Previously I spoke about my experience after studying Japanese for 6 months. It's been a little over a year now, so I'm writing this update to reflect on my progress so far, what I've learned since the last post, and my plans for year 2.
This is a long post, so I've broken it down into a few sections. First to touch on some concepts that have helped me in my language learning, in the hopes that they will help someone else with their studies. Then to go over the list of resources and break down the pace and order of study.
Table of Contents
In the six month review I covered off 'components of the language' and explained a bit about Japanese. This time, I want to touch on some concepts and tools that have been important to learning successfully, and some that have only solidified as 'explainable' in the last six months.
Working Backwards from the Goal
I can hardly claim to have invented this, it's a common sense principle seen in many successful projects in all aspects of life by many people. The idea is that you figure out the goal and work backwards from that to establish everything else. Concretely for this project of 'Learning Japanese':
- I started with my goal - speak and read fluent Japanese
- What would that look like? How would I measure success?
- A Japanese HSFP visa requires 70 points across various areas. You can get 15 points from N1 level certification on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and 10 points from the N2 level. I already have 60 points, so my metric would be to pass JLPT N2. It's not exactly 'fluent' level, but it would be enough to move across to Japan and hit the ground running.
- What milestones can I use to measure my progress?
- There are 5 JLPT levels. Starting at the N5 and working up would be a good way of keeping on track.
- What timeline do I want to achieve this in?
- Based on my career, I probably wouldn't be in a situation to move to Japan for a couple of years. So roughly 2 years would be nice, if that is realistic. After doing some research - yes this appeared doable. I even heard of someone getting to N2 in one year (albeit not while juggling a full time job).
- I then looked up the recommended textbooks that you should study before each level of the JLPT and worked out a timeline based on roughly 6 months per level + 3 months of focused Kanji memorisation = 2.3 years. You can see that in the first column of chart below in the Resources and Order of Study section.
- I worked out what skills could be gained from the textbooks and what wouldn't and filled in the gaps - more reading, more focused kanji memorisation, more listening and pronunciation practice. At this stage I had a list of resources I would need to work through, as well as 6 month 'buckets' of when I should be completing each of them to pass the next JLPT level.
- Finally, as I move into each 6 month period, based on my life plans, I work out when I need to complete each individual chapter or section of the book and put a due date on it. For example I had to complete a chapter per week of Genki 2 in order to get through it in three months and have time for other JLPT N4 study. I plan six months out because any earlier and I would have to redo it as I book holidays or as deadlines relating to other parts of life come up.
That's pretty much it. So far it's been a year and three months and I'm pretty sure I just passed the N4. I'm not optimistic enough to say I'll definitely make my goal - you have to learn more and more vocab and grammar for each level, so it will get harder to keep up. But I know I wouldn't have made it even to the halfway mark if I had started without a clear picture of the goal in mind and the road I needed to travel to get there.
Knowledge vs Fluency
This is a concept that has clarified for me in very recent months as I began more focused conversation and reading practice. Before this, I was permanently in the 'Knowledge' phase. But let me backtrack and explain the two terms.
By Knowledge, I mean the skills of Vocab, Grammar, Kanji and Pronunciation. The foundational 'facts' that you need in order to understand or produce a sentence.
By Fluency, I mean the skills of listening, reading and conversation. Speed of recall and how quickly your brain translates, the ability to keep up with the material.
To begin with, I was constantly in the 'Knowledge' phase. I was focused on learning the vocab and grammar that would be needed in order to 'parse' a sentence, and it was rare to see a sentence composed entirely of words I knew outside of my textbook. More recently I've noted the difference between this and 'Fluency' - the ability to keep up with material assuming you have all the necessary grammar and vocab etc.
You can tell which you need by answering the following question:
- When listening to Japanese (or whatever language it might be), do you recognise every word in the sentence but take too long puzzling over the meaning? Can you successfully work out what sentence 1 means, but by the time you have, they're on sentence 3? Then you need Fluency.
- If you hear enough unknown words or grammar structures that you can't figure out the correct meaning from context, even when written down and given infinite time, then you need more knowledge.
Why is this distinction useful? Focused practice is important, i.e. practicing the things that you know are your weak spots in order to shore them up. Having this distinction allows me to know whether my time is better spent working through a textbook and learning more, or finding some reading/listening/watching materials at my level and gaining more fluency with my existing knowledge.
A meta field is a term I'll use to mean a field of study about another field of study. For example, being an electrician is the trade of manipulating electricity. You can learn to do this on it's own, but an electrician who also studies the field of physics will be better at applying that trade. Another example; the profession of sales is, in a sense, applied psychology. You will be a much better salesman if you have a good grasp of human psychology, whether studied formally or not. Studying maths makes you better at applying math to make the right decisions, which comes in handy... pretty much everywhere.
Coincidentally enough, there is a study of languages and it's called linguistics. I spent a month working through some first and second year linguistics courses and it greatly aided my language studies. I apologise because this will be obvious to anyone out there who has done linguistics, but dictionaries become so much more useful when you can read the correct pronunciation in IPA and flawlessly pronounce a word you've never heard before. Similarly if you have a deeper understanding of the syntax and semantics of the English language, you have a reference point to talk about and understand the complex grammar points in another language.
A concrete example of this is the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. They're treated with different particles in Japanese, and I had a hard time remembering which was which because I had no concept of transitive vs intransitive. After spending time on understanding what that meant and how we classified it in English, it was suddenly easier to remember the difference in Japanese.
