What is the JLPT and is it for me?

If you are new to learning Japanese, you may have heard about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT for short. It is something that myself and other Japanese language bloggers often refer to as an indication of one’s Japanese language level.

In the UK, the applications for the next sitting in December, have just opened and the results were published for the July exam very recently With this in mind, I thought it would be a good time to write about the JLPT exams for those who know nothing about it.

What is the JLPT?

The JLPT was developed as a way of measuring non-native Japanese speakers’ proficiency in Japanese. There are 5 levels to the JLPT as follows:

N5 – Beginner proficiency

N4 – Upper beginner proficiency

N3 – Intermediate proficiency

N2 – Upper intermediate proficiency

N1 – Advanced proficiency

The exact composition of the exam depends on the level you are taking, but all cover reading (with different emphasis on kanji, grammar and reading comprehension) and listening skills. If you pass, you will receive a snazzy certificate for your efforts.

The exam can be taken either inside or outside Japan – check out the official website for information on test centres in your country.

How do I know which level to take?

If you’ve been studying for a while, you might not have an idea of what level you are currently working at. The official JLPT website has some sample questions which can give you an idea of which level you are working at – alternatively, you may want to check out the resources mentioned below.

Is it worth it?

The answer to this ultimately depends on your current situation and future goals. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking to work in Japan, especially if you would like to have a bilingual role. A lot of Japanese companies look for business level (=JLPT N2) or native level (=JLPT N1) proficiency, so having this on your CV may well help you get your foot in the door. I’ve summed up what I believe the main pros and cons below:

Pros

  • JLPT is a well-recognised qualification
  • A good way of measuring your own progress particularly if you are self-studying

Cons

  • Can be expensive (in the UK it costs £75 per sitting)
  • Can only take it 1-2 times a year depending on where you live
  • Does not test speaking proficiency
  • Especially at higher levels, grammar points can get obscure

There are more cons than pros in the above list, but the pro of having a widely recognised qualification is a great advantage for those wishing to pursue further studies or employment in Japan (this is not to say that not having a JLPT qualification will prevent you from getting a job!).

How do I study towards it?

There is a heavy emphasis on vocabulary and grammar, so a lot of study is needed to cover all of the materials at each level. For this reason, textbooks are a popular choice although there are some wonderful (and free!) online resources too:

Textbooks

For level N5, there are not many JLPT specific textbooks available. If you are working through a textbook such as Genki, then you should cover a lot of the grammar expected at this level – refer to the online resources below for lists of grammar points, vocabulary and kanji in the test.

For the upper levels, there are two series of books that are quite popular: Nihongo Sou Matome and Kanzen Master. I have not used Nihongo Sou Matome myself but it is very highly regarded.

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I have personally used the Kanzen Master series of books (pictured above – there are individual books for grammar, vocabulary, kanji and listening comprehension) which are a useful means of preparing you for the test.

Online Resources

There are a number of websites with vocab, kanji, grammar point lists and listening exercises – here are a couple of my favourites:

  • Tanos JLPT is a great place to start if you’ve just decided to take the plunge. The website has vocabulary, kanji and grammar lists which you can start to work your way through.
  • Japanesetest4you is a website filled to the brim with practice tests for all aspects of each level of the JLPT. As i’ve mentioned previously, it is really important to practice in exam conditions so that you have an idea of how to manage your time on the day!
  • MLC Japanese has lists of key vocabulary and kanji, worksheets with exam-style questions and study plan ideas for the JLPT.
  • Nihongo Pro has free vocabulary, kanji and grammar quizzes for all levels of the JLPT.
  • Flashcard apps like Anki and Memrise have a number of shared decks for each level of the JLPT

Classes

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan or a major city overseas, you may be able to find a JLPT prep class – for example in London, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) runs JLPT prep classes in the run up to the exam.

This is a general overview of the JLPT test – if you have any further questions about the JLPT please let me know in the comments.

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Manga Recommendation : Crayon Shin-chan クレヨンしんちゃん

This week’s recommendation is Crayon Shin-chan by Yoshito Usui (臼井 義人). I think this was the first manga I ever tried to read in Japanese some time ago, but even now I like to go back and read it.

This highly popular manga is about the adventures of a 5-year-old boy called Shinnosuke Nohara (nicknamed Shin-chan) who generally causes a lot of mischief around him, especially his mother.

The manga is split into several shorter stories that are generally only a few pages long. This makes it an ideal manga for Japanese language learners to dip in and out of as and when you have time to study it.

