Daily Writing Practice with the NVA Challenge

I’ve posted before about keeping a journal in your target language as a way of practicing your writing skills. However, I’ve always struggled to think of things to write about in my journal. This struggle was the inspiration behind the Writing Challenge I did last November.

Fortunately, there is another language learning challenge that helps solve this problem: the NVA challenge!

NVA stands for Noun-Verb-Adjective: each day, the challenge provides you with one noun, one verb and one adjective to write a text with. The words are normally of a similar theme or complement each other in some way, which makes it easy to think of at least one sentence. In addition, the words used are words you would commonly use.

I’ve been doing the challenge myself for a few weeks and have found it very useful for building a daily writing habit.

I find that once I’ve actually written one sentence, it is much easier to then write a couple more sentences. Even on days when I am busy, I have been able to find the time to write down at least one sentence.

It’s become part of my daily routine to write just before I go to bed, which I find quite relaxing!

Excuse the messy writing – I currently insist on writing the texts by hand (in pencil!), as sadly I am forgetting how to write quite a lot of kanji…

I certainly recommend this writing challenge, as I think it is very accessible no matter what your language level is. The only thing I would say is that you might not find a word in your target language which corresponds directly to English, but that shouldn’t be your main focus. With Japanese, I don’t force myself to use the exact translation of the words given in the challenge if it doesn’t feel right to do so. Instead, I normally try to use a word which has a similar meaning. This also has the benefit of focusing your time on actually writing rather than looking up lots of lots of words in the dictionary.

You can always get your sentences corrected on language exchange apps/ websites such as Hello Talk, HiNative or Lang-8: Hello Talk and HiNative are best suited for sentences or short paragraphs and Lang-8 better for longer texts (sadly Lang-8 is not accepting new memberships).

Find the NVA Challenge on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Habitica. If you use Habitica there is a guild dedicated to the NVA challenge, where others in the community check each other’s sentences too.

Today’s post was a short one but I just had to give a signal boost to this great challenge, with the hope that it might help some other language learners out!

How do you like to practice your writing skills? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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Studying more effectively with the Pomodoro technique

I have a confession to make – I am a serial procrastinator. As much as I love learning Japanese and blogging, there are days when I can’t seem to get round to doing either of them. There are also days when I set quite a lot of time aside to write a blog post for example, but only end up with a half-finished post.

If I am honest with myself, my lack of productivity on days like this is normally because of two things:

  1. I haven’t thought through what my goal actually is and what I need to get it done
  2. I pick up my phone to check an email and somehow end up wasting time on somewhere like Facebook/ Twitter/ Reddit

Fortunately, the Pomodoro technique has really helped to cut down on my “bad productivity days” not only with blogging but with language learning too!

 

About the Pomodoro technique

Pomodoro is the Italian word for ‘tomato’ and refers to those tomato shaped timers often used when cooking.

Time management expert Francesco Cirillo came up with the Pomodoro technique which has 6 easy steps:

  1. Choose a task you’d like to get done
  2. Set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings
  4. When the Pomodoro rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper
  5. Take a short break (5 minutes)
  6. Every 4 Pomodoros, take a long break (usually 20 minutes)

 

Benefits of the Pomodoro technique

There are numerous benefits to the Pomodoro technique:

  • It’s easier to get focused and stay focused – 25 minutes is long enough to get things done, but not so long that you get bored.
  • Avoid distractions such as social media (you can check them on your breaks of course!).
  • Short breaks give your brain time to recharge – studying for a long time without breaks is counterproductive.
  • You soon work out how much time you need to dedicate to longer tasks. This is especially good if you have a deadline coming up!
  • Easy to track how time has been spent. Tracking time spent is a great way to make sure that you are spending time working towards the goals that are relevant to you.

I had been using the Pomodoro technique for other tasks that I struggle to motivate myself for such as job searching and tidying my room. It was only recently that I realised that it can be easily applied to language learning too.

Language learning requires a lot of energy, and sustaining the level of concentration needed to study effectively becomes more difficult over longer study sessions. From my own experience, studying for long periods of time without a proper break usually leads to frustration and burnout.

 

How I use Pomodoro for Japanese study

For me, the Pomodoro technique is particularly useful when I am having to work towards specific goals, such as studying grammar for the JLPT or working on improving my pronunciation. For regular daily study, I have a series of mini goals that I spend 10-15 minutes on and tick off as I go along (see my Habits over Goals post).

