Japanese Language Drills, are they good or bad?

Japanese Language Drills, are they good or bad? post image

Drilling is pretty popular in Japan. There are even some well-paid lecturers that preach a very drill focused approach for learning a language. And it seems to work or at the very least is incredibly popular.

And in the old days, language drills were king.  Language learning wasn’t seen as anything different than another subject. You simply memorize all the facts and regurgitate them when needed like history class or science. It was taught pretty much the same way as anything else.

It makes sense right? It’s just another subject, so why not treat it like that.

And there are numerous self study books that emphasize that. Do drills and more drills and you will finally get it. Or if you are studying by yourself, you might think that is what you do because you did it in school.

But, modern English teaching textbooks, don’t mention drills.  They tend to shy away from them in favor of more natural use of the language. In my CELTA training, generally speaking, I was taught that drilling should be limited to practicing words and phrases that are difficult to say quickly. So it is more of an emphasis on pronunciation and intonation then the actual use of the language.

Although drilling is sometimes a great tactic for lazy teachers, or teachers that have to teach specifically to a test that requires regurgitation. I found myself in that predicament once with a large group of public servants that had to take a standard test ‘to increase their English proficiency.’

By proficiency in the language, they meant that the employees could translate set phrases they were given before the test and fill in missing words to other phrases they practiced. At no time were they required to produce something or read a passage for comprehension. It was a cruel joke; what happens when drilling and standardized testing goes too far. But, it doesn’t always have to be that extreme.

These days, in progressive classrooms, a lot of teachers are using Tasked Based Learning or TBL for short. TBL involves giving an example of task to a student, checking comprehension of that task, then asking them to perform the task. For example, your task could be writing a postcard to your friend. First, the teacher shows a postcard for you to read and asks you questions about it to check your comprehension. Then, the teacher points out some key phrases to use and sets you loose on writing your on postcards. It’s very real world and something students can really get into because they understand how it fits in.

But is drilling really that bad? Should you abandon it completely? After all, it is used a lot in Japan, so it can’t be that bad can it? Well, it really depends on what you use it for. It definitely isn’t a cure all for language learning, and it shouldn’t dominate your studies, but it does have certain very specific roles. Let’s go over the good and the bad.


Drilling, in its purest form at least, is not really teaching you how to use it. You are simply memorizing information, which can later be used as a kind of mental dictionary or reference tool to help you make sentences in the future. You can think of it as carrying around a little guide with you wherever you go. But just as you can’t learn to golf well simply by reading golf magazines, you can’t learn to speak Japanese well without actually using it and making some mistakes.

Drilling tends to be pretty repetitious and boring. Too much drilling can be simply soul crushing and lead you to hate learning a language. Language learning really comes down to motivation. That will probably always be your biggest challenge to your language learning, not kanji or complicated Japanese grammar rules, it simply be your motivation to keep going which could get smacked down by needless drilling.

Drilling emphasizes the use of patterns – how to say X.  But often times it doesn’t give you much context.  Do I use this phrase in every day conversation or is less common than that?  Would I use it with my friends?  A good grammar book might tell you those things, but its hard to actually learn context without using it or reading it in a real situation.  You will have a hard time getting a grasp on the appropriateness of a particular phrase without actually using it and seeing how it works.

In the classroom, a teacher would ask questions to help you understand the context and appropriateness.  For example, when would you use this phrase?  Is it formal?  Is it a happy expression?  Are you excited?  But, if you are doing self-study you might skip over that or end up misunderstanding the context.


Speaking drills can provide some raw practice for students to build confidence and this could lead to them speaking more.  Drills can sometimes act as that push your mom gave you when you were too afraid to jump in the pool.  Once you were in the pool, you were fine, but the mental barrier of being on dry land and submerged might be pretty steep for some.  Speaking drills as mindless as they might be at times can provide a stress-free jump into the water and give students a feeling that they can speak more than they previously thought they could, because most students can speak better, than they think they can.

