Switching Gears to Go Native

Switching Gears to Go Native post image
exhausted JLPT

Is this how you looked after the test?

Ok, phew! We are all done with the test!  Now, it is time to sit back and wait for those results that are coming sometime in late January right?  I mean, why study now?  Now is a time for celebrating stuff, join the holiday cheer and all that.

Although you have probably been cramming for the last month (or several months) and are more than ready to just take a break and veg out in front of the TV or get started on all those New Year’s cards you want to write to your Japanese buddies.  You should try to at least wedge in a little bit of study time to keep yourself going.

I know it is probably something you don’t want to hear right now, but please for second, put down the eggnog and listen to me.

No seriously, stop drinking.  I’ve got something important to say.

Keeping up your studies now, will have big paybacks later for a variety of reasons.  Also, now is the time to get your face out of that drill book and use the language. Yes, drill books are helpful, and are, at times, a necessary and extremely beneficial learning tool to help you refine your language.  But, they aren’t the language.

Regular Textbooks can Only Take you so Far

There are a lot of great textbooks out there.  Minna No Nihongo and Genki come to mind as the two books that can generally be found on most people’s shelves, unless you had the misfortune of having to trudge through **** for a college class.  These textbooks are pretty good, and they have their place in learning despite what some gurus might tell you.

But, any language needs to be used in the wild before you can really feel it.  If you were raised in the States, like I was, you had to work your way through German, Spanish, French or Latin class.  I was a good student, but I could not get interested in language class to save my life.  To me it was just books and conjugation drills and writing down sentences that we never used.

We study language as if it is a dead animal, and we are dissecting it to see what we can learn.  And while I think learning grammar and being accurate with a language is important, you also should go out and use it with somebody.  Either find a real life chat partner (if you are studying at a university this is usually easy to find) or someone on Skype.

If you are worried about your level, don’t be, chances are that through a variety of tactics (hand gestures, writing things down, talking around the word) you can get the basic idea across.  You might have to sometimes resort to English here and there, but you’ll find that if you try, you are a lot more fluent than you think you are.

To Pass N3+ you Need to Get your Nose out of the Textbook

You can probably pass N5 and N4 by sticking to the grammar and vocabulary lists and drilling them as much as you can, but that tactic won’t work for most people at the higher levels.  I honed my reading and listening comprehension skills by going through the drill books, but I picked up a lot of other skills by just doing a lot of reading, listening, and speaking.

For the old test, you used to be able to go through drill books, do a few past tests, and drill the vocabulary over and over in order to pass.  The new, post-2010, test is a lot more practical and requires you to have a better understanding of how the language is used not just grammar points and vocab words.

I doubt that you will be able to pass the test without picking up a least one or two native books written for natives, at least at the N1 and N2 levels.  Reading through just one native book will give you a ton of vocabulary and will help you increase your reading speed.

The Moral of the Story – Go Native

The sooner you go native, speaking with natives, reading native books, the sooner you will get comfortable with the language and take it to the next level.  So, during this downtime I encourage you to go seek out some native material to practice with.

What native materials are you going to work with?  Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to give you some pointers to maximize your practice.

{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Enrico December 8, 2012, 10:13 am

    Couldn’t agree more! =)

    I’m currently reading ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, at page 58. In Japanese, of course. I think it’s optimal for a variety of reasons:
    1) It’s a popular book that is also aimed at children, so it’s relatively easy to follow even for beginners
    2) Well, it’s Harry Potter… you already know the story, at least partly, and a lot of people enjoy it, so you don’t run the risk of getting bored
    3) It’s available in e-book format (which is very rare for Japanese books), and quite cheap too
    4) It has an accompanying audiobook, which is great because a) the voice-acting is funny; b) you can “unconsciously review” by listening to it in the car or commute or whatever; c) it helps solve those awkward moments when you’re not sure if ‘一袋’ should be read ‘ittai’ or ‘hitofukuro’.