I particularly struggle with studying for the JLPT – summoning the motivation to study grammar, drill vocab and do mock tests can be extremely difficult, even when the test is only a few days away. This is an example of how I am using Pomodoros for my JLPT prep (I am working towards the JLPT N1 exam in December):

 

Before I start a session, I decide on a specific goal and how I am going to achieve the goal.

For example, I will spend 25 minutes reviewing JLPT grammar points from my Kanzen Master textbook. I usually stick to one learning resource only, as referring to more than one usually leads to procrastination.

 

I then set the timer to 25 minutes and prepare to study

At this point, I also make sure I have my noise-canceling headphones, some water, and any other tools I might need within easy reach.

I choose to listen to music during my Pomodoro study sessions. I always used to find music distracting, but then I realised that I absolutely cannot listen to music with words, because I usually start singing along. There are some great instrumental videos on Youtube if you search “study music” – my personal favourite things to listen to are Ghibli soundtracks and chilled hip hop.

 

Work on task for 25 mins, then take a short break

As soon as I start playing my study music, I know it’s time to get focused!

Sometimes I extend the Pomodoro length to 30 or 35 minutes if I feel like I am in deep focus, and taking a break after 25 minutes would be counterproductive. If I do this, then I usually reduce the number of Pomodoros accordingly.

I make sure that on my breaks that I physically get up and take a short walk, drink some water and grab a snack if I am hungry.

 

Complete 3 or 4 Pomodoros, then take a long break.

Review progress made and make notes for next session

I think it is important to look back on your session and review any issues you came across. The questions that I often ask myself include:

Did I identify some kanji/ vocabulary that I need to review?

Do I need to refer to another resource to clarify my understanding of a grammar point?

By doing this, I can make adjustments for my next session that will help me work more effectively.

 

How I track my Pomodoros

 

One of the best things about the Pomodoro technique is that the only tool you need is a timer. Having said that, there are a lot of apps out there that can help with tracking your Pomodoro sessions. Here are a couple of apps that I personally use:

 

Google Chrome Extension – Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant

I use Google Chrome as my browser, and there is a simple but extremely useful Chrome extension called Marinara that I use for blogging (as I normally need to be connected to the internet!)

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The icon on the far right shows a Pomodoro in progress

By clicking on the Marinara icon I can jump straight into a Pomodoro session. When each session is done, I get a popup to remind me to take a short or long break depending on how many Pomodoros I have completed.

Marinara has a countdown timer, which I find motivating when I feel my concentration slipping – knowing that I only have a couple of minutes to go helps to keep me going!

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You can adjust the length of the Pomodoros and how the extension alerts you to the end of a Pomodoro if you wish. Marinara also tracks your Pomodoro activity which is quite nice too.

 

Pomotodo App (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

When it comes to offline Japanese study sessions, I make use of Pomotodo. By creating an account, you can make to-do lists and track Pomodoros completed; these can then be synced to track your productivity across multiple platforms.

Pomotodo also has a few other useful features. For example, the mobile version allows you to block the use of certain apps whilst a Pomodoro is in progress. You can set daily, weekly or monthly goals and also see what times of the day or week you are most productive

Pomotodo is very user-friendly and I love the clean, simple design. The app is free but has a Pro version costing $3.90 per month – I don’t think that the Pro version adds enough value to be worth purchasing it though.

 

Using the Pomodoro technique has confirmed to me that the most important thing is not the length of time spent on a task, but rather how you use the time spent. Defining what goals you have and how you are going to achieve them is also key to using your time effectively. I only wish I had come across this technique before I last took the JLPT!

Do you have any time management hacks (for language learning or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments!

Ways to stay motivated in your Japanese studies

Learning Japanese (or any language) is a long journey, no matter what articles you read that promise fluency in 6 months.

Inevitably, there are going to be times along our journey when we lack the motivation to keep going. I’ve been a little bit unwell recently and after a few days rest I have found it hard to motivate myself to get studying again.

Here are some of the things I try to do when I need to find motivation to study Japanese:

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  • Watch a video of something that reminds you why you started learning in the first place.

It’s easy to lose sight of what initially drew us to our target language. Whether it be the culture, connecting to your roots, or to watch your favourite TV show without subtitles, there’s so many things that learning another language gives us an opportunity to experience. Whatever it is, watching a video relating to that topic is a great way of getting you back on track.

