Lessons Learned from the JLPT N1

In late 2021, I decided to take up Japanese-language studies once again, but this time in order to take the JLPT exam, level N1. I had passed the N2 some years ago, but had let my language studies gradually atrophy.

Since that time, I have focused primarily on building up vocabulary first, even though the vocabulary section is worth the least number of points on the exam. The reasoning is that I can’t properly read essays and more complex tasks without having a good foundation first.

So, using this vocabulary source book, I have been gradually building up vocabulary in Anki SRS. For most of the words, I’ve been making Cloze style cards:

I realized quickly that simply memorizing words wasn’t enough, as my Japanese wife pointed out: you have to also learn which particle to use: を, に, と, or が. It’s not always obvious which is appropriate, and using grammar rules doesn’t always work. Just as with learning Latin or Greek or other languages, words have certain intrinsic aspects that have to be learned. In the case of Japanese, the te-form for verbs, and which particle they use are things you should make an effort to memorize upfront. It will save lots of headaches later.

For example the phrase: 限界に挑む (to stretch one’s limits). Why does it take a に particle instead of an を direct-object particle? There’s probably a good, grammatical reason, but for practical purposes, it’s also fair to say “it just does”.

So far in two months, I’ve completed 7 sections out of 68 of my vocabulary book in this way. Each cloze entry I put in, even for the same sentence, is a separate flashcard so a typical phrase can create one to three flashcards, and so my Anki flashcard deck has gotten pretty large: 500+ words. Having so many flashcards already means that if I forgot to review flashcards for a day or two, such as during the holidays, the backlog builds up very quickly. It can take 15-20 minutes to review all cards, which is not always possible. So, I’ve been trying to pace myself in learning new vocab, so as not to fill up the deck too quickly at once, but also keep up the reviews so as not to let the backlog grew too large. This also means not reviewing all cards at one time, but here and there throughout the day.

One bright spot out of all this is that the vocab I have been learning has popped up more than I expected in my day to day exposure to Japanese language and media. Previously, I had questioned how useful studying for the JLPT N1 would be for day-to-day Japanese usage, but to my surprise it is used more practical than I thought. It’s adult-level vocabulary, not basic foundational language, but it still comes up more than I expected. This helps bridge the gap for me between basic-intermediate Japanese and adult-level conversation or media, and means that it’s not just an academic venture for me.

The actual exam is still twelve months away, and I have a so much more to learn. It’s unclear if I’ll be ready for December, but it’s still worth a shot. Most likely though, at this rate, I’ll be looking at the 2023 exam instead however. I am not too surprised by this since I have heard elsewhere that the N1 level exam can take years to prepare, and it’s important not to burn out. Festina lente.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from the JLPT N1

  1. I find this post very relatable because I’m also targeting N1 in December 2022. There are so many vocabulary and kanji to learn. Passing it might be a long shot, but it’s worth trying. Looking forward to seeing more posts about N1 preparation. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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