Drilling can be good for Japanese kanji.  By repeated drilling you train you muscle memory to quickly write kanji without you having to consciously think of every stroke.  This is handy for taking speedy notes, something you will need for the test, or for meetings if you plan on working in a Japanese company.  This is a huge weakness for me.  I can read kanji fairly quick, but write them embarrassingly slow, which leads to me jotting things down in hiragana.  That makes for difficult reading later.  If you have the time, drilling the writing of whole words (not just one single kanji, but a real word) can be pretty helpful.

It has also been proven that repeatedly listening or reading to the same material can lead to increased comprehension with similar material.  So if you read a book a few times (3 to 4 times) that will translate to you being able to read a book with a similar topic faster.  I’ve noticed this reading the Harry Potter series and other books.  Once you get used to particular style, you get used to patterns and vocabulary which makes reading material with the same style easier and easier.


Drilling can be used in certain situations to a great effect, but can’t be the only thing.  You really need to keep your studies balanced or you will be walking around with a huge ‘mental guide’ in your head, but won’t be able to use it very fast.  Remember that drilling is best for small chunks of the language that will be repeated.  For instance, drilling kanji can come in handy because you won’t have to think your way through writing each stroke, you can just ‘tell’ your hand to do it.

Vocabulary over-drilling is a serious problem. Tools like Memrise and Anki can be extremely powerful.  They provide feedback with numbers and metrics where you can see that you are making progress, and you are.  But realize that you only building up your mental dictionary, not real world use with the vocabulary.  I know a few folks on Memrise that must spend hours a day acquiring points.  It can be addictive, but it isn’t the only learning you need to be doing.

In order to master a language you need to have lots of exposure to massive amounts of information so that you can form, test, and reform your feel for the language until you have hammered it out.  Taking a multi-pronged approach to studying, by doing some reading, listening, chatting with natives, and vocabulary drilling, can help you be the most successful.  Try to balance it out as much as you can.

Do you drill?

What kind of drilling do you do?  Is it effective?  Are you preparing for the December test?  If so, don’t miss Month 9 of the JLPT Guide.

Photo by Samuel M Livingston

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Craig October 8, 2015, 1:36 pm

    It depends on your goals. Certainly, the JLPT has a finite set of kanji, vocabulary, and grammar. As such, one who knows those finite set of items, certainly, has a good chance of passing the test.

    Yet, sometimes, one cannot “see the forest for the trees.” Mastery of the single elements of Japanese doesn`t always translate into an understanding of readings. I think it is fair to say most folks struggle with the reading section of the exam.

    An aside, I took a YMCA advanced course a few years back. I was crushed daily by the Chinese students. Seriously, I was CRUSHED by them, even the lazy ones. Yet, we all went to lunch down the street at the local McD`s one day, and NOT one of those kids could order a cheeseburger and fries from the place. Because, of course, when the staff asked, `For here or to go?` they had no idea what she was saying, as it was not in the `books.` Kids who easily passed N1 later that July…

    I have no doubt they mocked me daily in class. But, after that, they knew there was `book` Japanese, and there was `street` Japanese. And, they knew which one let them eat a freakin` burger…

    • Clayton MacKnight October 9, 2015, 2:13 pm

      Yeah, I run into this problem a lot. For instance, I’m currently translating a lot of English into Japanese for a huge project, and I keep forgetting how to say things the most ‘proper’ ‘by-the-book’ way. I have had a lot of discussions with my wife about what is and isn’t standard. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot!