Crayon Shin chan manages to strike a great balance between laugh out loud moments and relatable moments (if you’ve ever had to look after a small child). Some of the humour can be a bit crude – you can find a few of the anime episodes on YouTube so I would recommend checking these out to get an idea of the type of humour you will find in the manga. Besides the anime series there are also several films, so plenty of material to get into if you do find yourself enjoying the manga.

In terms of language level, you can certainly give this a go if you have covered basic grammar and know the usual slang contractions – JLPT N4 and above should suffice. Like most of the manga I recommend this has everyday language and because of Shin chan’s age the vocabulary used is not too difficult. There are quite a few gags which rely on knowledge of puns in Japanese and aspects of Japanese culture, but I have always found this manga on the whole to be accessible as a language learner.

There is apparently a Japanese-English bilingual version of a couple of volumes (called クレヨンしんちゃんの楽しいゾ英会話) which would be a useful way of trying the manga out if you can get yourself a copy.

Disney Songs in Japanese

I recently wrote a post about using songs to learn Japanese. In that post, I didn’t personally recommend any particular types of songs as I believe that you should try to focus on songs you like listening to instead.

However, later on, it dawned on me that Disney songs are a really good way of studying language via songs, especially as a beginner learner.

If you’ve grown up with films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (my 90’s kid bias might be showing a bit here!), then listening to the Japanese versions of familiar songs from these films is an enjoyable way of learning new vocabulary. Another advantage of using Disney is that being aimed at kids, the lyrics are normally more straightforward in nature in terms of both grammar and vocabulary and do not have any slang that can often trip up language learners.

How to find song lyrics

I find the best way of finding the Japanese song titles of Disney songs is looking on Wikipedia. For example, if I was looking for the Japanese titles from Frozen I would go to the relevant page and look for information on international releases:

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Frozen happens to be a particularly popular film so I could find the song titles under the ‘Japanese release’ tab towards the bottom of the Wiki page for the Frozen soundtrack.

However you may need to go to the English Wiki page first and then select the Japanese version of the same page from the menu on the left hand side. Then look for a category 主題歌 (しゅだいか ‘theme song’) or 挿入歌  (そうにゅうか ‘soundtrack’/ ‘featured songs’)  to find song titles – for the most popular songs the English tends to be given in brackets alongside the original Japanese.

Once armed with this information, the website I’ve found the most useful for tracking down Disney song lyrics is this one. Although skewed towards the most popular Disney films of the 1990s, this is the best site I have found with lyrics grouped by the film’s name.

If you are struggling to track down song lyrics, then simply googling the Japanese (or even the English) song title + 歌詞 (かし ‘lyrics’) should lead you to a website with lyrics.

Fortunately a lot of Japanese Disney songs can be found on YouTube with Japanese subtitles too. It helps to know the Japanese title before searching but you may have luck with the English title and if you add ‘Japanese’ on too.

The YouTube channel Nobuyoshi Takeuchi has a large number of Disney songs so is the best place to start.

My favourite Disney songs in Japanese are:

  • Colours of the Wind/ カラー • オブ • ザ • ウィンド [ポカホンタス/ Pocahontas]
  • Belle/ ベル [美女と野獣/ Beauty and the Beast]
  • Love is an Open Door/ 扉を開けて [アナと雪の女王/ Frozen]

What are your favourite Disney songs (in English, Japanese or another language)? Let me know in the comments!

Best Chrome Extensions for learning Japanese

Reading the title you may be thinking, “but how is a browser going to assist my language learning?” As it turns out, there are a couple of nifty extensions available for Google Chrome that I think are essentials for Japanese learners.  Here are 3 extensions that I use all the time for boosting my Japanese skills:

Rikaikun (also known as Rikaichan on other platforms such as Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari).

This is an incredibly popular extension and is a must have for Japanese learners. With this extension activated, you can go to a page in Japanese and hover over any word and the reading and English meaning will be displayed in a handy pop up box. With this, tackling a website entirely in Japanese is a lot less scary!

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It is also worth noting that Rikaikun is pretty good at recognising the root of conjugated verbs as well as place names, which is can sometimes be an issue with lookup apps.

 

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This is useful when you need to practice the te form!

 

Mainichi

Mainichi is a handy extension which will show you a new piece of vocabulary every time you open a new tab in Chrome. The word is shown in kanji, kana and romaji with a helpful pic – handy for reviewing or learning a new piece of vocabulary.

