5 Habits That Helped Me Learn Japanese (And Pass N1)

Like many this past December I sat down for the N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It was not my first time taking the N1- I’d failed it by a small margin the previous year (I bombed the vocabulary section yet inexplicably performed well everywhere else). With the bad memory of failing the test last time still fresh in my mind, it was to my shock and relief that I was able to pass it this time around. (My vocabulary score was still mediocre)

I’ve written a post previously about mistakes I’d made studying Japanese in the past. I’d like to put a more positive spin on that post and write a little bit about some things I feel like I did that helped me get the N1.

I Studied Almost Every Day:

When writing about my two major mistakes studying Japanese, I mentioned how I relied way too much on online flashcards. Granted, I don’t dislike flashcards by any means, especially when they are sentences rather than words without context. Unfortunately the cards I loved so much were just that, just words with the English equivalent on the back. For my first year and a half or so I that crippled my ability to speak, listen, or do anything useful in Japanese. But, the one merit from that bad habit was that I learned how to study, at least a little bit, every day.

During that time, I took the pressure off of myself by thinking “I don’t really have to study hard, I’ll just flip through my flash cards and just look at words”. I think this is an underrated strategy. Equally as important as studying every day, is finding ways to take the stress out of all the work. Although I criticize my past self for not studying the “right way”, it was my casual attitude about it all the kept me with it for that first year. Picking up a new skill is like exercise: you should start off at a comfortable pace and gradually increase the intensity in order to build consistency.

I Started Out With A Role Model:

When we start a new project or first learn a skill, I think having a role model carries the same value as having a goal. Especially when you’re young and don’t really have a concept of “starting with an end in mind”, having someone we want to mold ourselves after is often the next best thing.
When I first began studying Japanese in high school, I had a role model in my older sister. My sister had graduated college with a Japanese Minor, had spent a year abroad in Tokyo, and became a JET teaching English in Kyoto. I was not a very academically successful student, so I’d always looked up to my sister’s discipline and ambition. To fifteen-year-old me her life in Japan seemed magical and exotic beyond words. I didn’t really have any idea what it meant to travel to another country and learn a language. Knowing my sister was working hard in Japan as a result of her hard work, I was inspired to keep going.

These days my sister is back home pursuing a different field within education, but I’ve found a new role model watching Japanese learners on Youtube who can speak far better than I can. For example I will never speak as well as Dogen.

I Took The Test Every Year (Whether I Was Actually Prepared Or Not):
After I first passed the JLPT N3 in December 2015, every year following I would take the JLPT. Of course, the JLPT is not a free exam. (In the United States it cost me about $70 to sign up) But knowing that at a specified date I would have to take the exam again was a daily motivator that kept me consistent with my studies. Taking the JLPT every year was also a very valuable experience for me because it legitimized the efforts I was making to learn. I would be taking the exam alongside Japanese majors, working professionals, and hobbyists like myself. Knowing we were all taking the same exam despite our backgrounds made me feel like I wasn’t just some eccentric studying half-heartedly. Passing that exam and holding that certificate made me look back on my previous years of study and know that it wasn’t a waste of time.
It also goes without saying, but taking exams over and over again will make the process easier each subsequent time. Much like a driving exam that many people have to take twice in order to pass, just knowing what will be on the exam will be a huge relief the second time you take it.

Although there’s a lot of debate on the topic, I think the JLPT is a great goal for beginners. It emphasizes vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening, so in order to pass you can’t just pigeonhole yourself into just one topic. If you’re just starting out, the lowest level of the JLPT (N5), is a great goal for the end of your first year. There are tons of free resources online that can get you started on picking up the foundational grammar and vocabulary. On Youtube check out Nihongonomori and Japanesepod.

I Made Japanese A Part Of My Everyday Life:

After I graduated high school I lived in Japan on and off for the next three years. Nothing is better for language acquisition than living in the country where the language is spoken, but what for this post I’d like to talk about what I did when I came back to the United States.
When I decided to come back home and start university I knew that I’d lose my Japanese if I didn’t keep up with it every day. My dream was to pass the N1 before I graduated. For me, that meant that it wouldn’t be enough to just study for an hour or two a day anymore. I wanted to be either actively or passively taking in Japanese as often as I could.
These days I listen to the news in Japanese during my commute, listen to Japanese music while I work, and chat daily with Japanese-speaking friends through LINE or phone apps line Tandem and HelloNative. I spend much less time studying intensively. I would recommend trying to find some ways to gradually sneak Japanese into your daily life. If you’re just starting out for example, I highly recommend trying to pick out words from Japanese songs you already listen to, and pick up vocabulary through osmosis. Personally, I’ve been listening to a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

You never really know what consequences will come from the decisions you make. When I first started studying Japanese, it felt like a game. Every time I learned a new kanji, or understood a word I heard in a song or anime, it felt like a small level up. These small achievements would slowly snowball into me getting the confidence to try living in Japan. It wasn’t until then that I made Japanese-speaking friends, and tried looking for work that I could imagine a future where I was using Japanese every day as part of my career. Whether Japanese for you ends up being something similar, or just a hobby, I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to contact me about anything I addressed in this post, such as preparing for the JLPT or living in Japan.

All the best!


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