  • Sherry February 24, 2016, 4:53 pm

    I passed N1 on my first try (2015.12 and I got 158/180) and it’s my frist time taking any JLPT test. I started learning Japanese from 08/2014. I got 60/60 in grammar and vocabulary, then 49/60 in the reading section and 48/60 in the listening section. I have never been to Japan and I have no close friend/relative who speaks Japanese. So I improved my Japnese in a really short amount of time even by Chinese’s standard (I am a native speaker of Chinese who lives in the US). I did that all by myself ( I didn’t take any Japanese lessons in real life). When I took JLPT test last December in Seattle, when I was waiting outside the classroom and one student came up to me and spoke to me in Japanese. I couldn’t understand him, so he switched to speak to me in English and asked which level I was going to take. I told him that I am going to take N1. I could sense his utterly surprise. I think he must feel the same way that Criag (above commenter) felt about his Chinese classmates. I went ahead tell him that I have only been studying Japanese for 1.5 years and he was shocked. I listened to him and other American students speaking Japanese outside the classroom and I knew that my ability to speak Japanese was/is at much lower level than them. However, I think I was most likely to score higher than most of them in actual exam since Chinese students- myself included were so used to drilling. Drilling is the best when your goal is to get a high score in the exam. The person I met on the exam day told me that he failed N1 twice despite he had been studying Japanese for years and he needed to pass it in order to continue his study in Japan. I think if someone’s goal is to pass an exam, learning a language naturally is not that effective. One probably needs at least 4 years or longer to score as high as I did in N1 without drilling (especially in the vocabulary and grammar section).

    On the other hand, if one’s goal is to speak like a native speaker and express him or herself freely Japanese. Drilling isn’t the way to go. After I passed N1, I no longer try to remember a dictionary. XD So I went to a website called italki.com, started to take lessons through Skype and talk with native speakers of Japanese. I think that’s when I realized that the drill I did was not totally useless. I know those words exist and I just don’t know the exact context when I can use them. With skype lessons, I get to try to use those words in conversations and get instant feedbacks from my teachers. I have no doubt that with language learning, everyone needs a little bit of both (like you said). Just like I need to learn some real-life Japanese, the student I met at the test center needs to remember ” a dictionary”. After all, language learning is a journey without a real ending, I have been learning English like forever, I still encounter new things daily. I doubt there is a thing called over-studying when it comes to one’s vocabulary, though. when you reach a certain level, the only thing stands between you and the native speaker is most likely to be the vocabulary.

    This is probably the longest comment I have ever made on any website. XD. I have been thinking about it for a long time- what is the most efficient way to learn a language. After all, we are all impatient when it comes to learning.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 25, 2016, 2:35 pm

      Thanks for sharing such great information. That seems lot like my experience as well. If you do a lot of reading and drilling you can sail through the test, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are fluent. I’ve just never had the time to sit down and concentrate enough to do that.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Cory July 4, 2022, 2:15 pm

    I would say drilling is important for anyone who wants to speak, read, listen, or in any way interact with Japanese. Unless you have a perfect memory, that is. The fact is that without repeated exposure to the same thing over and over until it sticks in your long-term memory, you just don’t build up a working source of language to communicate with. The way I see it, people who have drilled until they can pass the reading sections of the JLPT with ease, have in face NOT DRILLED ENOUGH.

    They didn’t drill their speech.
    How can it even count as drilling if you don’t drill every aspect? You aren’t drilling your reading if you’re just drilling words, not sentences. You aren’t drilling your grammar if you are looking at a grammar point, not a full example. You aren’t drilling your listening unless you have repeated audio. And, of course you aren’t drilling your speech unless you are SPEAKING. Drilling is not the problem. People are not drilling all the way.
    It’s true though; drilling is dull. It’s more interesting when your example sentences start you off with daily used expressions or silly scenarios that show you important grammar in a context that you’ll remember even if you’ll never say it. Many of my friends can’t stick with drilling though. Apparently they order in English somehow. I always use Japanese so I never knew how many people speak English here. I think if they could fight to a higher level where they can drill books like mentioned above or re-watch anime, they could stick with it easier. When you’re low level though, immersion in native material is really overwhelming and demotivating though, so I don’t suggest it to them. I’m trying to get them to try italki and maybe their teacher will find something that works for them.
    At the end, it’s your study journey, your learning style, and your learning goals. Many popular apps just don’t work for me. I hate WaniKani and Memrise bored me to death. Yet I can sit through a 30 min Anki session, 20 min Quizlet session, and a 20 grammar lesson every day. People are just wired different.
    The real fact is that doing is learning. Whatever method people use, Doing it and doing it consistently is key. If you want to speak, then speaking, Any speaking, will make you better at speaking. It doesn’t matter if you’re chatting to your cat about the weather. You’re getting better at talking about weather.
    Let’s keep learning. Every day.

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