One of the things I have had in mind to do in my career break is to improve my Japanese.
My current Japanese level is very vague. I passed the JLPT N4 (equivalent to the upper elementary level, or A2/B1 in CEFR level) in 2016 — but since then I haven’t taken any serious studying besides the occasional pattern: download an interesting app related to Japanese learning; use the app for a week or two; work gets busy; forgot to use the app at one point and never use it again (to the extent that’s it’s still installed till now).
As I am now on a career break, thus having no excuse like “work gets busy” anymore, I have decided to seriously improve my Japanese this year.
To “gauge” the improvement, I decided to take the JLPT N3 (equivalent to Intermediate Level, or B2/B2 in CEFR level). Signing up for the exam is not easy here. The quota is limited here in Indonesia, and the exam is very popular. The website always crashes when registration is open. Thankfully I managed to sign up and secure a seat for the July exam.
The exam result has just recently come out. I passed the exam, though not with an outstanding score, I acquire the N3 certificate nevertheless. It really gives the assurance that I’ve actually made a progress in improving my Japanese.
In this post, I want to share how I studied, especially on the resources that I use and how I incorporate habit building to ensure I study Japanese every day (well, almost every day) — with the JLPT N3 in mind as a goal/checkpoint.
What is JLPT?
JLPT stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or in Japanese it’s referred as Nokken (shorten from Nihongo Nouryouku Shiken) is the most popular test to evaluate one’s level of Japanese. It has 5 levels, from N5 as the easiest to N1 as the hardest. I won’t go into more details about JLPT, but if you’re interested and want to know more I’d recommend reading an article on Tofugu: What is The JLPT?
My Learning Style
It might help to describe a bit about my learning style before jumping to the resources that I use to study Japanese.
I mentioned earlier that I passed the N4 level around 6 years ago, and even then my learning of the Japanese language is a mix between formal classroom study and self-study. After passing the N4, I dropped (i.e. didn’t continue) all forms of classroom study. Since then, I've continued to learn Japanese by myself in my leisure time. Before this year, it was really just a “hobby” — studying Japanese on the side with no particular goal in mind, with no structured habit or so.
Only by this year, I decided to study more seriously, exposing myself to more of the Japanese language, and researching the appropriate resources that suit my learning style.
Also, I’d really recommend reading this write-up by u/SuikaCider that they shared on Reddit: A Year to Learn Japanese. It has incredible details on stages of learning Japanese that I wished I read in my early years of Japanese learning.
Alright, without further ado, here’s a list of resources that I’ve been using. Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with any of the products, and these are what work for me (and they may not work for everyone).
- WaniKani. A web application for learning kanji and vocabulary that I wished I use when I started learning Japanese. It’s not free, but I think it’s really worth it. It sets you up with a ready-to-use SRS system and mnemonics, and you can just focus on what really matters: learning & memorizing kanji. I’ve fairly learned more kanji in the 8 months of using WaniKani than in the 8 years of Japanese study (well, to be fair the studying in those 8 years wasn't intensive).
- KaniWani. This is a companion website to WaniKani. Where reviews in WaniKani present us a kanji (or vocab) where we have to answer with its meaning and reading, KaniWani presents us the English vocab and asks us to answer in Japanese. I’m not sure if this helps with the JLPT exam, as in the exam it’s more about comprehension (input) rather than output — but if you’d like to be able to reproduce words, knowing the English equivalent, I’d still recommend using KaniWani along with WaniKani.
- Bunpro. Another web application (yeah! I love these apps) that also uses the SRS method, but for memorizing grammar points (bunpou, hence the app name bunpro). The grammar points are also nicely organized according to their JLPT level, so you can jump straight to N3 if you already know N5 & N4 grammar.
- Shin Nihongo 500 Mon N3 (新にほんご５００問N3). A friend that has already passed N3 kindly lent me this exercise book. The book — as the title indicates — has 500 questions on kanji characters (文字), vocabulary (語い), and grammar (文法). What I really like is how the book is organized: every page has a total of three questions, one for each language aspect, and on the back of the page we can immediately read the correct answer and a brief explanation. You’re expected to work on 15 questions (5 of each language aspect) each day, and by the end of every week, you would count the number of correct answers. If you only have a few correct answers, you’re encouraged to repeat and go through the questions all over again.
