The majority of Japanese Talk articles focus on “Tips & Tricks” to study Japanese. These focus on study methods for improving speaking or reading, or studying in general if you’re busy, etc.
Memrise is normally my go-to learning app for studying Japanese. (Lord knows there are a lot of Jtalkonline.com courses on Memrise.) But I’ve been using a new method recently that’s been a lot more effective.
The Drill Method (aka Quantity)
Here’s a quick story.
In 2015 I took the JLPT N1 for the first time. I used the Nihongo Soumatome books and studied their kanji and vocabulary using Memrise. There was a lot of free time available to me as I was at the end of my MA and studied 4-6 hours a day.
I failed the N1.
Which to be honest, wasn’t a surprise. All I was doing was drilling and drilling and drilling. I was in a rush to learn everything needed for the exam in just two months.
The burnout afterwards was so bad I didn’t touch Japanese for 7 months!
So what happened?
Well, all I was doing was frantically drilling vocabulary, kanji and grammar, hoping it would be enough to pass. This was not an effective method for long-term understanding of the language because I didn’t understand the Japanese.
Quality Japanese Self Study Techniques
The key is long-term understanding of the language.
Here are some techniques you can use to gain that.
“What is This Made Of?”
When I first learn (and later review) kanji-based vocabulary, vocabulary and grammar, I try to think about what it is made of.
So if you’re studying 食事（しょくじ）which is made up of 食 and 事, their readings/meaning are 食： しょく・たべる (eat) and 事：じ・こと(thing).
I think this, or if it’s an unfamiliar kanji I will say these out loud.
This works great with grammar. Especially when you have a lot of similar grammar made up of other grammar.
If you struggle with grammar use this method combined with grammar drill books. It takes extra work but works better long-term!
Check out this article for grammar drill book suggestions for JLPT N3+: The Best Way to Study Grammar for the JLPT
“Why Did I Get This Wrong?”
The biggest positive impact I’ve had on my learning is asking myself “why did I get this wrong?”
When I’m learning kanji-based vocabulary on Memrise and I see a word I think I know, I do not guess, I get it wrong on purpose. When the correct answer appears I ask myself “why did I get this wrong?”
This is the same when I’m reading something aloud. If I’m not sure of the reading or meaning for a word I don’t ignore it, I stop reading and look it up. Then I ask myself again, “why did I get this wrong?”
If I ask myself this question I get some great insight on my learning. Perhaps I was thinking of a different kanji that looked the same? Or a different word that sounded similar? Maybe I was thinking of something entirely different and I just had a brain fart?
Either way I then ask myself…
“How Is It Different?”
How is similar looking kanji different? What are the readings/meanings of these different kanji?
With kanji I get really stuck on, I whip out Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji and look up just those kanji. I use this to see how they’re different and what mnemonics I can use to distinguish them.
For example 陪 (ばい) and 剖 (ぼう) I kept getting mixed up. Over and over and over and over again. So I taught myself 陪 is for 陪審（ばいしん）when you use a thread to tie the jury together. 剖 is used with 解剖（かいぼう）where you dissect with a knife.
I don’t look at 陪 on its own, I find it helps for me to associate it with the kanji I keep getting it confused with, and with vocabulary I’m likely to see it in.
Then I go over the kanji in Japanese Kanji App again. If there are any kanji I struggle with I write it onto a paper flashcard and stick it on the wall.
Whenever I see kanji on the wall I read it aloud (readings and meaning).
This can be the same with vocabulary and grammar.
How is the vocabulary/grammar different? When are these used/not used? What am I getting them confused with?
I then look up the words and teach myself tricks to remember them. Such as だんだん and どんどん. だんだん is like 階段（かいだん）a gradual increase in steps. Whereas どんどん is like the rhythm of a drum steadily getting faster.
Multiple Approaches to the Same Topic
When learning vocabulary and kanji I try to learn them in chunks. This means chunks of subjects OR small chunks of kanji (i.e 25).
Here’s the trick to learning these long-term: Use tiny study sessions but multiple approaches.
- I study the kanji, their readings and look over the vocabulary on Kanji Study.
- Then I study the vocabulary on my own Memrise deck.
- I go back over the kanji in Kanji Study. (Check Heisig if I’m struggling to remember/distinguish kanji)
- Put unfamiliar kanji on the wall.
- Read news articles based on vocabulary/kanji I’ve been learning.
- Read the same article again aloud.
- Shadow the same news story.
- Take practice tests with JP Drills.
All the while I’m asking myself “why did I get this wrong?” and “how is this different?”
Each of these only takes 10-20 minutes of work! I do a little bit of something when I wake up, at lunch, before bed. Then I try to read novels on the weekend to push myself more and do something enjoyable.
I don’t always complete all of these steps every single time. Nor do I do them all in order before moving onto something else. I try to keep it fun for me. So I don’t get bored or turn learning into a chore.
If you are a beginner or intermediate level the news will be too difficult. However, textbooks are great for this! They come with CDs and reading sections which you can use to read aloud and shadow. Even if you’ve read/shadowed something once before going over the same passage again can still be helpful.
This way you’re: studying kanji, vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, listening AND speaking.
You can do these in 10-20 minute study chunks multiple times throughout the day.
These Take Time But Have Longer & Deeper Impacts
This approach takes a long time. However, you will also find it more effective for learning the materials.
I have only been doing this for 5 months, and only 1 month on a regular basis. (By regular basis I mean doing two to three chunks of 10-20 minutes a day. Plus trying to force myself to read for about 30 minutes a day… although there are weeks when this only happens at the weekend.)
I have found it to be incredibly more helpful towards my overall Japanese comprehension compared to drilling books of vocabulary and kanji. But also more helpful than just reading and not thinking about why I don’t understand something.
Needless to say there ARE times for fast-paced quantitative study and there are times for slow quality study.
You don’t have to take this approach if you don’t want to. Just before an exam might be a good time to rush through past-learned materials to check you know it.
Although it still helps for exams to ask yourself why you might be getting something wrong.
Japanese is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. These steps take a little extra effort but will make Japanese easier to understand down the road.