This is a continuing series going over a sample JLPT study guide. If you are just joining the discussion, you might want to check out month 1, month 2, month 3, month 4, month 5 and month 6 before continuing.
You may start to wonder at this point if learning a language is all about drilling and drilling some more. Well, no not really. Doing some limited drilling can help you focus on specific points and weaknesses that you need to fix in order to understand and use them well. It can be an efficient way to narrowly practice a few bits and pieces of the language that really need tweaking.
But, hopefully, you not just doing all drilling. That would be down right boring to be honest, and you wouldn’t be practicing all the skills you need to use and understand a language. You can’t just use books and software to learn a language, you need a little something more. Otherwise you are in for a rough time.
Even with the JLPT, which demands accuracy from you, stepping away from drilling and books is required of you if you are going to take it to the next level. And the sooner you get over the fear of putting yourself out there, the better off you will be. You’d be surprised how well you can communicate with just a few basics at the N5 level.
A fear of speaking up and using the language can hold you back from using it. I remember when I first started studying Japanese, all I did was pour over books, mastering how to say every little thing. Looking things up and double-checking it with other resources. For some strange reason, I never wanted to bother other people too much by asking for help, or I felt like my level was so low that I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking a dumb question.
And it held me back. For the first year or so that I was learning Japanese, I really didn’t learn anything it seemed like. I learned to read Japanese textbooks and practice fake conversations with myself that weren’t relevant to me, but I wasn’t actually using it. What’s worse, every time I had an opportunity to use it, I shied away at the first shade of misunderstanding instead of pushing forward. Big mistake.
Don’t do what I did. Yes, to pass the JLPT at the N3 to N1 levels (and maybe N4) you do have to stick your nose in a few books and refine your grammar. But, the more ‘real’ Japanese you get your hands on the more you will be able to ‘feel’ it and things just start to make better sense to you.
Yes, it can be a little nerve-wracking at first. It’s hard to give over that ‘hump’, but let me walk through a few ways you can ease into it. First, a bit of explanation.
Old School vs. New School
The old school way of learning a language basically treated foreign languages as any other subject in school. There was a whole bunch of stuff for you to remember and you were made to remember it via drilling. The teacher was there to open your mouth up and jam buckets full of vocabulary words and grammar rules down your throat, and didn’t even bother to give you anything to wash it all down with. There was not a lot of chatting, or production of the language other than in very limited situations.
The new school of learning a language involves going out, taking a little bit of time to learn some basic grammar, but then just throwing yourself into the mix and chatting it up as much as possible. This has been touted a lot by language gurus like Benny Lewis in recent years. And it is easy to see why this is effective and great way to learn. You go out and get a lot of feedback, constantly review and reuse what you have just learned and see the world in the process.
And I really like the idea of the new school, it is how we learn to do a lot of things – just go and do it. The only problem is there are a few limitations to it. First, most people don’t have the resources to live abroad or don’t feel comfortable with the whole idea of suddenly moving somewhere new. After all, living in a foreign country can be stressful and scary if you don’t have someone to guide you through the process.
That can easily be remedied by Skype and some other tools though. So that isn’t a real deal breaker to be honest. There are plenty of tools out there that can help you connect with native speakers who in turn would like to connect with you. So, no biggie.
The second issue though, and this can be a big one, is that it can be a bit difficult for some to just jump into a conversation with someone they just met. After all, if the new school depends on having a lot of healthy conversations with a lot of people to learn how to use the language, it might be difficult to do that if you have a hard time doing that in your own language.
I actually experience this a lot in some of the classes I teach. There are some students, for whatever reason, that simply haven’t learned to socialize well. And they are brilliant people, medical researchers, engineers, and other similar job categories tend to have this issue.
They just never really got comfortable conversing in their own language, but now, to move up in their company and advance their careers they need to learn English. But, they have a heck of a time getting the ball rolling because they never really mastered communication in their first language.
So what happens if you are one of those types of people? And this isn’t binary by the way, there are several shades of conversation skills you can have. Some people just need a little step up, others might need a giant leap. In either case, you need to make the move.
And the great part about language learning is it is okay to be a bit weird and make mistakes because people will generally be pretty forgiving. And these conversation skills will actually transfer back to your first language sometimes in a strange kind of way. You’ll learn what kinds of questions to ask that generate more conversation for example, and which stop the conversation dead in its tracks.
The answer to how to take this first step lies in wonderful people called tutors. Tutors can really help you to open up because they are there to help you communicate and since you are (probably) paying them at least a little coin, they will generally do their best to help you get your words out and patiently work through your stumbling and fumbling around with you. And if it is a good experienced tutor, they will probably be able to predict what you are trying to say and bridge the gaps in language as you try to communicate.
First though, let’s be clear on what a tutor is. A tutor does not teach a class, they will not give you a structure to work through, or at least most won’t. They are simply there to guide you through the learning process and speed your trip to fluency by stopping you from thumbing around in the dark. You can almost think of them as a language mentor in a way.
There are two great sites for finding tutors in my opinion. The first is the freebie option – The Polyglot Club. This seems to be the best source for me for finding people that would simply like to chat and practice. There are even a few that want to be teachers in the future and are using this as a way to practice their skills before getting into teaching day to day. I found a few conversation partners through this service who were a lot of fun to chat with.
The other service is italki.com. This is more for hiring professional teachers or tutors. The whole site is arranged so that you can see who is trustworthy by how many sessions they have done and if they have qualifications or not. The rates are extremely reasonable as well.
Another option some people recommend is having a girlfriend or boyfriend that is a native speaker. I know it might seem like you are using someone, but this can be quite helpful because you are motivate to keep learning so that you can communicate better with your partner. And hopefully your partner is someone that you comfortable speaking with and making mistakes around as well.
Importance of Production
The JLPT tends to take some criticism because it doesn’t actually prove that you can produce the language. On the test, only passive skills are tested – reading and listening. However, I think in order to pass the higher levels you do need some ability to produce the language. And production doesn’t just automatically spring from doing a lot of work with passive skills. It is something that needs to be practiced.
Training your head to do a certain task requires feedback; you need to know when you have made a mistake and when you are perfect in order to hone your skills. The faster the feedback the faster you will learn. Of course answering practice test questions over and over again will also help you by giving you that feedback you need, but producing the language allows for a lot more feedback that is more personalized to the kinds of mistakes you are making.
It is also a lot faster. You know right then, in real time, that you have made a mistake (if someone is correcting you or just by facial expressions). You don’t have to bother checking the answers in the back of the book, you just know instantly when you goof up. It is pretty handy
One thing is for sure. Just studying grammar rules is not going to improve your knowledge very efficiently because it doesn’t allow for any feedback. You have to quiz yourself by trying to make sentences of your own, do drill questions, or even practicing translating some key phrases. These can all help you get an idea of what you are doing wrong and right.
How about you?
Do you practice speaking on a regular basis? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.
This is just an excerpt from the JLPT Study Kit. Inside the kit, you’ll also find:
- Different kinds of activities to use to study Japanese
- A powerful, effective, and free program I use every day to time-box.
- Effective steps to scheduling out your studies
- 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!