    So, that’s my two cents. I think there are audiobooks for the first two books in the series only, but the e-books are available for all 7! Wish they had come out a few years back, before I spent 40€ to order a single bloody book from Japan… =P

    • Mac December 10, 2012, 3:38 pm

      Enrico, did you fork over the Y7000 for the CD audiobook? I might go in for a used copy of the CDs for around Y3000, but Y7000 seems a little steep for an audiobook. Or is there a digital copy of it somewhere? I’m just going to rip them to Mp3s anyway.

      I’ll try to get un-lazy and post my ~1000 word list for ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ on Memrise if I get the chance. Hopefully it can help you out.

      • Enrico December 12, 2012, 12:12 pm

        7000 yen is definitely steep. It’s actually beyond steep and more near the realm of theft, in my opinion.
        I didn’t pay that much for the audiobook, luckily. To be completely honest, I… didn’t pay at all for the audiobook. Let’s say I “got creative” finding a digital copy, and leave it at that. =P

      • Hilary December 12, 2012, 6:48 am

        I would love to use your Harry Potter Memrise course if you do end up posting it. 🙂

      • Cacoethes December 22, 2012, 3:34 am

        I would also love to see a Harry Potter Memrise course.. pretty please. 🙂

        • Mac December 23, 2012, 2:51 am

          Okay, I’ll try to correlate and organize it over the holiday break. It is around 990 words, which is huge considering I was just trying to add the words I was unfamiliar with.

        • Clayton MacKnight January 3, 2013, 4:19 am
          • Cacoethes January 5, 2013, 11:35 am

            Thank you for posting this. This vocab is *way* over my head, but at least I have a goal to work towards. I read this book in English when I was eleven. Do you think that an eleven year old Japanese speaker would be able to read and understand all these words or did the translator potentially make the book at a higher reading level?

          • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2013, 2:55 pm

            Hmm, that’s a good question. I don’t really know so many 11 year olds (my nephew is 7 and I’m pretty sure this is over his head), but it is written at a little higher level. The first couple of pages especially. I asked a few natives about and they found it a little ‘different’ and hard to understand at first.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 3, 2013, 4:19 am

      Enrico, I just posted the Harry Potter Memrise course:


      Unfortunately just the first chapter for now. There were a lot of words I didn’t know in that first chapter. Anyway, I’ll try to get more chapters out as quickly as I can.

  • Nick December 8, 2012, 11:00 am

    I agree with you, Mac. I’m taking a week off, but am getting back to work on N4 grammar and reading comprehension. I may just pass the N4, but I can’t take any chances and can’t waste two months of prep time in case I fail. I’m happy to report that reading Yotsuba and Doraemon comics in Japanese is helping me loads!

    For the guys trying N3 and above, how about Aozora Bunka with a Google Chrome add on like the Furigana Inserter? There may be a few authors whose work may be within reach of N3 students. As for listening, I think the folks in Japan are at an advantage for listening material than those living in other countries where we may need to depend on podcasts or anime.

    • Mac December 10, 2012, 3:44 pm

      Great tips to get into reading and listening. I’ve never heard of Aozora Bunko, looks like a pretty interesting site. Have you found any good titles there? I’ll have to shift through it and try to find some interesting stories.

      • Nick December 11, 2012, 8:42 am

        The problem with Aozora Bunka is that the works that are available there are written by authors many, many years ago, so there would be kanji that some of us haven’t seen before or know how to use it. That’s where Furigana Inserter or other services come in to help. Even so, I think you need to be a minimum of N3 or even perhaps N2 graduate before you can peruse some of the books there. The plus side is that you can download them in a Kindle friendly pdf file format and read them as and when you please.

        So sad! There’s an entire library of books and I don’t know enough vocab and Kanji to read any of them! :’-(

  • Hannah December 8, 2012, 11:42 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I translated a book in college when I was around N3 level, and it helped sooo much. Not just with speed and learning to cope if I don’t understand every little word, but also with grammar and boosting my confidence. That book was a crappy (but pretty popular) romance novel aimed at high school students, but that meant the content was pretty straight forward. As much as I made fun of the plot, 恋空 helped me a ton.
    Now that the test is over, I’m really excited to read 下町ロケット that I picked up a while back. It’s tough, but I got through the first 40 pages without a dictionary. It’s just plain fun to be able to apply your Japanese the way native speakers do. 🙂

    • Mac December 10, 2012, 3:47 pm

      Definitely! It’s sometimes like trying to solve a puzzle. Really a lot of fun, which is something I thought I would never say about reading anything.

