First, be sure to go through your monthly check up. This should start to become a regular process by now. More or less you just want to check that you are keeping your habits up and aren’t falling to far behind. If you are having trouble with staying up to speed, read up on how to combat Japanese study motivation from last month.
Be sure to test your reading speed again and take note of it. Hopefully it is steadily increasing. Don’t worry about fluctuations though. Some months, with certain kinds of material you might read slower or faster. At this point, the test is to keep you focused on reading faster and not slip into lazy reading habits.
If you are gunning for the N5/N4, I hope you have had time to experiment with the grammar and vocabulary that you have been learning over the last 2 months. Try to use particles as much as possible. This can be tricky at times because native speakers will drop a lot of particles, but try to use them as much you can and test out their usage with your conversation partner or friends.
If you are at the N3+ level, you have hopefully completely studied all the grammar you need for that level or are coming close. How comfortable do you feel about it? Are you confident about its usage? You’ll probably need to do some more steady review of the points so that they all come naturally to you when you need them.
A good way to do this is a method I call ‘boiling down the grammar‘ which consists of writing sentences using the grammar, having the sentences checked, then doing more writing with the ones you are still having trouble with.
Try to resist the temptation of racing ahead without really planting this grammar in. I’ve found that if I race ahead looking for something new to learn before really over learning the things I already know, I end up wasting time going back and reviewing later. Make sure you know it well enough to confidently use it in a sentence relatively easily.
Producing a language can be much more daunting than consuming it. There are a lot of people who study English in Japan, but hardly speak it. They might even be capable of reading full, well-written books in English, but struggle to order food at a restaurant. The fear of speaking is too much, so they would much rather consume the language.
And for some people there is nothing wrong with that I suppose. If you are really into reading, there is something to be said for the ability to read another language and see things from another perspective. You can learn a lot more about a country reading things in its native language than you can reading translations or non-natives reporting on it.
But, chances are pretty good that you want to use the language. Also, a lot of people learn a lot more efficiently through trial and error than through drilling and memorizing. As matter of fact, this is one way that a certain kind of thought process called “System 1” works, the process responsible for simple tasks and automatic decision making.
“System 1” and “System 2” are two thought processes that make up the theory of dual process systems for decision making, an idea put forth by a few psychologists, most notably Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” You can read a slightly more in depth description of it here.
“System 1” is our fast thought process, meanwhile our “System 2” thought process is your slightly slower, but more thoughtful side of your decision making. It’s what you use when you have to think through the steps, like how most of us need to think about say, putting together Ikea furniture or driving in traffic at top speed while it is raining. You have to be actively focused on the task at hand. You have to engage your “System 1” and “System 2” thought processes to accomplish such difficult tasks.
System 1, however, is something that doesn’t demand your undivided attention. For example, you can eat and carry on a basic conversation without having to really be all that focused. Or you can drive down a vacant highway on a sunny day without much thought. In you native language, you don’t listen to someone’s complete sentence, process it, and then analyze the best possible response out of a list of several possible responses. You just respond with whatever comes to mind right?
Well, using a language relies a lot on both System 1 and System 2. System 1, although very fast, is kind of like a small child. It reacts based on intuition and gut feeling. System 2 can be thought of as kind of a memory bank that primes System 1 for what is coming next, so that it fires off the right decisions. It can be built up with SRS and thinking and memorizing the language.
And System 1 likes trial and error, as well as drilling. You can test your comprehension of listening and reading through trial and error to be sure. But, it takes a little bit of time and a lot of preparation. Somebody else has to prepare material for you to consume, try to comprehend and then you check that comprehension.
But, if you are producing material, you can get it checked relatively quickly, in some cases immediately in the case of speaking with a teacher who is correcting you. Writing, however, can be just as handy at times because you can get feedback pretty quickly too. And the advantage of writing is that you have a hard copy of what you did, and the mistakes that you made.
This hard copy can be used to help you see your improvement over time as you learn more and more vocabulary and grammar, which in turn can keep you motivated to study more. It’s kind of a self-feeding circle.
By the way, I realize I am greatly oversimplifying the the theory of dual process theory, but the concept is relatively complex, so if you have the time and are interested in learning more, by all means pick up Daniel Kahneman’s book. It’ll make your head hurt, but it will change the way you think, almost literally.
Get an Example
The problem with producing material in another language is that if you aren’t an experienced language teacher, chances are pretty good that you have no idea what kinds of situations use a particular grammar point that you want to practice. What you need is a sample to look at and see in what situations a particular grammar point is used.
You need an example to work off. This is actually the basis of a popular teaching technique that has become more widespread lately – Task Based Lessons or TBL for short. Essentially in a TBL, students first go over an example of a task they are trying to accomplish. A real simple example of this is a description of a neighborhood, something that might actually pop up on the N5.
Set a task for yourself based on an example of a writing that uses a particular grammar point you would like to use. Try your best to write a dialog or passage that accomplishes the same task and uses the grammar point.
