards for Common Japanese Collocations, which is a great resource for learners of any level.) Once you get into the upper levels, this is especially important, as you start learning words that have the same English translation, but different nuances. I’m talking 変化, 変更, 変遷, etc. Also, sometimes it’s better to have the Japanese definition instead of the English “translation,” which tends to leave out the intricacies (as an example, look up the Japanese definition for those 3 words to see how they’re different). ← Tip #3. In conjunction, this is also the time to get a Japanese thesaurus or something of the sort. (See my quick review of my suggestion, ちがいがわかる 類語使い分け辞典, here.)
Tip #4: Make your paper flashcards useful. No, they are not practical for studying thousands of words (you’ll make trees cry), but they’re nice to carry around in your bag or pocket or put by your nightstand. There will (maybe “should” is the better word here) be times where you unplug in your day, and this is the time to use them. Another aspect of online flashcards is the ability to study the expression, meaning, and reading all in one card, and I think a lot of Japanese learners turn away from flashcards because their fronts and backs are not quite as flexible. However, I’m going to tell you my master hack for retro flashcards that I’ve been using since high school:
- Write the word as it is in the wild on the front (that means in kanji if it is normally written in kanji, or if you want to test yourself).
- Write the definition/translation/whatever on the back.
- Right above the red line at the front (or side, if you use Japan-style flashcards), write the pronunciation to the kanji on the front and fold the flap down. Viola! You know have 3-way flashcards. It makes your stack a bit awkward (especially since you will not always have side-furigana to write), but such is life.
This one is related to my vocabulary tips, but still deserves its own section. Keigo is something that nearly we all cringe at. This one is truly practice-makes-perfect. For example, I know keigo theoretically–I know します turns into いたします or になります, etc. However, when it comes time to actually use it, I falter and/or freeze, and just stick to what I know with です・ます form. My workplace is luckily lenient enough that they don’t expect me to be super honorific, as long as I speak in です・ます, and actually discourage me in a sense from using anything fancier (“It’s okay if you don’t use it! I think they’d be surprised if you did!”–stuff along those lines).
However, considering I often have formal translation and interpretation gigs, I really need to be able to get the hang of it (if not for self improvement), even if I don’t need to use it every day, and even if it’s still kosher if I don’t. Therefore, I try to use it as much as I can (appropriately) when sending emails, so I can have the chance to think about the appropriate sayings and edit where needed. I used a keigo workbook I had from my study abroad days and just went through a chapter a day, saying everything aloud–and this last part is the most important. Practice speaking the words, so you become used to them. I made flashcards with fancy Japanese and fancy English (as the latter is sometimes even a bit to come up with on the spot); even if ベトナムからはるばる弊社をご訪問くださいました皆様に、心から歓迎のご挨拶を申し上げます never rolls off the tongue smoothly into “I would like to extend a warm welcome to our guests all the way from Vietnam,” you at least get a bit more affiliated with the special language, and bits and pieces will come out more naturally as you progress. Don’t put too much pressure into getting it perfectly right, but make sure you don’t put nothing (wow, grammar) in it, either–if you get what I’m saying.
Use multiple sources. Period. Right now I’m chugging my way through the swamp that is ALC’s どんな時にどう使う 日本語表現文型500, which is an absolutely fantastic resource for intermediate to advanced learners. However, this is not to say that it is perfect. While I love it, it simply does not dedicate enough space to fully explain the intricacies of each grammar point–a pattern I’ve found in the majority of grammar resources out there. One grammar book (etc.) may have a different explanation on how to use the form than another book (etc.)–and that isn’t to say that one is wrong (although it could be), but rather that the grammar is so nuanced that it needs much more time and space than allowed. That is why I am pairing up this book with supplementary info from Imabi and J-Gram (as examples) to get a more well-rounded and thorough understanding of each point.
This is also where I said I’m struggling with motivation. As few Japanese courses/lessons really go through more than just intermediate-level grammar (and none really in my area), I would need to hire a private tutor to go through these with me. The problem here is that I’m very stingy and don’t want to spend extra yen on what would probably end up being a very expensive hour (or so), and I’m a bad foreigner in that I don’t feel like doing a formal language exchange and need to teach textbook English grammar for an hour in return for an hour of Japanese. Luckily, I have a Japanese friend who is wanting to change jobs and move abroad somewhere to teach Japanese–a pretty major life change–and we came to the mutually-beneficial plus time/money-saving agreement that she teach me in English the grammar I am trying to learn. I’m making myself write out some sample sentences where I can as homework, and having her check before going into my myriad of questions about the content.
Aha, my last main section of this post, and my area of struggle. This is the aspect that has discouraged me the most and made me feel the most hopeless, considering I am surrounded by Japanese being spoken all the time. I’ve come to the conclusion that surely improving and expanding my vocabulary and grammar will help with listening, but I know that’s not enough, so I’ve come up with 2 more areas to narrow in on improvement:
- Podcasts: These are a gold mine for listening practice, as I can’t use subtitles as a crutch for pure audio. I’ve used audio dramas before, which are excellent, but where I’ve run into roadblocks is content that will really hold my interest for extended periods of focused time (I space out incredibly easily when it comes to purely audio materials–even in English). This is where I’ve found Japan to falter–most popular authentic materials out there are newscasts or talk shows with topics I’m really not interested in, comedies I don’t understand the humor of, or otherwise podcasts for learning English, which isn’t that helpful for what I’m looking for. I listen to How Stuff Works podcasts in English, Radio Ambulante for Spanish, but where’s the Japanese equivalent? I just found a contender or two this afternoon, so I’ll give it a go before I say any more. Digging farther than the highest ranking shows may be necessary.
- NHK News Video: If you are like me and are strong in reading and weak in listening (or vice versa), this is another gold mine. The clips are short, usually no longer than 3 minutes, so it’s easy to stay focused. Furthermore, the articles that follow the clips are written incredibly closely to the lines spoken in the videos–sometimes even nearly word-for-word, but if not, the key phrases and vocabulary will all be there in any case. So what I do is watch the video once without looking at the subtitles, read the article while looking up field-specific vocabulary that went right over my head, and watch the video one or two more times. I repeat this with at least a few news pieces, and make flashcards of collocations, phrases, or sentences that seem useful but maybe a bit difficult to produce myself (this is where my example flashcards above came from).
Now, as I wrap up, this is by no means a hard plan necessary for everyone to follow to the T, nor is it the only way out there to study. There is a lot to learning Japanese that I never even touched on. I am currently building up the Learning Japanese resources for the Tochigi JET website, which has even more tips and resources for people at all levels, but even that is a work in progress. Nevertheless, I hope this post was helpful, especially for those like me trying to climb out of a plateau. Peace.
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.