Okay, so I’m not really going to brag here, because as you can see, I just barely, by the skin of my teeth passed the test. Just for a little refresher, the score needed to pass the test is different for each level. For N2, you only need 90 points to pass and I got one point above that so yes, very ぎりぎりセーフ.
Despite just barely passing, I went through a pretty strenuous study schedule to make it all happen. I think a lot of times in language learning you start to plateau and it usually takes a big challenge, something bigger than you have ever attempted before to knock you out of that lull and keep up your upward progress.
The N2 proved to be that big somewhat epic goal that helped knock me out of my lull. You have to definitely take this test seriously if you are hoping to pass. I have known a few people to waltz in and pass the test without breaking too much of a sweat, but for some others like me, it has seemed insurmountable at times (and it isn’t even the most difficult test).
Over the last year, I’ve made some significant changes to the way I studied that helped push me up and over this little speed bump on my road to fluency. These are some of the things that took me from a mediocre snail pace of progress to a fast commuter train of progress.
Fast commuter train? Well, I can’t really say I was traveling along like a bullet train, that would require say, free time, which I seemed to have misplaced somewhere. But, I figure with the limited amount of time that I do have to study, I’ve made some amazing progress. Here is what made it happen:
Spaced Repetition Systems
We’ve all heard of the wonders of spaced repetition systems, or SRS for short. They are handy little tools that help you remember pretty much anything by reminding of that thing right at about the time you start to forget it. It’s a pretty handy way to lock things in without too much work.
I used to use Anki fairly regularly, and I still recommend it because it is customizable and gives you a lot of control over spacing and the interface. You can really tailor it to your needs and the way you like to study, right down to fonts and background colors. It also has a lot of tools available so that you can sync your deck across multiple platforms like iPhone and your PC.
But recently I got involved with memrise.com and started helping them organize their courses and improve the service for Japanese learners. Not only has it given me a good insight into the best ways to study vocabulary, it has also helped me to clarify differences in meaning of similar words like 細い and 薄い. Both mean thin, but 細い is used for things with volume, like people, whereas 薄い is more for density and something already flat, like paper or coffee.
Memrise.com provides a couple of good features. First, it has a SRS built in so words are shown to you on a set schedule. Second, there is audio (being slowly added) to the courses, so you get audible reinforcement. Third, users can contribute mems, which are mnemonics, pictures, extra info, and even video. These mems help relate the word to information already in your head so that you can remember the vocabulary.
Memrise.com is still a work in progress, but the site is getting better and better every day. Hopefully it’ll become a great tool for language learners.
Not Just Slavishly Studying the Test Material
Drill books have their place and their uses in preparing for the test. They offer you a great background to the material and fill in any gaps that might need filling in your studies. The New Kanzen Master series is especially useful in this regard. The So-Matome series also has its uses as a good introductory book. If you have the time/money I highly recommend picking up both.
But slavishly studying just those books and the vocabulary lists that are prevalent on the web isn’t enough. That might work for N5 and N4 and probably even N3. But at the N2 level, there were a lot of words that I weren’t on any standard lists on the web. And the grammar is sometimes presented in a way that you need to know more than just the meaning and the rules behind it.
This means actually getting your hands dirty and diving head first into the language. The reading that I did was a huge boon. Some of the words that I found in the books I read were on the test. These words weren’t in any N2 list either. I just picked them up out of the context of reading the book and plopped them into memrise or Anki to study them.
Although some of these words have only limited use, there were a good handful that were lifesavers for the test and I learned them naturally through just reading the book and reviewing them later. This is a lot different from reading an example sentence in a vocab book and then doing some exercises on the word.
Also started watching more jDramas and listening to a few native Japanese podcasts as well as Japanese language learning podcasts, mainly Japanesepod101. This helped train my ear for different types of conversational Japanese, giving me a faster response time in the listening section.
Sharpening the Sword
About a month before the test, I sent a podcast on how to sharpen the sword. Throughout the year, we are building the sword making it big, strong and sturdy, balancing out your Japanese skills. But for the month before the test, I recommend sharpening the sword, fine tuning your grammar, drilling anything that is a little shaky, and doing some kind of test taking practice every day.
This process reinforces what you know to the point that you can quickly answer questions about it confidently. The N2 doesn’t allow for much thinking time, you have to trust your instincts and answer fairly quickly to get through it and pass. You don’t have time to think about grammar rules and working anything out in your head. You have to answer and you have to answer fast.
Doing all sorts of drills from reading to listening, from grammar to vocabulary, helps train the brain for success. Is this good for your overall Japanese studies? Well, not entirely. You are doing some extra work that is only going to pay off on the test, but there are some other skills like reading fast and grammar accuracy that will make you more professional and your life a lot easier when you use Japanese.
How did you fare?
I know a lot of you took the test in December. I’d like to hear about your results and your reactions. What did you do to help you get a higher score? What did you do that didn’t help you get a higher score? I’d love to hear about it and I’m sure everybody else would too, so let us know in the comments!