- Nihongo Soumatome N3 Dokkai (日本語総まとめN3読解). The Shin Nihongo 500 Mon that I mentioned previously is actually a companion to the main 総まとめ (soumatome) set for JLPT study. The set has five books for each JLPT level covering grammar, kanji, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and listening comprehension. I only have the book for practicing reading comprehension (dokkai / 読解). I actually bought the book after I’d already taken the N3 exam. In the exam, I had to randomly guess the answers to around 8 reading questions because time was running out. Knowing that I really need to improve my reading speed, I bought the book and have been doing the reading exercise daily since then.
- YouTube. I mostly use YouTube to watch grammar explanations when I had a hard time understanding the grammar point on Bunpro. For grammar, I’d recommend the 日本語の森 (Nihongo No Mori) channel. Aside from learning grammar, I also recommend watching Manga Fermilab. They present and discuss informative things using manga videos with Japanese dub, so you can learn reading and listening at the same time while also learning interesting topics.
- Anime. I used to be an avid anime watcher when I was younger, and haven't watched that much for some time. But because of the pandemic, I’ve recently just started watching them again. I watch most anime on Netflix and Bstation (a.k.a Bilibili). When I watch them, I try to turn off the subtitle or turn on the Japanese closed caption whenever it’s available. Even when I just want to relax and ended up using the English subtitle, I still get an “aha” moment whenever I recognized a new word that I’d just recently learned.
- Novels / Stories / Manga in Japanese. What I have read (or currently reading) in Japanese so far:
- 星の王子さま（Hoshi no Ouji Sama). It’s the Japanese version of "The Little Prince” (originally in French I believe). I picked up the book because it’s fairly short and I’ve already read the English version a couple of times. I also listened to the audiobook, but unfortunately, the edition between the audiobook and the book that I own is different, so I couldn’t read along with the audio.
- Japanese Short Stories for Beginners. I think this is one of those books which gives you a sense of accomplishment for early Japanese learners. It consists of 20 short stories, and at the end of each story, there are questions to ensure your comprehension.
- Intermediate Japanese Short Stories. This is from the same publisher of Japanese Short Stories for Beginners, it has the same format but consists of only 10 short stories with more difficult words.
- Happiness (ハピネス) Volume 1. This is a manga I read along with the WaniKani book club. I haven’t continued to the next volume yet, as the story does not quite suit my taste. But it does not have much dialogue, so it’s a very nice light read for people who want to try reading manga in Japanese for the first time.
- Yoru Kafe (夜カフェ) Volume 1. This is a light novel that I read also as part of the WaniKani book club. Unfortunately, I’ve only managed to read up to chapter 6, and I haven’t picked it up again because I'm not engaged enough with the story. I may pick it up again when I’m in the mood later (and maybe ended up like it, who knows).
- Podcast. I also sometimes try to listen to Japanese podcasts. My favorite podcast is called Nihongo Switch. It is intended for intermediate to advanced learners and is 100% in Japanese. It also helps that the host provides transcripts for each episode on her website, so I can read along the transcript while listening to the episode.
- JLPT N3 Listening Exercises available on jtest4you. For listening exercises intended for the JLPT exam, I use this website. It has around 22 sets, though I didn’t actually go through it all by the day of the exam. The exercises help to give a sense of what the listening section would be like in the exam.
- JLPT N3 Practice Test & Workbook. I use this practice test and workbook around two weeks before the exam to get me used to the exam sections and ensure I can adhere to the time limit (this is when I’ve also realized that I’m still slow on the reading section).
That seems to be quite a lot of resources, right? Luckily (or unfortunately?) for Japanese learners, the resource available online are abundant. But that also means there is too much to explore, and we might be compelled to keep “searching” until we got the “right” one for us. Or even trying to study using too many things at the same time. I think it’s best to just stick to two or three things for a certain period of time, like a week or two. If you feel like you’re improving, then continue. If you feel like it’s not helping with your study, feel free to drop it or pick it up again for a later time.
