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, month 6, month 7, month 8 and month 9 before continuing.
As a kid you probably dreamed of going into space, becoming an astronaut. How cool would it be to be standing on the moon looking down on all of humanity taking it all in. But, you’ll notice one thing about all astronauts. They are generally a bit older. The youngest American astronaut was 32.
Why? Well to become an astronaut you generally have to go to school to get your Masters degree, then go through a year or two of basic training, and finally 2 years or more of mission specific training. You need to know a lot of stuff from medical treatment to piloting an extremely expensive one-of-a-kind machinery. Even those with ‘the right stuff’ have to go through years of training. You need to master it, before they let you go up there.
A study last year, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, provides an interesting clue as to why over-learning can be a huge benefit. Assistant professor Alaa Ahmed and her 2 colleagues instructed study subjects to move a cursor on a screen by manipulating a robotic arm. They measured the amount of oxygen breathed in and the amount of carbon dioxide they exhaled in order to measure how much energy they were using.
As you can probably guess, they used less energy the more practice they did because they were able to refine their movements more and more over time. They were becoming more skilled at the task and hence used less energy accomplishing it, about 20% less actually.
But, the real magic happened after they had refined their movements. When the decline in muscle activity had stabilized, when the observers could see no improvement in coordination of the robotic arms, the energy they used still continued to decrease. What is going on here?
Ahmed theorizes that even after you have fine-tuned your muscle movements, your brain is fine-tuning its neural pathways making them more efficient. The brain uses an incredible amount of energy after all, an estimated 20% of your calorie intake, and it makes sense that through repeated practice, it could get more efficient at doing its job too.
This decreased use of energy means that energy can be used for other things. Once a soccer player has mastered how to dribble the ball down the field, she can focus on other things like who is moving in to block her or who she can pass to. With enough practice, all of these activities take less and less effort so that they are simply automatic.
And that is what you want to do with your Japanese. You want to make it automatic. When you get into that test, there are going to be a lot of factors you need to deal with that you don’t normally deal with in the real world – things like time limits and not being able to ask to listen to something again. You don’t want to be using up effort thinking about and trying to recall grammar information or certain vocabulary words. These things should be as effortless as possible. You want to fortify and streamline these neural pathways in your head.
In order to make it automatic, you need to ‘sharpen the sword’. It takes a lot of effort to build a sword at first, the craftsman most bend the metal on top of itself several times, when making a katana. All that takes a lot of effort. But, even the strongest sword is not effective if it is not sharpened properly.
4 levels of knowledge
When you learn anything new, including Japanese, there are essentially 4 levels of knowledge that you have to go through to become a master – passing knowledge, reference-able, at-hand, and embedded. You need to work through each stage to get to the top. There aren’t any real shortcuts, despite what some people might tell you. However, there are some ways that are a lot easier than others.
1st Stage – Passing Knowledge
If you have seen a word or drilled it a few times, you probably have a good passing knowledge of it. You would be able to recall it most of the time when drilling, and you could probably understand its meaning if you read it in a passage with a lot of context. This is a very superficial understanding of the word. If you heard it out of the blue, you might have a hard time recalling its meaning right away.
You also can’t really use it at this time. During production of the language (writing or speaking) you would probably not be able to pull up this word or grammar point. You are also most likely going to struggle to understand it in a listening passage on the test. But it is there in your head, faintly.
2nd – in your Mind’s Dictionary (reference-able)
At this stage, you are able to dig the word or grammar point up when needed, but it takes some hesitation to do so. You have to search through your mind looking for it, much like you would look up a word in a dictionary. This causes a lot of stops and starts in conversation.
During listening you might find that you can listen to the words and phrases and slowly decode them, but you are not able to listen to a particularly long passage due to the fact that you need to take some time to process everything that is coming in. The quick response questions (usually the 4th part of the listening section) could be quite daunting for you because you need to process everything slower than normal.
3rd – in your Tool Belt (at-hand)
This is when the word or grammar point is always right there, ready to be used. you have a pretty good grasp of its meaning and what kind of situations it should be used in and you can easily recognize it in writing or by listening to it. You will also be able to use it in conversation with decent accuracy.
