My apologies for the length of this post; I added to it over several days. I welcome any discussion about anything I mention here. (I would’ve liked to summarize my thoughts here more concisely, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re still working through your thoughts.)
disclaimer: Everyone has different ways of learning. Some of this is sharing my thoughts and some of this is just trying to convince myself.
My new roadmap for Japanese
Starting from this feeling…
…I wanted to put down some thoughts on the current status of my journey, but also thoughts on learning a language in general.
- studied Japanese for years (with classes and self-study = 10+ yrs. I’m slow)
- JLPT: passed N3 in 2019, took N2 in Dec 2022 (but I probably failed it)
- watched plenty of anime and J-dramas w/ english subs
- read plenty of manga (not fully understanding, of course)
- visited Japan several times
- also, probably relevant here, I’m not an avid reader in any language
After taking the JLPT N2, I decided that I needed to revisit my study habits. I’ve done plenty of SRS vocab and SRS grammar, and I’ve read plenty of manga, and I can hold a conversation (albeit a little haltingly). But after taking the N2, I felt that I was underprepared for the test. I read several blog posts on what other people have done, and it seems that improving your reading skill is really key to reaching the next level (N2/N1 level). (Some annoying people say they passed the N2/N1 without studying, or passed with only 6 months of study, but if you read their stories carefully, they’re usually living in Japan and reading a whole bunch of books. So they actually did a lot of studying, just not in a strict traditional sense.)
youtuber passing N1 without 'studying'
This guy is one example of someone who (probably) passed N1 without “studying” but with lots of exposure by 1) living in Japan and 2) reading a lot. (“Studying” is in quotes because he did a lot of activities that took the place of traditional study.)
This also influenced my idea that studying for N2/N1 requires a different approach.
What the JLPT N1 was REALLY Like - YouTube
So, I started thinking more about how reading fits into the “study plan”. One conclusion that I have is that the way to study for N2/N1 is different than for N5/N4/N3 (as it probably should be).
the value of reading a book over studying a book
This blog made me think more about reading to get the gist, rather than reading to understand perfectly.
How to start reading books in Japanese – Inside That Japanese Book
For me, all the SRS apps have been a godsend for boosting my Japanese understanding. Before that, I’d been sorta stuck in an upper-beginner-level understanding of Japanese. Having the SRS apps for vocab, and later grammar, really boosted my understanding of everything. (I should also say that SRS works really well for me but maybe it doesn’t work well for everyone.) Soon after increasing my SRS vocab list to about 3,000 words, I took the N3 and I passed – not easily, but I passed.
Of course, on the heels of that success, I somewhat naively thought that if I continue on that trajectory, that I could pass the N2 without too much trouble. dun-dun-dunnnnn…
It didn’t go so well.
The higher you go, the vocab and grammar become more and more nuanced, and it becomes harder and harder to simply memorize the differences. (But that didn’t stop me from trying!)
But here’s where, in thinking about what to study and where to focus, I think I realized some things.
–There’s tons of advice out there on how to study, but it’s really mostly geared towards beginners and starting your language journey. The things to focus on when you’re a beginner are different than when you’re intermediate or advanced.
– Charts like this [below] give the wrong impression of the phases of studying a language. They make it seem like the study techniques at the beginning are the same as at the end. It doesn’t just keep stacking up forever.
charts: hours to fluency
CEFR and Guided Learning Hours
How long does it take to learn another language? (Part 4) – Self-Study English
Hours Needed to Pass JLPT - Interesting Comparisons between Levels
I’ll give credit to wasabi-jpn for at least including this part: From B2 to C1 level, it’s a period of transition from “learn Japanese” to “learn something in Japanese.”
– I’ve come to the conclusion that, while these pictures are good for setting expectations of just how much work is ahead of you, things like studying vocab/grammar/kanji are just tools for the end goal of reading. You’re not studying vocab just to be able to recognize random words in a book – you’re studying it so that you can read a story (or a news article, or blog, etc). Having knowledge of vocab, grammar, and kanji just makes that next step of reading stories a little less painful (but it doesn’t totally eliminate the pain!).
– As far as the focus of study, I think these kind of charts should be modified like this…
my chart: steps to fluency
(I probably spent too much time making this look pretty)
The idea is:
– At the beginning, you learn tools for reading, but then you transition to learning through reading.
– Things like graded readers are there to help bridge the gap between zero understanding and understanding native material.
– Shaded gradients to indicate that there’s a blend and it’s not a sudden switch from one to the other.
– If you really had to, you could skip the lists and learn everything through simply reading++. Think about it – people could learn second languages even a hundred years ago – it was just more painful. (++ Everything for reading through reading, and everything for talking through talking.)
– I think there’s a parallel with conversation – that you can learn tools for conversation, but all those tools are just to help you have a conversation.
Btw, the feeling in that sketch at the top is from me trying to jump from children’s manga and graded readers to a full-on light novel (時をかける少女) – I made it halfway through, trying to learn and understand every sentence, going at a pace of 2-4 pages per day. But after getting about halfway through, I just burned out and stopped. (This was in Fall 2022.)
Now, one trick that was actually useful to me was to include re-reading pages as part of my daily reading. I would start by reading 2 pages a day, and the next day, I would re-read the previous day’s 2 pages plus 2 new pages. This was surprisingly helpful, because the first day I would struggle through the text, but then the next day I would already understand the ideas and words and be able to read straight through those 2 pages, and then I could have a “success” each day before moving on to the new material – instead of slogging through only new material every day. (I got this idea from the internet, but I don’t remember where.) Of course, the problem that I ran into was that I chose a book where there were sometimes 5-10 new words per page. Really slows down the process. This year, I want step up in reading difficulty more gradually (using learnnatively’s handy-dandy level indicators). I’ve read in other people’s posts that learning 10-100 words per book is a good amount to learn, and that sounds much more doable. (I picked up about 300 words in the first half of 時をかける少女. )
I probably also need to work on putting aside the perfectionist mindset.