Here’s the rough timeline of my journey toward the JLPT N3 Exam:
- End of January: Researching and trying out several resources and decided which one to use continuously
- February: Start using WaniKani & KaniWani
- March: Start using Bunpro
- April: Sign up for the JLPT
- May: Start working on the exercises in Shin Nihongo 500 Mon N3
- June: Try out the JLPT N3 Practice Test & Workbook
- July: Took the JLPT exam. I almost couldn’t take the exam, because I was recovering from COVID (I caught it 2 weeks before the exam, yikes, such luck!). But in the end, I managed to recover and was able to take the exam.
- August: JLPT Result — Unexpectedly I passed! As expected, my lowest score is in the reading section: with only 26/60 points (thankfully the sectional passing grade is 19 points). I guess the fact that I passed was contributed by how I did in the other sections — I got 36/60 and 46/60 for language knowledge (vocab & grammar) and listening respectively. It’s not an outstanding score, I know, but I’m still very happy that I actually passed.
Alright, the post title says “How I Build a Habit”, but really how I did do it – you ask? I have been mostly trying to apply what I’ve learned from reading Atomic Habits — it’s a great book about habit building in general. But TLDR — I try to keep the following principles to build my habit:
- Try to do it every day, even if it’s just a minute. There are days that I’m too lazy and don’t have the motivation to study. This is when I try to remind myself, that even if it’s just a minute — just do it, either by reviewing a single kanji or listening to a short Japanese podcast.
- If I miss a day, don’t sweat — just make sure to pick it up again the next day. If I do end up missing a day without any study, I have to keep it in mind the next day. In order to not break the “habit chain”, I try to not miss a habit more than a day.
- Keep a daily journal. A daily journal really helps to keep track of my progress and gives me a sense of small accomplishment every day. It also supports the previously mentioned mindset to do the habit every day — whenever I have an “empty” log that day, I would have the itch to fill it out by studying even just for a minute.
With those principles in mind, I gradually include the above-mentioned resources in my daily studying schedule. I first started by using only WaniKani every day for a couple of weeks. After I feel that the habit starts to stick (i.e. I don’t need to gather up much effort to start using it each day), I add KaniWani to my daily study. I do the same thing as well for Bunpro and textbooks. In the end, I ended up with the following routine that has settled for quite a while now:
- 5.30 AM — wake up; feed the cat; and go for a walk
- 8.00 AM - 9.00 AM — Brew coffee & breakfast
- 9.00 AM - 10.00 AM — Read any of the designated Japanese reading materials (novels, manga, or textbooks). I also incorporate non-Japanese books (English or Indonesian) for leisure to avoid burnout
- 10.00 AM - 12.00 AM — I start reviewing Kanji, Vocabs, and Grammar on WaniKani, KaniWani, and Bunpro
- 13.00 AM — 16.00 AM — After lunch, I usually pick one (or more) of these: watching Anime, YouTube (either 日本語の森 or FermiLab), and/or listening to some Japanese podcast
- Throughout the day I occasionally checked in to WaniKani/KaniWani/Bunpro every two to three hours to do reviews. Especially at the beginning, I used to do reviews on WaniKani almost every two hours (it was very addictive at the beginning, believe me). But now, I’ve reduced the reviewing time to around once or twice daily.
What to Do Next
There are a couple of things that I’d like to do next:
- Practicing output (i.e. speaking and writing). JLPT doesn’t test speaking and writing ability so even though I’ve passed the exam, I honestly don’t feel comfortable yet if I had to converse 100% in Japanese. This is what I’m trying to work on from now on — I’m currently looking at several options like trying out italki or other similar platforms.
- Road to N2. I haven't stopped using WaniKani and Bunpro even after the exam as I’m aiming for N2 as my end goal (for now). Maybe passing the N2 in December is a bit far-fetched considering the difficulty, but I will try to sit in the December exam just to check how well I’m doing so far. Hopefully, I can write a post soon about my journey towards N2.