So if you're studying a language and don't know linguistics, go brush up. If your goal is something else - figure out if there's an adjacent or 'meta' field of scientific study and go get yourself a basic education in it. If your goal isn't to learn a language (why are you reading this post?) it does still apply. There are many musicians out there who haven't bothered to get an education in musical theory, or audio production, or any of a range of fields studying the science of sound and music. Writers can benefit from literature courses or creative writing courses, which study the analysis and production of written works, respectively. The magic of the internet means you can probably find a free online course to teach you what you need in a few months instead of going to an institution for a few years for a formal qualification.
Resources and Order of Study
I went over a lot of my reasoning in the first post so in this one I want to talk more about the what than the why. What resources have I used so far and am using now? How have they changed since my first post?
I broke down my study into the categories: vocab, grammar, reading, pronunciation, listening, and conversation, in rough order from easiest to hardest to master.
To make it a bit easier to understand, here's a chart plotting my study visually.
Below, I'll go through each of the categories in that chart and link off to the resources mentioned. Most of them should be pretty self explanatory so leave a comment below if you're having trouble understanding the purpose of any particular resource.
Vocabulary and Grammar
- Genki 1 and 2 for N5 and N4 respectively
- Tobira for N3
- Tobira Memrise Courses
- Authentic Japanese for N2
- Remember the Kanji for Kanji
- Remembering the Kanji Course
- I haven't used it myself, but another course I've heard recommended is Kodansha
- Another recommended resource is WaniKani - from what I hear, it takes a lot longer to go through than RTK, but it ties in each Kanji with a lot of vocab and grammar which I imagine is really helpful with retention.
- Human Japanese and Tae Kims guide for alternative explanations of grammar points - it's easier to understand something when it is explained in multiple different ways to you.
- The Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar to supplement gaps on specific points with rigorous explanations and examples. Beginner will be enough through to N4.
- Tadoku Readers to progress through harder and harder reading materials
- Parallel Text books to understand 'real' books for adults.
- A linguistics course to understand phonetics: https://www.udemy.com/introduction-to-linguistics/learn/v4/overview
- Dogen's course on Japanese Pronunciation and Pitch Accent (Patreon)
- NHK News Easy - 'Easy' news of the day, also reading practice
- Native TV - There are many ways to do this. Some suggestions:
Probably the biggest problem with using the JLPT as a proxy for skill level is that there is no 'speaking' or 'conversation' section, so it's possible to pass without ever uttering a word of Japanese. I recommend breaking it out as a separate area of study and self-assessing, as there is no formal test.
- HelloTalk - an app to meet language learners. Find a native Japanese speaker in your area learning English and practice conversation. Hugely important for overcoming the 'comfort barrier' with speaking.
Looking back on one year
Looking back on the first year, some thoughts on my progress so far:
I'm now fluent enough to get by without English for a stretch of hours or days. This surprised me, as I didn't learn at anything near the same speed when I studied French and French is a much easier language. I think the sheer number of hours per day I spent immersing myself in Japanese over the last year helped the connections come faster, as well as the better use of my time and avoiding mistakes I made the first time around.
I'm still a long way from fluent. Yeah I'm contradicting myself here a bit. Even as I grow comfortable with navigating basic conversations, I become more and more aware how much there still is to learn on both the grammar and vocab sides. I couldn't compose a long, run on sentence with complex meanings without considerable time and effort, mostly I speak in sentences with a single 'point' or maybe reason-consequence, or one level of nested meaning.
I could've gone faster. There were plenty of times that I had a slow week on Japanese or did the bare minimum because of other life commitments. If I was focusing on this skill full time, I think I would have passed at least the N3 by now. One can dream...
The Next Six Months
So far I've kept up with and will continue trying to keep up with the plan I laid out above. That means starting on the Tobira textbook before the month is out and then skill specific and N3 specific study. I'm also going on a trip to Japan again in February and I hope to 'immerse myself' in the language as much as possible while I'm there to focus on conversational fluency. Hopefully I'll come back with some interesting stories too.
If you have any corrections, feedback, or thoughts please drop them in the comments below. I'll keep this page updated so in future it remains useful for anyone who wants a systematic and guided roadmap to learning Japanese.
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I've heard anecdotally that many people who have gone for N1 have forgotten most of the grammar required for it because it's unnecessary for business or personal life. I've also heard from others that it's barely enough to read a newspaper. Whether I continue onto N1 is something I can decide after I get to N2 and have a better idea of what N2/N1 really means. ↩︎
Update now I have the results - passed with A's in all 3 categories. Onward to the N3! ↩︎
Often you can work out what an individual new word means, if you know 95% of the sentence. ↩︎
Seriously, go study math. ↩︎
Incidentally this is how you become better at your job too - learn other supplementary skills and use them to set yourself apart from those who learned only as much as they had to. ↩︎
Some of the best creative works of our time are those that take the established tropes of a genre and then subvert them, use them with a masters familiarity, or blend them with the tropes of other genres. The ability to do that comes from meta knowledge about the field you are directly working in, and having the tools to think about the structure of your work. For example - in writing perspective, first person vs third person limited vs third person omniscient. One the one hand, if you haven't formally studied writing, then you might not even realise there are two different third person perspectives, and likely use them inconsistently or incorrectly. However, if you do know what they mean then you have the vocabulary to describe and categorise your work, you have the ability to think about which perspective is the correct one for the story you're telling, and by deeply understanding different use of perspective, you can choose when to mix and match or intentionally use the wrong perspective for literary effect. ↩︎
'It is 5 o clock' has a single direct meaning, whereas 'Do you know if it is 5 o clock?' has a kind of 'nested' or two layer meaning, with our first sentence from before inside a wrapper (Do you know if + [Fact] + ?) to turn it into a question with a specific shade of meaning. Natural sentences in most conversations contain more than one layer of meaning. ↩︎