I personally find watching videos of people who have been able to learn Japanese to a high level really motivate me to keep studying. Kemushichan’s videos are always inspiring for me; my other personal favourites include Dogen and Renehiko.

 

  • Visualise your goals.

Take some time to think about your language learning goals. What is it that you want to achieve in the future with your target language; is it passing language exams? Holding a conversation with a native speaker?

If this is something you haven’t decided on yet, I recommend taking some time to define your goals in detail. When I am lacking in motivation, I remind myself of my short-term and long-term goals and how I will feel being able to achieve them.

When it comes to setting short-term goals, you might find the #clearthelist language challenges helps you to formulate and work on the goals more effectively. Here is an example from the amazing Fluent Language from May 2018.

 

  • Make sure to celebrate little victories.

Every time you feel yourself making progress, make sure to pat yourself on the back. It is easy to be demotivated when we experience setbacks, but it’s important to acknowledge the positives at the same time.

Let’s say you were having a conversation with a native speaker, but it was a little stilted. Whilst the conversation may not have flowed the way you wanted it to, you managed to get your point across and this is always something to celebrate. After all, languages are a form of communication, and being able to communicate is the important part – with more practice you will learn what sounds more natural.

When you are lacking in motivation, thinking back to the progress you have made will really help.

 

  • Take time to look back at what you’ve achieved.

This is similar to the previous point, but I find comparing what I understand now to what I understood either a few months ago or even when I first started really helps put my progress in perspective.

Think about what level you were at the start of the year – it’s quite likely that you have made more progress than you think and is a great reminder to keep going!

Having taken some time away from studying Japanese, I do tend to think about the words I used to know but have forgotten the meaning of. In order to combat this, I like to I look back at my old study notes to remind myself of the progress I have made since then.

 

  • Make or evaluate your study routine.

Sometimes a lack of motivation is linked to the nature of your current study routine. If motivation has been a consistent problem recently, it might be worth taking a look at your routine.

Are there any things that need changing? It might be that your expectations are too high and you need to set yourself a series of smaller goals every time you study. My post on simplifying your language routine might give you some ideas on how to do this.

 

  • Surround yourself with positive people.

The people that we choose to surround ourselves with can have a large impact on our motivation. By surrounding ourselves with people who understand our journey, we can get support and encouragement from them when we are struggling to carry on. This can be in the form of other language learners, teachers and tutors.

You might not know any Japanese learners in your area – don’t worry, because this is where social media is incredibly useful. I’ve found Twitter and Facebook groups in particular to be a great place to find inspiration, share stories and ask questions when you get stuck (Twitter is super popular in Japan so is especially useful!). There are also lots of great blogs out there for learning Japanese that I turn to when I need to stay motivated.

Language challenges are a great way to feel involved in the language learning community. For example:

I’ve also done my own 30-day Japanese writing challenge before which really helped motivate me to keep practising my writing skills, which I don’t practice as much as I should.

 

  • Make sure to reward yourself when you’ve finished your study session

Having a reward to look forward to at the end of the session is important, especially when faced with something that seems particularly daunting (for me, this is usually my kanji flashcard reviews!). I will treat myself to an episode of a TV show or time to play video games, with a bit of bonus time after a particularly long study session. When working towards a bigger goal like the JLPT, I tend to treat myself to something more special if I’ve hit my weekly study goals.

I hope this post helps if you’ve been finding yourself in a bit of a slump lately. The hardest part of studying is normally just getting started, so finding enough motivation to simply start is often all you need. The best thing I can recommend is to build helpful language learning habits wherever you can.

 

Have you got any tips or tricks for boosting your motivation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

Keeping it Simple: tips for simplifying your language study routine

I’ve been experimenting with my study routine recently, and I’ve realised that it has become much easier to stick to my study plan now that I have made some changes. Since focusing on better habit building, I feel like I’ve been making more progress.

Especially with the internet at our fingertips, there are more language resources than ever before; we can instantly download an app or watch a video if we want to start learning a new language.

The problem is really that we have too much choice.

Japanese language resources, in particular, are in abundance online. Combined with the difficulty level of kanji and grammar, learning Japanese can feel overwhelming whether you’ve been studying for 3 days or 3 years.

Here are three of the changes I have made recently that have not only simplified my own routine, but also stopped me from feeling overwhelmed:

 

Evaluate my study space

I don’t actually have a dedicated study space myself – I normally sit on my sofa or bed to study.