  • Louise December 8, 2012, 9:48 pm

    I picked up a Professor Layton novel when I was in Japan. I’m going to try reading it in preparation for the N3 (and N2). I think seeing the grammar “in the wild” as it were will help me to remember it more clearly. Also it’s a book aimed at older children/teens I think so it shouldn’t be as difficult as a a novel aimed at adults.

  • Kay December 9, 2012, 2:59 am

    not so much on the grammar/reading, but I do watch Japanese variety shows often (this helped a shitload in getting used to native-level speed). And then I have this textbook since I’m taking Japanese right now in high school XD

  • Andrew December 9, 2012, 3:40 pm

    Reading the hobbit. Timely w/ the movie coming out soon. 105 yen x2 for the two paperback books at Book-off

  • Ioana December 10, 2012, 7:32 am

    I found the Kino no Tabi series to be good prep for the N2 reading. Graphic novels in general. Not too hard, but hard enough to practice actual reading. It helped that I watched the anime beforehand and had good visuals to guide me through the story line.

    Recently I took up Murakami’s underground 2 and it has not been so easy on me, even though I previously read the translated book. Soooo many unknown words and it is very hard to grasp the sentences, especially since he spends much time circling around the same topic. I’ve also found words that I can’t find in the dictionary, and though it’s easy to grasp them from the kanjis i’m kind of pissed that I can’t figure out how to read them. Lots of names without furigana to help me figure out the readings too (is that normal? How on Earth do you figure out the names?) Maybe I aimed too high with this one…

  • gkdl December 10, 2012, 2:44 pm

    I don’t know if this is an unnecessary question but you said that studying after the examination has big paybacks later for a lot of reasons but you never said what they were or what reasons.
    I’m not opposed to the statement, actually I have been (as much as my motivation will allow) been trying to stay focused and continue studying but havent decided what the best way to do that is without burning myself out entirely.

    I’ve been reading a novel since about a month before the JLPT and will continue reading that. I’m probably going to get a few more books since I’ve been researching titles since I’ve had some more free time now and have found some other books that seem interesting to me.
    I get them from the library instead of buying them, even if they’re cheap at book off, because going to the library is a nice experience for me and having to renew a book every 2 weeks keeps me motivated to continue reading and plow through. I’ve bought more than a few books that I never ended up finishing or even barely reading, so this method is better for me.

    • Mac December 14, 2012, 1:22 am

      I think it pays off in big ways because you learn the word in context and you learn what is useful to YOU, not what is one some JLPT list. The biggest advantage I think is at the higher levels the test ventures further and further from the set lists and it is crucial to use the real native language in order to help you pass. Drill books give you a great background, but in order to go all the way you have to go native.

      Does that make sense?

  • Bart December 12, 2012, 3:22 pm

    I’ve been following this method for a while. I’ve been reading novels and non-fiction books. One thing I find helpful is when a Japanese book has been translated into English and I can check my understanding of the passage (or if I even agree with the official translation). My main issue is the massive amount of vocabulary required. When I look at core vocabulary lists, I understand almost all the words. However, I just completed a 300 page book and there were ~1000 words I did not know! This turns out to be a massive amount of vocabulary to absorb, and as a consequence, I forget the words after a bit, even with Anki practice. Any recommendations?

    • Mac December 13, 2012, 12:50 am

      Well, one suggestion is to re-read the material. Especially if there is a string of difficult vocabulary in a row, it is good to go back to re-read that section of the book a few days later to see if you remember everything. I do this a lot with test material, but I’ve never done it with a whole book just because of time/interest.

      Another way to review is to try to write a summary of the content (or tell someone a summary) and in the process attempt to use the new vocab as much as you can.

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