You will probably be able to use it on a regular basis and feel pretty comfortable with it, but there will often be times when native speakers will feel you are not using it quite right or using it with the wrong connotation. Basically, it is a part of your vocabulary and usable, but it might sound a little awkward at times. You will probably be able to define it easily, but have trouble comprehending its exact meaning in a particular reading passage.
4th – Embedded in your Mind
At this point you have mastered the vocabulary or grammar point. It has become so automatic that there is hardly any processing time between when you read it or hear it and when you understand the meaning. There will still be a slight delay; it is very rare to be able comprehend two different languages at the same speed. However, at this point you will be incredibly comfortable with this word or grammar point and be able to use it almost flawlessly.
Mastery is a bit hard to obtain because it takes a lot reading and use to reach this point, but once you have really made this automatic it is a great feeling to have. You will no longer struggle with meanings, but instead read and listen to material comfortably.
For me, there are moments when I am in the middle of conversation and I realize that I am no longer thinking about phrasing or vocabulary anymore, I’m just speaking. And that is truly a great feeling to have. Instead of having to get stressed out and ask for people to repeat, you can simply enjoy speaking worry-free.
Face your biggest fears
In this final stretch, it is best to isolate those little grammar points that have always been a thorn in your side and try to move them from ‘passing knowledge’ to mastery or at least in your tool belt. To do that, try to go back through your materials and pick out the points that have been giving you the most trouble. What did you keep missing again and again? What could you never really get a hold of?
If you followed my advice for reviewing and going through grammar books, you have hopefully circled the key grammar points that you have been getting wrong a lot. It’s time to really focus on these points, as much as you might not want to, now is the time to bring them into focus and take a little extra time with them.
There are some grammar points that will inevitably always drive you nuts. Some big ones are things like the wa particle vs the ga particle or ni vs de or simply particles in general. If you are at a higher level, expressions can be a bit of fit to deal with as well. One that always seemed to trip me up was wakedewanai vs wakeganai. They always seemed so similar but they are actually quite different.
For vocabulary, you have a couple of different options. Memrise has a new feature that isolates difficult words for you so that you can drill them more often, allowing you a little extra time to master them. If you use Anki, it will kick words out ever so often that it calls ‘leeches’. They all give you the same thing – a list of words, that for whatever reason, refuse to sink in for you.
Invest the time now
With just over a month to go before the big test, you might feel pressured to make the most of your time and wonder that all this over learning might be a waste of time but it isn’t. You really do need to be confident with your skills so that you can race through the test and not get hung up on the little things.
Every minute you invest now will not only improve your test score, it will also make you a better speaker and user of the language. Keep with it. You are almost there.
What do you need to over learn?
What is bugging you the most? What do you need to refine before the big day? Tell me about it in the comments below.
This is just an excerpt from the JLPT Study Kit. Inside the kit, you’ll also find:
- How to master and over-learn vocabulary and grammar points
- How to kill of leeches for good
- How to write great mnemonics that help words stick
- 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!
Thanks for the inspiration in the final stretch of prepping! I’m putting a lot of effort in reading, and speeding up in general.
For reading-strategies, there are a few ways to attack these texts;
– reading questions, then text; then answers
– reading questions and answers, then text and answers again
– reading questions, grasps through answers for keywords, then text and finally answers
Which would you recommend? The second was recommended by my prep book, but reading the answers thoroughly at the first time takes too much valuable time.
Some people also claim you don’t have to read the complete test, just around the underlined sentence / words. But usually those questions come with a final question about the writer’s opinion. I find it difficult to chose the answer without reading it completely…. Any ideas?
Well, it is hard for me to answer this quickly, but basically, there are different strategies for different kinds of questions and different types of readers.
The first strategy is usually the best for a variety of reasons. It won’t bias your comprehension; it takes the least amount of time, etc… But, the second one could be effective if you are faster reader. My recommendation is to test out both, and see how your mind works. Do the answers bias you? Do you run out of time? Then use the first one.
The last strategy is effective if you just don’t have the reading speed that you should to get through the test in good time. You can ‘cheat’ and look around the underlined sentences/words. This strategy tends to get less and less effective as you move up in levels though, so it is not a crutch you should get used to using.