 

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I think the pictures are really cute

 

You cannot choose the type of vocabulary that appears but I have found that there is a good mix between simpler and more complicated everyday vocabulary. Besides Japanese, there are also options for Korean and Mandarin Chinese if you are also learning those languages.

Pocket

Pocket is not specifically for language learning but I use it a lot for Japanese study. The Pocket app allows you to save a page for offline viewing later.

The Chrome extension allows you to add new pages to read later with a click of a button and will sync with the app if you have this installed on another device. I find this useful for saving news stories online – together with Rikaikun, you can make short work of tricky articles. If you install the app on another device you can start reading on your laptop and carry on reading on your mobile.

Are there any must have extensions (on Google Chrome or any other browser) that you cannot live without? Let me know in the comments.

Studying Japanese with Songs

Early on in my Japanese learning, listening to Japanese songs accidentally became part of my study plan. I do not really listen to new Japanese songs much nowadays but every so often I will go back to artists I know I like and study the vocabulary from their latest songs. Language learning is all about fun, so if you love music I recommend trying this out at least once.

Whilst I would recommend studying songs as part of your language journey, there are some pros and cons to consider.

The good: Of course studying something you enjoy helps vocabulary to stick.

The bad: This is true in any language but not all songs reflect how language is actually spoken as lyrics tend to be more poetic. Similarly, song lyrics do not always make sense, so take unusual grammar structures and vocabulary with a pinch of salt.

Here are the steps I follow when I use songs as study materials:

Step 0 – Find a song you like.

I would have a Japanese friend recommend some songs or artists to listen to. I generally find ballad style songs to be a good choice because these are more likely to tell a cohesive story than a dance track for example. This is Step 0 because I’m assuming when you read this post you already have a song in mind to study with!

Step 1 – Find the song lyrics.

Google is your friend here: simply search for the artist name and/or song title, then add ‘歌詞’ (かし‘kashi’ meaning lyrics). The website I often use is called Uta-Net (all in Japanese). Just type the artist or song name into the search box and click on the red button to search.

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Step 2 – Listen to the song with lyrics.

How much can you understand just by having the lyrics in front of you whilst you listen? You might surprise yourself with what you can pick up at this stage – I often find that seeing the words written down helps you to pick out the words you already know.

Step 3 – Arm yourself with a dictionary/ Japanese friend and get meanings for the vocabulary and grammar structures you are unfamiliar with.

Use this exercise to get a feel for the overall meaning of the song. I wouldn’t worry too much about finding an exact translation into English as this is not always possible.

However translating can be a fun exercise to check if you have grasped the general meaning of the song. Again Google is really useful for finding a fan page of your favourite artist which may have English translations that you can compare your version to. Can’t find a translation? It may be worth posting your own and making translations a new hobby!

As previously mentioned, there may be kanji usage or grammar that doesn’t necessarily appear in everyday Japanese so make a note of it here. If you have a language notebook make sure you only jot down the most commonly used kanji or correct grammar structures. If you are a fan of flashcards, I would make new flashcards of the most common kanji/ vocabulary that crops up at this stage.

Step 4 – Listen again when you have looked up unfamiliar words and phrases.

How much do you understand now? It should be much more now that you have a better grasp on the song meaning.

 

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Don’t be afraid to pick up a microphone (or hairbrush) in the name of language learning!

 

Step 5 – Karaoke!

Japan is the home of karaoke and I couldn’t possibly write an article about Japanese songs without mentioning it. If you live in Japan I recommend you take the opportunity to go for an hour and try singing a couple of songs, no matter what your singing ability. Having to follow the Japanese lyrics onscreen is not easy but if you go regularly you will really build up your reading speed, especially when it comes to kanji.

Not in Japan? Try searching for a song you like on Youtube and see if you can find a karaoke version/ lyric video to practice with.

Bonus: if you play an instrument you may finding actually playing and singing along to songs helpful too. If you play guitar (or sometimes attempt to play the ukulele like me) you can find chord tabs for popular songs by Googling the song title together with コード (chords). I tend to use a website called Gakki.me.

How do you use songs as part of your language learning? Let me know in the comments!

Journalling in a Foreign Language

I came across a video by Hyunwoo of ‘Talk to Me in Korean’ which encouraged writing in a journal on a daily basis to aid language learning, especially if you are unable to immerse yourself in other ways (i.e. you have no native speakers nearby to talk to).

