How I passed the N1 in one go

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The N1 is the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). In my opinion the test is a waste of time because there is no assessment of productive skills, so you can't really call it a 'proficiency' test, however passing it looks really good on your CV and can help you get a job using Japanese. For this reason I recommend getting it out of the way as soon as possible, as well as making sure you pass it on the first go so your time doesn't go to waste.

As with a lot of exams in Japan, if you study the exam, you pass. If you study general Japanese, you don't (unless of course you are really, really good, like native-speaker level, which means you won't need to spend any time studying anyway). This means taking a strategic approach to passing the exam is necessary, but in order to do this you need to know what you need to know.


A list of the required vocabulary can be found here, however I went out and bought this book, which ranks the words in order of frequency, the most efficient way to learn vocabulary in a second language. Now that I knew the vocabulary I needed to know, I had to devise a system to put it all in my long term memory. The reason why I wanted to remember words for the long term rather than cramming was because I didn't want to have to re-learn the words at a later date. There are many, many ways to do this however the most efficient way is to use spaced repetition (intensive study), which is actually the most efficient way to learn anything (see Kornell, 2009), coupled with extensive reading (extensive study). 

Intensive vocabulary study

Intensive vocabulary study is when you purposely set out to learn vocabulary, as opposed to extensive study where you learn vocabulary through comprehensible input (see here). Studies into intensive vocabulary study have shown that people can learn up to 35 words an hour, which is pretty quick if you think about it (not sure how well the words were remembered though). I used spaced repetition software called Anki, which lets you customise the cards a lot, unlike memrise where the cards are already made for you, and there is a severe lack of context.

Severe lack of context? What does this mean and why does this matter? I hear you ask. Well, it is much more efficient to learn words in context because it makes them much easier to remember. Ever had a word that you can remember exactly where and when you learnt it? For me I remember learning 大丈夫 in Japan back in 2005 on a school trip. I remember the person who taught me, and who else was there at the time too. Granted this is a very common word, but at the time I didn't know it.

This means that when using wordcards or wordcard software (i.e. Anki), it helps to have the word in a sentence or two. One other really big advantage of this is that you can also see the word in use, which helps let you know its part of speech, as well as when and where you can use the word; very useful for words with similar sounds and similar meanings (which shouldn't be learnt together by the way, even things like body parts or days of the week).

There are many reasons why you should make your own cards rather than downloading a deck someone else has made, or using memrise which is essentially the same thing. Firstly, writing these cards one by one gives you exposure to the word; you aren't relying on the software to learn the words initially. Secondly, you have complete control over the words you choose. There may be some words that you already know, which isn't so much of a problem on Anki, but is a bit annoying if you use memrise because they come up multiple times in quick succession. There may also be words that you don't know but you want to know, which you will have to add and modify manually, checking whether or not it is in the list in the first place; a very time-consuming process. 

So to make my word cards, I used to look in the book for the word and then search for a Japanese definition (in order to be able to use L2* definitions you need to know about 2000 L2 words). Then I would look for example sentences using the words where I would choose one or two sentences to add to the card. On the front of the card I would have the Japanese definition. On the back I would have the target vocabulary and example sentences. Then I would let the software work its magic by keeping up to date with reviews, and constantly adding new vocabulary until I had gone through the book.

This however wasn't enough, and I will tell you why on my next post on extensive learning of vocabulary.

*I use L2 to mean any language but your mother tongue learnt after the age of four

On a side note, I was rather surprised when on the new Anki (Anki 2 I believe) they limited the number of reviews you could do in a day. This is plain stupid because everyone is different, and also because each word has a different learning burden (see Nation, 2009). A learning burden is how difficult it is for a specific learner to learn a specific word in an L2. For whatever reason, some words are much easier to learn than others, and therefore this limit shouldn't have been set in the first place. 



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