Then you can have your writing checked by a native speaker or with a service like lang-8.
If you are having it checked by a native speaker, try to ask them to upgrade the language for you. Ask them what would sound more natural or smoother. Often times, native speakers can provide you with something that just flows a lot better. They, themselves, might not be able to explain the reason why it sounds better, but it will just sound more native in certain ways.
I think that is the kind of stuff you just can’t get from a textbook. The native flow of a language, so if you do know a native speaker or have a tutor try to get them to help you out in this regard.
Where to Get Examples of Materials
There are a couple of resources out there that you can pull examples from. For free, there are always the practice tests and workbooks that you can use:
JLPT N5 Practice Test (pdf) or (online version)
JLPT N1 Official Workbook (on JLPT.jp)
JLPT N2 Official Workbook (on JLPT.jp)
Beyond that it can be a little tough to find some good free materials, especially for lower levels. There really isn’t a lot out there.
For paid materials, Japanesepod101 has a massive library of recorded dialogs. What’s great is that it is all organized by grammar points so that you can go to their site, and go to the grammar bank and find lessons that match a grammar point you want to practice. That way, you can really focus in on the exact point you want to focus on.
Mind you that the grammar usually only comes up once in the dialog, but the N5 and N4 level dialogs are relatively short and easy to practice and get to writing with.
Scheduling and Motivation
Writing can be a difficult thing to schedule in because the time it takes you to write something can vary widely depending on what you want to say. Because of this it can be a hard habit to get started with. My advice is to start small with simple dialogs and conversations, even if it is only 4 or 5 lines. The point is to start on the habit and build in a rhythm to your studies.
I sometimes pack around a very small notebook to write in when I have a few minutes free on the train or between classes or on break. These small little moments can really add up to a lot of time you can spend learning a language.
Give it a try. At first, like any new habit, it will feel a little clunky and awkward, but if you stick with it, you’ll get more and more comfortable with it. And over time, you’ll be able to see your progress because of your hard copy that you made.
Are you Ready to get Writing?
What are your experiences with writing practice? Has it turned out well? What kept you going? What made you stop? Let me know in the comments.
This is just an excerpt from the JLPT Study Kit. Inside the kit, you’ll also find:
- How to work through drill books the right way
- Step by step how to do a TBL
- step by step how to make grammar flashcards for Anki
- a PDF checklist of what to do each month
- and more…
If you haven’t picked up the kit, why not give it a try? It has a 90 day money back guarantee, so you have nothing to lose!
How’s my studying coming along? Most people have learned not to ask me that …
Anyway, I took your advice to take on a big project over the upcoming month and spent it “sharpening the saw.” The Japanese [etc.] Pod101 words-ot-the-day are a tremendous resource for beginners, but I never got around to figuring out how to use them. These last couple of weeks I bit the bullet and wrote the macros (Word VBA and AutoHotKey – nothing fancy) to get organized, so I can process a day’s word and the accompanying text and audio files in seconds and have the information available for study. (I used the Hungarian and German files that have been building up, read but forgotten, in my e-mail account – or not even read – because working with the Latin alphabet is simply faster, especially when I’m figuring one step of a script at a time. I’ll start with the Japanese sometime next week. )
So: now a day’s word and accompanying phrases/sentences gets added to the slideshow program (IrfanView), an overall Word file (usefully formatted) with an overall index of keywords, and finally playlists of the audio chunks that can be extracted from the longer sentences.
This makes pattern drills possible without finding a textbook that offers such an old-fashinioned technique. (It’ll come back – language-learning techniques have been coming-and-going since at least the days of the Roman Republic.) To use the Pod101 material, you take one of the persons/animals offered during the previous month (from the playlist list – Total Recorder is excellent, and free) and combine it with the verbs and and objects and prepositional phrases in the same list: “The salamader” + “is relaxing” + “on my head”, “The tiger” + “is eating” + “a ripe red tomato.” The files of the individual components are listed for checking pronunciation in the playlist, but this is not a prepared list with correct responses automatically provided – there’s more flexibility this way, not to mention amusement, but it also takes more work than using ready-made files. On the other hand, going from a System 2 understanding to a System 1 automatic response takes work, and this at least speeds the work up. After you’ve figured out how to program in less-than-intuitive programming/scripting languages, anyway.
This part on the two systems was interesting.
As for writing, well I’d suggest to start a dairy like blog on a Japanese blogging platform like Ameba. Here you can interact easily with native Japanese people.
I’ve been blogging in Japanese for maybe 10 years now and it helps me a lot: writing, using grammar, finding new vocabulary, reading (comments) and so on. And the main reason: it makes me use Japanese!
All the interface is in Japanese so maybe beginners would be lost but I think you can find how to Ameba in English on the Internet (because I know people who don’t understand Japanese but still they’re blogging there XD)
My advice would be to write things using the grammar and words you know in Japanese. Maybe you’ll start writing little but it will grow^o^