Why do we have so much advice surrounding tools?
In today’s world, everything is quantified, standardized, and gamified to the point that we’re all used to having numbered goals in our daily lives. And having these numbers are a convenient way to see and measure progress. But the world wasn’t always that way – and people still learned new languages even hundreds of years ago. How is that possible, right? (being facetious, of course) Well, our learning hardware (our brains) hasn’t changed in the last 100 years, so if we wanted to, we could learn languages through only the methods of reading a lot and speaking a lot. And some people have built a lot of excitement around these “new” methods, such as AJATT and MIA and several youtubers, but really, it’s just the old-school methods with a modern spin to it. When you think of it this way, then things like studying vocabulary lists and grammar lists are really just tools to help you accomplish the big picture goals of reading and conversation. I think everyone gets caught up (me included) in trying to quantify and gamify everything so much, that when faced with the situation where there isn’t a clear status marker or checkpoint, it becomes really frustrating. I think I’ve finally come to the conclusion that no matter how much I study, reading books and having conversations will inevitably be frustrating, and there’s no way around it, but with more practice and time, it gets easier.
Another way to think about it, how many words will you keep memorizing before you’re comfortable enough to stop memorizing? Obviously, you don’t want to keep SRS’ing every single word even when you’re at the N1+ level with a PhD from Tokyo University. At some point, you have to have faith that you will learn words as they come, and if you don’t remember a particular word, then it wasn’t really important.
Now, that said, I think when starting out as a beginner, memorizing words is a great shortcut to gaining understanding fast. You could just learn words as you come across them like a toddler, but that would take forever! Why spend that time when you can SRS your way to large vocabulary in much less time? Personally, I found that SRS vocab was very useful for the first 2,000~3,000 words of the Core 6k words (on the iKnow app). And then ~3,000 thru ~5,000 gradually became less and less immediately useful.
I tried using koohi.com before to study words ahead of, or at least in parallel to, reading books, but, even though I learned a lot of words, I found that it was taking too long to actually read the material.
I debated in my head what’s the best way to approach reading. I get the idea of extrinsic reading – to read for the sake of reading without worrying about the details – but the perfectionist in me has a hard time letting all those details pass by without digging into it. → Maybe a trick of reading is to create word lists but not feel obligated to study them with the books – with the assumption that I’ll re-read the same book in the future after studying the words and therefore it’s the 2nd time reading that there’ll be a payoff. There’ll be a “get the gist” payoff during the 1st time, and there’ll be a “I understood the nuances” payoff during the 2nd reading. (The key being that I will read books knowing that I will probably re-read those books more than once – at least for study purposes.)
I think the hidden message in the fanaticism of tools is that reading a native book or talking to a native speaker is scary.
…But, of course, it’s doing the hard stuff in life that has the biggest payoff.
Maybe another feeling that I’m fighting, with trying to read extensively, is the feeling that “I should be able to read Japanese by now!”. That’s a hard feeling to overcome considering how many years I’ve been exposed to Japanese, but I think (I hope) that by gradually stepping up difficulty level of reading that I’ll be able to overcome that feeling.
“I want to learn a language” and “I want to be fluent” are really too nebulous to be meaningful long-term goals. Everyone learning a language should have a more solid goal to anchor yourself to. Of course, part of the journey of learning a language is realizing what is actually your goal. It could be to read books, to talk to strangers, to live abroad, to enter university, etc, but something that is clear and obvious to anyone. And your goals can shift over time, but a goal is important to help you filter what’s important versus what’s nice to have. (My goals are basically to be able to read native books and to talk to my friends.)
Even though there’s a lot of good ideas within the sea of advice out there, sometimes it’s hard to tell which idea will work for you until you try it. I think that’s also why I keep thinking about what are the general guidelines for learning a language. It can’t be a checklist of things to do reach fluency. Many people give advice that sounds like “just do these 5 things…” (which I suppose is partly an effect of the incentive to make clickbait on the internet). So then, for me, I like my new idea of thinking of learning Japanese as just a few buckets, Reading Japanese and Speaking Japanese, and then all the tips, tricks, and tools fall in those general buckets. And if a particular tool is not working for you anymore, then move on and pick up another tool.
sampling of internet advice:
Intermediate Japanese Plateau: How to Conquer
Learn Advanced Japanese: 10 Tips to Power Through Plateaus | FluentU Japanese
For whatever reason, seeing graphs of my progress is a super-motivator for me, so thank you learnnatively @brandon for adding those features! (I started making my own spreadsheet last year but your graphs are nicer than mine!)
My Simplified Conclusions
- If you want to read Japanese, practice reading Japanese.
- If you want to speak Japanese, practice speaking Japanese.
– Everything else is just there to help make the transition easier.
– Knowing lots of vocabulary helps, but it’s not the end goal. Knowing lots of kanji helps, but it’s not the end goal. Knowing lots of grammar points helps, but it’s not the end goal. Reading is the end goal.
– Similarly, anime, podcasts, shadowing, music, radio, and TV help, but it’s not the end goal. Conversation is the end goal.
New Habits/Goals for 2023
- Read 20min everyday, no matter what – If you don’t want to read your novel, it’s okay – read a graded reader or a blog post or a food label, but read something.
Build vocab lists as you go, but don’t feel the need to know every word by end of the first reading.
Try to progress through the learnnatively level indicators.
- Talk every week, no matter what – If you don’t talk with someone, at least do shadowing, but practice talking. (still refining this goal)
Thank you for reading along.
=== おわり ===