 

I’ve become acutely aware recently that my speaking and writing skills in Japanese have suffered a lot and so I am keen to build these skills back up again. As it happens, I ended up with two 2017 diaries so journalling in Japanese is a great way of putting the spare diary to use.

I have been doing this for a couple of weeks and I am really enjoying it so far. One thing I immediately discovered is that I absolutely have to write out the diary entries. Writing in my diary seems to engage my brain in a different way to typing something out on my phone, although I have always found that writing things out helps me to remember things more easily.

I think this is even more important where the writing system of your target language differs to your native language(s) – in the age of predictive text, you can end up solely relying on your ability to recognise words rather than producing them. For Japanese, I have found it much easier to pinpoint which kanji I need to review if I cannot immediately recall how to write it.

But I don’t know what to write/ I have just begun studying a new language!

Don’t worry about the content of your entries – even writing out a new word you have learned a few times will help to consolidate your knowledge. This is the time to experiment with new words and phrases you may have learnt but try to put these into sentences where possible. Some people find writing out sentences that they already know to be correct is helpful for revising new grammar points and vocabulary.

How do I check whether my writing is correct?

For short sentences and phrases, Hi Native is a wonderful app for getting quick feedback – check out my previous post on this to learn more.

For longer pieces of writing, I highly recommend a website called Lang-8. Aimed at language learners, you can publish posts and ask native speakers to read and correct your work. Japanese friends, of course, may be happy to do this for you but sometimes getting input from complete strangers can provide a fresh perspective. Being fellow language learners, I have always found the community on there to be extremely helpful with anything I need help with. Make sure that you return the favour and review other people’s writing.

Finally, don’t forget to periodically look back what you have written. I hope to compare my entries at the end of the year to the day I started and see that I have made some progress!

Do you journal in Japanese/ another language? Have you found it useful so far? Let me know in the comments.

Getting Your Language 5-a-Day

I’ve been reading a lot about successful people and their habits recently and thinking about how I can implement this into my own daily life. I realised that these people are successful precisely because they have developed habits that directly contribute to their success.

This is, of course, true of language learning as well – attaining a level of fluency in a language requires regular and consistent practice.

However, in our busy lives, it is incredibly easy for that chapter in your textbook or vocabulary list you were planning to study to fall by the wayside. So how do you strike the right balance between language learning and the other aspects of your life?

When thinking about the above, I decided to try and improve my own language learning habits by aiming for five language related activities a day, just like the recommended minimum five portions of fruit and vegetables we should eat in a day. 

If possible, aim to spread these tasks over the course of the day and try to focus on the different skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

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For example, I thought about when I personally have time in the day I can make better use of and came up with the following 5-a-day plan for learning Japanese:

  1. Morning commute: use an app like Hello Talk to chat to someone in Japanese (due to the time difference between the UK and Japan it makes more sense for me to do this in the morning)
  2. Lunch break: read something in Japanese (normally a news article)
  3. After work commute: listen to a podcast (normally Bilingual News Podcast or News in Slow Japanese)
  4. Before dinner: watch a Youtube video or something on Netflix in Japanese
  5. Before bed: write in my language journal or review new vocabulary

Needless to say, getting in 5 language learning activities a day may be too intense depending on your language goals. Hopefully the above can help you to think about the times in your day that you could spend more wisely instead of browsing social media, for example. It is important to think about what you want to achieve and then think about how you can set about achieving them.

The truth is, aiming to do at least one activity a day and doing that consistently should also bring about positive results.

I’ve written a little bit about achieving your language goals before and a key part of this is keeping yourself accountable.You can do this by using a calendar, bullet journal or app to track your habits.

I happen to use Google quite a bit but only recently realised that Google Calendar has a nifty goal setting function where you can set up reminders to work towards your given goal. I now have a daily language learning goal set up with a reminder that coincides with the beginning of my morning commute to work (mainly because I am a morning person and I am more likely to remember to study at this time). It’s quite satisfying to swipe away that little reminder I get, knowing that I’ve kept up my language learning streak!

Similarly, 30-day challenges are all the rage when it comes to health and fitness, but can be applied to language learning too. Particularly when learning a new language, this is a good way of making sure that you begin to familiarise yourself with the language from day 1 and start positive language learning habits.

My aim at present is to get at least 2 of these activities into my day on a particularly busy day, and as close to 5 as possible on a good day.

Do you have some sort of daily/ weekly/ monthly language learning plan? How do you prefer to track your habits? Let me know in the comments 🙂