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I wish I had a desk like this! 

One thing that has helped me despite not having a desk is having a study notebook or novel near me at all times, whether that be in my work bag or on my bedside table. When I was studying for my school exams, I always used to put my study notes in a place where I couldn’t avoid seeing them, such as near my glasses or house keys.

Just seeing my Japanese notes on a daily basis, especially first thing in the morning, reminds me to fit in some time to study whenever possible.

If you do have your own study space, I suggest having a look at it to see how it can be improved. Only have the items that you really need for your studies (dictionary, textbooks, pens, pencils) and hide anything which could be a distraction. Having a tidy space will make sure that when you do sit down to study, you will be able to fully focus.

Similarly, with online resources, it is a good idea to put the apps or websites you use in a prominent position on your phone or internet browser. If online distractions are a problem for you, there are plenty of helpful apps out there to minimise distractions.

For example, I make sure I have a list of podcasts that I add to on a weekly basis: this ensures I always have something to listen to when I do have some spare time. This leads me nicely on to the next tip…

 

Identify dead time

I’ve written about using your time most effectively in my other post on Getting Your Language 5-a-day. The post mainly deals with splitting up language learning into smaller chunks and identifying ‘dead time’ which can be better spent working on your target language.

Our lives obviously vary from week to week, and so if you haven’t looked at your schedule recently it might be worth taking some time to re-evaluate your dead time.

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It’s important to be realistic about how much time you have to study, so that you can adjust your expectations based on how busy you are.

Don’t think that only having small amounts of time isn’t long enough for studying Japanese – consistency is better than the length of time you study for. By keeping up with that 5-10 minutes daily, you’re going to be making more progress than a longer study session of 1 hour a week.

The benefit of this for me is that I’ve realised that I actually have lots of time in the day to listen to Japanese than I thought. I especially enjoy listening to podcasts while doing housework.

 

Decide on what resources to focus on in advance

If you know exactly what you want to study and how you’re going to do it, you will be able to ensure you maximise your study time and minimise distractions. Studying Japanese (or any language) is better in short sessions, and knowing which resource I am going to use beforehand prevents me from wasting time before I’ve even started studying.

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Not pictured: my haul of Japanese textbooks and resources!

This also gives you the chance to assess what resources work better for you than others. There really are so many resources out there for Japanese, that when a new shiny app or website comes along, it is easy to forget about a tried and tested resource.

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try out new resources, especially if it appears to suit your learning style. If something isn’t working for you, it is much easier to identify if you are using it consistently rather than sporadically.

In my case, I am working towards the JLPT again, so my study is more focused on vocabulary and grammar from textbooks (I like the Shin Kanzen master series so I am using their grammar textbook in particular).

 

Tracking habits

I am a big believer in cultivating good habits in order to help achieve your study goals, and for the past few months I’ve been using the Habitica app to track my language learning. On the app, I have a list of Japanese study habits to achieve daily (basically to listen/read/write/speak Japanese), which I can tick off when completed.

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There is a great Japanese learning challenge on Habitica which I recommend if you already use the app!

The biggest change I have noticed since using a habit tracker is that my mindset regarding Japanese study has changed. I do not strictly schedule study sessions at certain times of the day, so I just fit study in when I can.

When I do have a spare 5 minutes, I now think “what can I do in Japanese in 5 minutes” rather than “it’s only 5 minutes, I’ll check Facebook”.

Habit trackers are a really useful way of positively reinforcing new habits – I get so much satisfaction from ticking something off my daily goal list. Even after a long day, the fear of losing my habit streak has pushed me to open up a book or to finish my flashcard reviews.

There are tons of apps out there which allow you to track your habits and/or study time. Alternatively, if you use a bullet journal there are lots of cool ways to visually represent your habit building offline.

 

So this is my list of things that have helped me. Are there any changes you have made to your study schedule that have really helped you? Let me know in the comments!

Should you listen to a language at a slow speed or normal speed?

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I like to listen to Olly Richards’ “I Will Teach You a Language” podcast, and I happened to listen to Episode 232 called “Why you shouldn’t listen to slow audio”. He argued that the content that you listen to is more important than whether it is being spoken at normal speed or not.

Having given it some thought, I agree with him in that when people struggle with listening skills, it is usually down to the content being too difficult rather than the speed at which it is spoken at. This does pose a frustrating problem for us language learners: we struggle to listen to our target language, which is in part because we haven’t been exposed to the language enough.

