I get a lot of emails from readers every week, and although I can’t respond to every single one sometimes, I do read them all. It is a big help as to what to write about next on the blog, so by all means keep them coming. One theme that seems to be popping up lately is how to learn grammar.
Grammar is always a bit of a weird animal to tame. For vocabulary and kanji, you can just spend time doing spaced repetition and going out and using it to get it down pat. But, grammar involves rules and exceptions to those rules, and meanings that are sometimes just not translatable.
The JLPT, being the relentless little bugger that it is, tends to prey on the small nuances that come up with grammar usage. Knowing the difference between particles like に and で can mean a big difference in the grammar section of the exam. And being able to recognize a conjugation of a verb or adjective in the listening or reading section can clear up a lot of confusion.
So how do you go about mastering the grammar that you need to pass the JLPT? When you first look at a list of grammar points that are covered for a particular level, you might be under the illusion that you only need to memorize those 100 points, then you are all set. Well, that is close, but it is a little more complicated than that.
Real Life vs. the JLPT
In real life, when you are talking and interacting with a real human being, you have a second chance at being understood. So, if you misuse a particular grammar point, you can try again. Or, more often than not, the person you are talking to can kind of guess what it is you are trying to convey and the conversation keeps going.
This is one reason (I believe) that some individuals that are pretty fluent with the language have a hard time with even N4. I’ve heard from a few people that have lived in Japan for awhile and use Japanese on a regular basis to chat with friends, still have a little trouble with N4. They will probably pass with a little studying, but it isn’t guaranteed.
Now, some of that has to do with the ability to read kanji fast as well, but you get the idea. Being able to hack your way through a conversation doesn’t mean the test will be easy.
Because the JLPT can be painfully strict sometimes. And the test makers want to tease out all the common mistakes that learners make. There are times when an N5 question might give me a little pause at first glance. They really put a lot of thinking into making the test as difficult as possible within the specifications for that level, well at least for some questions.
So how do you deal with this mismatch? How do you get the little nuances down, that, let’s be honest, in real life probably wouldn’t interfere with comprehension. Of course, knowing how to use the language will make communication a lot smoother and make you sound a lot smarter as well. So, it is good to have pretty good grammar.
Analyze and Get Corrections
There is no cure-all for learning grammar. Every language guru has a different method that they like to promote, but at the end of the day, how you learn grammar depends on you. There are some best practices though, like use the grammar, don’t just read about it. Or to learn more from examples with context than just a list of grammar rules.
Those basic rules will get you pretty far to be honest. But, my rule of thumb is to always be experimenting. This is something that you should be applying to all of your studying, but it is especially true for grammar. If one thing is starting to lose its effect, or if you are getting bored of writing out grammar sentences all day, try something different.
Try a couple of different methods and see how effective they are. I usually buy and use at least two grammar reference books for each level of the test. And I use various online resources as well. Sometimes one explanation will just click and that’s all you need. Other times it might take a couple of people’s explanations before you really get it down pat.
Do you like some new tool? Try it out for a little bit and see if it works for you. Did you discover a new textbook? Give it a try and see if you can get a different perspective on things. Even as an English teacher, I like to look at several different kinds of textbooks to see which one explains a particular point well.
How do you Study Grammar?
Do you study it explicitly with drills? Or do you try to absorb as much as you can from examples? Do you do a lot of writing practice? I’d love to know in the comments below.