Time to Take on a Big Project

Time to Take on a Big Project post image

The JLPT has officially come and gone. And now comes the slow wait for results in January. In between, we have Christmas and New Year’s celebrations that are begging you to relax and take it easy. It can be a bit hard to focus.

This is made worse by the fact that you might now know if you passed or not. So, you are no sure if you should start studying for the next level or reviewing the old material again. You might find yourself a little lost because you are so used to studying the books and vocabulary for your level.

But, right now, you have a lot of time. There is at least 7 months between now and the next time you take the test. And, for some, it might be pretty easy to get lost and find yourself doing something else until the test results come back and you suddenly realize, you need to pick up the habit again.

What are you going to do with all that time? How about a big project? You’ll have plenty of time to finish it, and it will keep you focused through the holidays and up to when you get your results back.


Time to pick up a native book for the 1st time or if you regularly do some reading how about picking up a book from a different genre? Yes, it might be challenging, but you have time to work it out and get used to reading real native materials, of all sorts.

Be sure to mark them up and take plenty of notes. This is where used books come in handy. You can buy a book for cheap and not care about keeping it nice. Or, if you are living in Japan, you don’t have to feel like taking it back with you when you leave or move.


How about trying to write a short story? This could be a translation of a popular tale or even your own idea. Use some local news or a story from your past and add a little flourish to it. Another trick I learned is to look at interesting photos at Flickr. There is usually some kind of story you can find.

Be sure to test yourself by using new vocabulary and phrases. If you don’t know how to say it, ask somebody that can. Push what you are capable of doing and expressing. At first, your writing will probably be a little stilted and sound to ‘directly-translated’. That’s about where I am when I write a story at the moment. There is not style, just meaning. That’s okay, you are not writing a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, just practicing Japanese.


Again, it’s time to go native. Find a jDrama, Japanese movie, or an English movie that has been dubbed and watch it with Japanese subtitles (to double-check your listening). Be sure to look up any words you don’t know. You might want to double-check your understanding with a native friend as well.

Granted this is probably something you should wait to start doing after you passed N3. It doesn’t hurt to try it earlier though. You will be surprised how much you’ll understand of certain scenes. Although there will be other scenes that you will have zero understanding of.

The re-watch the episode or movie from the beginning to end. Try not to stop, but if you are unsure of a word or phrase stop and check. Then, watch a final time without subtitles and listening for all the words. If you have a little trouble go back and re-listen to the part you missed. If you are feeling up to it, you could even try to act out the parts, by shadowing the conversation.


For speaking, a big project you can take on are what I’d like to call ‘stump speeches’. If you are not familiar a stump speech is a speech that politicians use on the campaign trail. They usually start off with it, and then personalize the rest of their speech/talk with something that pertains to that audience that they are talking to.

These are really helpful for learning a language as well. There are common questions that people inevitably ask you. The most common by far is ‘Where are you from?’ (どこから 来ましたか?) or some variation of that. And you can of course just answer with a simple one word place name and be done with it. But why not take the opportunity to have a longer conversation?

You can add in details about your hometown like what kinds of things are popular. What kind of food is popular? (this is really important in Japan where every single little corner of the country has some kind of famous food or drink). What is the weather like? Does it have 4 seasons? Does it snow there? Yeah, these kinds of things might sound boring, but it keeps the conversation going and the person you are talking to can ask more questions.

You can create little stump speeches (at least 4 sentences long) for all sorts of questions. And of course if someone asks you this question, you don’t need to rattle off the entire thing, but you have ideas and ready-to-use phrases if the conversation goes that way. Let your imagination run wild and write as much as you can. Then, the next time you bump into a Japanese person, you’ll be fully equipped.

What’s your Big Project?

Are you going to take something on this break? Let me know about it in the comments below.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Hannah December 16, 2013, 3:13 pm

    Since the test is over and I don’t intend to take it again in the near future, I’m moving on to skills I feel are important but not tested on the JLPT. I guess the biggest change is taking a private lesson. Once or twice a week I’m meeting with a teacher and practicing keigo as well as reading, summarizing and deeply discussing newspaper articles. The test usually has only one or two keigo questions, and speaking isn’t tested at all, but their both very necessary skills.
    I’m really excited to do it, but despite studying like CRAZY the past two years, it’s been three since I last had a class. The idea of being analyzed is a little scary for me, even if it’s really helpful. ^^;;

    Aside from that, I’m trying to talk more and more with my Japanese friends (and luckily I’ll get to visit a bunch of them over the holidays! o(^^)o ), read even more novels in 2014, and start regularly reading the newspaper on my own. I already watch a ton of TV and do J-music-only karaoke all the time, so I’ll just keep doing that like always. lol

    • Clayton MacKnight December 16, 2013, 3:22 pm

      Sounds like a good plan. Keigo is really important for business, and even a few Japanese aren’t 100% familiar with what to say. I know a few Japanese friends that have to memorize a speech (full of keigo and explanations of a product for example) basically just to do their jobs. The newspaper article summaries sound pretty interesting as well. I read the news every once in awhile, but haven’t really gotten to in depth with it. I think it would be fun to have a discussion about some of the key topics of the day.

      I’m sure class will be a blast, especially a private lesson. Have a good holiday!

  • HB December 16, 2013, 11:56 pm

    I’m thinking of taking N4 this upcoming year, some friends say I should take N3, but I don’t think I know as much as they say. I’d like to give a try to some book/novel that someone aiming for N4 could handle… do you happen to know of any freely available as PDF/audiobook or for iTunes?

    • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2014, 3:02 pm

      Are you talking about a study or drill book or native materials to read? Free reading materials for the N4 level are pretty hard to come by. You can take a look at the free practice test or workbook that is available and see if it is your level though.

      • HB January 17, 2014, 7:42 am

        Maybe my reply below passed away unnoticed, so will reply again properly:

        I’m talking about native materials: books, magazines, novels, games, whatever. I’d say my vocabulary and kanji level may well be between N3 and N2 based on misc tests I’ve tried in the past, but my grammar knowledge is just N5 or N4 at best… once I finish some pending things I’m going to start studying grammar.

        • Clayton MacKnight January 24, 2014, 12:02 am

          Sorry, that this is a bit late, but I would recommend movie novelizations (books that have been written from movies) at this level. There is a whole series of Disney books that match this. The vocabulary will still be a bit of a stretch and some of the grammar might be tricky to puzzle out, but it would be good practice and if you see the movie ahead of time it will help you guess what is in the book more easily. I’m talking about books like this.

          • HB January 24, 2014, 12:22 am

            But those books aren’t free as far as I know, aren’t they? I’ve seen previews of some of those books online, and didn’t have much problem with those ones. Of course, being able to read a couple of pages doesn’t mean I could do the same with the whole book, so who knows.

            Found this article a couple of days ago:

            But haven’t had the time to browse those sites looking for books of my level and interest.

          • Clayton MacKnight January 24, 2014, 2:06 am

            I think I’ve been through those sites before and although they have a ton of content, it’s usually fairly old and not really interesting (to me). It might be worth looking through though.

            The books that I mentioned are so cheap (¥105 used) I’ve never bothered diving through the free stuff. A physical book I can mark up pretty easily too.

            In my experience, the most interesting free native stuff is at a little bit higher level (around pre-N1). To plug that gap I read paid stuff. You only need 5 or 6 books or so (¥1000 tops).

            Let me know if you find anything interesting. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  • Victoria December 29, 2013, 2:28 am

    Love the “stump speeches” idea. Over the past few months I’ve tried shadowing a few times, and that was surprisingly helpful. I used to have to make my business English students do it, but their progress was supervised by a different native Japanese teacher (I know…) so I never really saw what they were doing in detail. What I do know, though, is that at the end of 12 weeks they were all more confident speakers with more natural pronunciation, and that it’s simply not possible for them to have achieved that in a 2hr class with me once a week.

    When I first started it was really painful. I couldn’t memorize more than 8-10 lines a day, and while I was studying from drama (so I could just listen to it) I found I needed to check the subtitles to be confident I was saying the right thing. It was soon clear that it would be a new vocabulary study exercise as much as speaking practice. It felt like too steep a challenge (at my level) to be beneficial.

    Then, after a few days of reciting bizarre conversations in the shower (god knows what my housemates must’ve thought) I found myself thinking in the phrases I had learned… remembering the vocabulary… and somehow just feeling more comfortable “in Japanese” than I ever had before. I started practicing the lines as I walked to the station too. It was a real confidence boost.

    Since the JLPT I took a bit of a break then work has been very busy – all kinds of things farther down the pyramid of needs have taken priority – but I cannot recommend this kind of speaking practice enough; taking a native-written “script” of spoken language, memorizing it, practicing the pronunciation with a recording if you can, but even without that still rehearsing it until you can do it without any text in front of you. It really, really helps.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2014, 3:04 pm

      Some of my students have had a lot of success with memorizing scripts like that. It seems so primitive and brute force, but it can really work for some people. Especially with raising their comfort level.

  • Ytter January 1, 2014, 12:36 am

    A question, if there someone not too bummed out about the December test.

    What level of reading materials do the various levels of the JLPT correspond to? I have no intention of ever taking the test (my hearing is shot, I wouldn’t even be able to tell whether the speaking test had begun or not), but I’m curious what the reading passages correspond to – newspaper articles, high-school/college textbooks, novels, chemical patents …?

    • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2014, 3:13 pm

      These would be my rough guesses:

      N5 – very basic kid’s books. There really isn’t any native material that matches this.
      N4 – basic kid’s books, at about a grade 1 level of elementary school.
      N3 – kid’s newspapers, most advertisements, some articles in an essay magazine aimed at a broad audience.
      N2 – most materials outside of philosophy books, newspapers, magazines and adult fiction.
      N1 – pretty much anything meant for a general audience.

      • Ytter January 7, 2014, 7:34 pm

        Thanks for this. It looks like you almost have to be living in Japan in order to be able to simply access enough material for the higher levels.

        When I lived in Prague and was able to go to a second-hand book shop and walk out with a knapsack full of paperbacks for under $10 my vocabulary began to skyrocket. Detective stories translated from English were a good start, BTW – the translations meant a lot of the puzzling Czech turns of speech didn’t show up often enough to impede understanding, and since they were mysteries, the same events kept being discussed throughout the story. Eventually, the language began to seem like Wonder Bread compared to real food (i.e., originally composed in Czech, full of once puzzling turns of speech), but they served a useful purpose for the first few months. It was funny to learn to “hear” the distinctive voices of the different authors come through in Czech – their translations are at a very high level.

  • HB January 8, 2014, 11:15 am

    I’m talking about native materials: books, magazines, novels, games, whatever. I’d say my vocabulary and kanji level may well be between N3 and N2 based on misc tests I’ve tried in the past, but my grammar knowledge is just N5 or N4 at best… once I finish some pending things I’m going to start studying grammar.

    BTW, I haven’t been able to load this article using the desktop version of the site.

    • HB January 8, 2014, 11:16 am

      Just replied and the desktop version showed up. A shame it didn’t happen before to reply to the right comment (even tried several browsers).

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