Despite this, I think it is important to persevere with listening to something in your target language, even when you do not understand anything at all. This is why it is so important to find something in your target language that you enjoy, whether it be an interview with your favourite music artist, a TV show or anime.

 

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Finding something you love to listen to is the best way to stay motivated

 

Looking back, it is having this motivation to watch or listen to something at native speed that eventually improved my own listening comprehension skills. When I was studying for a Japanese exam (GCSE Japanese, which is probably closest to JLPT N5) I went from struggling with the exams to finding them fairly straightforward within a few months.

Looking back, the only thing that changed within those few months was that I began to watch a lot of Japanese TV/ drama (sometimes with English subtitles, sometimes without). Being a beginner in Japanese, it was extremely difficult to pick out what was being said apart from a few words here and there. However, the most important thing that happened as a result of doing this was that I got used to Japanese spoken at a native speed rather than at a slower speed. Combined with revising the vocabulary covered in my test, this made tackling the listening section much easier.

Similarly, I found that just spending more time listening to Japanese as it is naturally spoken helped with the listening section of the JLPT test (I have some last minute tips on how to tackle the listening section here).

Eventually, you want to get to the point where you understand your target language at a native speed, so it is important to start working towards this as early as possible. Therefore, as a language learner, maintaining a balance between material you listen to as immersion and material you use to study is key, as I wrote about in my post on podcasts.

So, the next time you are testing out your Japanese listening skills, try listening at regular speed before slowing things down. By listening to the material more than once, you might find that you are able to understand more than you initially thought!

I’m interested to know if you agree with Olly and I or not and why – let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Habits over goals

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We are now in 2018 and I firstly want to say Happy New Year and 明けましておめでとうございます (明けおめ for short) to everyone who reads the blog!

Being the start of the year it is often the time of New Years’ Resolutions (新年の抱負・しんねんのほうふ). I’ve written a bit about working on your language goals previously but wanted to expand on a very important point.

Focus on creating new habits rather than the goals themselves

Goals are great things to have, but they need to be supported by establishing the right habits which help achieve them.

What is the difference between goals and habits?

Goals have an endpoint and solely rely on willpower to achieve. Just by setting goals, you can feel a false sense of completion which can be dangerous.

Habits, on the other hand, are easier to complete as they are less complex. Normally it takes 30 days for an action to become a habit – after this point, they become even easier to stick to.

For example, if your goal is to complete a 5km run (and you do not run at all currently), your initial focus should be on making time to run 2-3 times a week. If your goal is to pass the JLPT N5 in December, then focus on studying Japanese for 30 mins a day (see my post on getting your language 5-a-day for ideas!)

Focusing on habits means that there is a possibility we exceed our goals. We might end up running 10km instead of 5km or we might be ready for JLPT N4 instead of JLPT N5 by the end of the year.

The key is to make the habit as simple as possible. If you were to set the task of reading one page of a Japanese book every day, you would probably find yourself reading more than this when you have the time because (hopefully) you really enjoy the book you are reading! Whether you meet or exceed your task for the day, this sense of achievement helps you stay motivated towards your end goal.

I’ll leave you with a quote from philosopher Will Durant which sums up the point of this post:

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Get Writing in Japanese with the Kotobites November Writing Challenge

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As you may know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is aimed at anyone who has ever wanted to write a novel who set about writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59pm on 30th November. I think that whether you reach your target or not, the sense of community that surrounds the event each year is a great way to get motivated in November and beyond – read more about it here.

I was reminded about NaNoWriMo recently and this got me thinking about writing in Japanese. I don’t think I am up to the task of writing a full-length novel in Japanese, let alone English yet, but I wanted to think of ways to write about a bigger variety of things in Japanese. I currently write in my language journal several times a week (I try to write every day, but there are days when I don’t get round to it). I do want to write something every day, but I often find I end up writing about the same sorts of things such as going to work or what I ate for dinner, which gets boring quickly.

So I want to use November to get myself (and anyone else who is interested) writing every day with the November Writing Challenges!

On this blog I intend to provide writing prompts for each day of November. Depending on your level, some days will be trickier than others, but I hope you can give at least a couple a try. At the end of the month, I’m hoping I’ve managed to write something a bit more interesting, and continue to write creatively going forward.

If you’d like to get involved let me know in the comments – we can do this!