The JLPT involves a wide range of grammar. This becomes more obvious as you move up through the levels. With N5, you will probably use most of the grammar on a daily basis. N4, a little less so. N3 and above you start getting into phrases and expressions that you might not use every day or ever (but, you’ll see in books or other media).
And a common mistake that people make is to just study the meanings of the grammar point, but you also need to know how to use it as well. This can be a little tricky because, like I said, you might not actually ever use the expression in real life, just see it.
The JLPT tests usage by doing things like giving you multiple conjugations or forms of words to put in a blank. Or they might test to see if you know the connotation of a particular expression. You could remember all this extra information, but thats a bit tricky.
Anki, Memrise and other such SRS or SRS-like systems are handy for memorizing raw information. But, grammar can be difficult to break down to use in these systems. One grammar point could have several rules for you to know. And, in my opinion, SRS is a powerful tool, but can be overused sometimes.
So, what’s the alternative?
The Bazooka vs. the Sniper Rifle
The Bazooka is a large somewhat clumsy weapon that can be used to take out several things at once. It isn’t a very elegant solution. It’s far from perfect, but it’ll cover a lot of things at once pretty easily. And you don’t really even have to aim that much to do some damage.
A sniper rifle on the other hand, is a slow careful weapon used for one target at a time only. It takes some time to setup and can involve a lot of boring work, but sometimes it is the tool that is needed for the particular situation.
Bazookas can be things like reading and listening work or having a chat with friends. These activities cover a wide variety of things at once, vocabulary, kanji, and grammar as well as the actual skill of reading and listening. You might not be able to learn a particular grammar point from reading, but a particular context might come up and the point might just snap into place for you.
Kanji and vocabulary can also be somewhat easily guessed from context a lot of times, and so you’ll pick up a lot of vocabulary simply from exposure instead of grinding away on them with Anki or Memrise.
Sniper rifles are more like intense work with grammar points or word maps and things like that. They involve a lot more time per item and so can seem a little inefficient and boring at times. And actually, if you use sniper rifles all the time, you won’t make much progress and you’ll probably die of boredom long before you reach fluency.
So if you haven’t guessed already, a good study plan involves the blending of these two items. Most things about a language can be covered with Bazookas, but there will always be those pesky items that don’t go away easily. They are like zombies, and as everyone knows, the best thing for a zombie is a head shot.
Listening to a lot of material is really useful in this sense. It’s even more useful with lots of rich context. For example, watching jDramas are great for this because you can see facial expressions and the actual physical environment that characters are in. Also, let’s face it, most characters in jDramas can be a bit stereotypical so it is easier to guess what they are trying to communicate.
Reading a lot of material that is your level is a big boost as well. There is a big movement in the language teaching community that supports what they call ‘extensive reading’. This involves reading a lot of material that is at or slightly above your level. A lot of research has shown that this technique greatly enhances your vocabulary and ability to ‘feel’ the language.
To make reading practice even more effective, try to go for a variety of reading materials. So, instead of just reading novels, try some magazines out every once in awhile. Or if you normally read fiction, try non-fiction and vice versa. The JLPT covers a lot of different types of reading. And just because you can read a certain kind of reading really fast doesn’t mean that will carry over into other types of materials.
If you are a higher level (N2+), I’m starting to find the various 週間 magazines (weeklies), published by several different companies, to be pretty handy. Another magazine that has some trendy articles similar to what you would find on the test is Aera, which is widely available. These magazines tend to have a variety of content and contain a few idioms here and there.
Specific grammar points can be a real nuisance, while others can be understood with just a quick mention.
For example, the particle に is pretty straightforward. It basically replaces ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘at’ for a lot of situations. (It has more uses than that, but at its most basic level). There are some nuances and it doesn’t quite behave exactly like you might think, but for the most part you can learn it and start using it correctly from day one.
Meanwhile, the difference between は and が may very well haunt you all the way to the higher levels.
My philosophy in the past with grammar points like は vs. が, is to just skip trying to study it in detail. The idea being that if it really is important it will come up in conversation or when I use it somewhere else and I’ll learn from trial and error. Or through reading and listening to a lot of material, I will, over time, just be able to ‘feel’ when to use it.
But, now I feel that with these more difficult points what you should do is slow down and take a little extra time to understand. Try experimenting with it on a regular basis and play around with it until it’s yours. Instead of just magically hoping it will get absorbed.
That’s not to say that you won’t be able to just ‘feel’ when things are right or wrong. You will if you stick with it long enough and get enough exposure to the language. But, knowing the rules fairly well can help you become aware of what to look for so that you can eventually ‘feel’ how it is used.
Kanji and vocabulary can behave the same way. These are usually practiced in some kind of automated studying system like Anki or Memrise. But, from time to time words just won’t stick, and so you will have to do a little more work with them.
For kanji, if they don’t stick you might have to find some words that use the particular character that you are having trouble with. Or draw pictures to help you associate it with something you know. For vocabulary, using mnemonics are a powerful tool that can help you lock it all in.
Do you use both of these ‘weapons’?
I’m going to stop here for now, but if you’d like to know more, I encourage you to check out the JLPT study guide kit. It is packed with other goodies like:
- A step by step way to boil down the grammar points you need to study, so you can make better use of your time.
- How to deal with difficult vocabulary that just doesn’t seem to stick.
- How to build mnemonics for even the most difficult vocabulary.
- How and where to find reading material that is appropriate to your level.
Are you making use of this strategy in your studies? Let me know in the comments.