I think every week I’ll post a screenshot of my Read The Kanji vocab/kanji reading progress, and also talk about where I am in my studies.
I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made in really a month, more or less. Of course, I had already gone through all the words in 2009 (except for the handful of new ones they added when they updated the site to the new JLPT N5~N1 system), but I had to remember and re-learn most of them (which is why I wouldn’t consider the success rates completely accurate; it still has the failure rates from when I was first learning these words–and when the site’s algorithm was much less effective–factored in). Just today though I dropped the N3 deck from my rotation; only a few words were still red (weak) and I made sure to memorize them. Everything else was going to be a review of easy things and a waste of time, so it had to get dropped for now when time is of the essence. From now on it’s nonstop N2!
I also finished my two N3 textbooks today! I started them maybe 10 days ago so they went fast. They were Nihongo Sou-matome grammar and vocabulary. I received these from a friend so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I like this series a lot but it does have some downsides. It has English, Mandarin, and Korean translations of the new points/words each lesson introduces, so it’s not as intimidating as all-Japanese Kanzen Master, plus it divides everything up into bite-size lessons with cute pictures. I really like how all the similar vocab words are grouped together; someday I’d like to get the N2 vocab one from this series. Each book is set up as a six-week course but you can progress pretty quickly if you want. Pretty much everything was a review for me, but I did learn quite a few new things and I deepened my understanding of others. The grammar book also gave me the chance to practice the new JLPT questions with the bits of the sentence scrambled and you have to put them in correct order. I’m much better at that now. The problem I have with the series is it seems like they rushed it a little and it wasn’t fully proofread; some of the English is way off (cf. “A wired guy” when it should be “A weird guy” and other potentially disastrous-if-you-don’t-know-better typos) and I also caught a typo in Japanese too. The grammar points also don’t always have a clear translated explanation or even one in Japanese, which is especially necessary when the lesson lumps in very similar expressions and you need to know how to tell the difference. I could always more or less figure it out [whether from intuition or prior familiarity] but I know that could be a drawback for people approaching this book from below my level. It’s obvious that when compared to Kanzen Master, the production quality is nowhere near as good. But it is really approachable and that’s not to be underestimated. I decided to buy some N2-specific textbooks for this next phase of my study, and I went with Nihongo Sou-matome for the N2 reading comprehension textbook (I already have an inherited Kanzen Master 2級 reading textbook as well). Aside from that though, all my N2/2級 textbooks are Kanzen Master. I’m diving into those starting now!
(Regarding ordering this series: the images link to Amazon, but White Rabbit Press also seemed like a good place to get them. When I ordered three more textbooks recently though, I went with Kinokuniya, the NYC location, since I knew it would be fast coming from inside the US already. It was indeed lightning fast! White Rabbit was going to cost a tiny bit less but it was also going to take 2-3 weeks to ship, so my choice was easy.)
Sometimes when I think about how clueless I was when I took 2級, I want to shoot myself. I didn’t even know the Japanese names of each section of the test (語彙・文法・聴解・読解), I had never taken a practice test for ANY of the sections, I barely understoood ahead of time how the test was divided up and administered, I waited until the night before to BEGIN studying grammar, and I was woefully under-prepared for both the listening and the reading sections, which just steamrolled me. (I also failed to eat a good snack during the break so in the last section, reading–THE HARDEST ONE–I got light-headed from hunger and had a hard time focusing. In the end I ran out of time and wasn’t able to answer all the questions in that section). However, all that considered, it’s a miracle I still got at least a 50% when you needed 60% to pass. I did come really close even though I naively pretty much only studied vocab/kanji readings and didn’t have time for anything else. So that has to say something, right? (I’m a genius! Right? That’s it, right?). Imagine how I’ll do when I’m actually fully prepared!
The one thing the test doesn’t measure though is your ability to produce language freely; there’s no speaking or writing section. Of course, that makes it a little less difficult too–I believe that as a language learner, comprehending (reading, listening) is infinitely easier than producing (speaking, writing) language. Even though reading and listening are hard too! But the real challenge comes in trying to reproduce the correctly formed sentences you’ve learned, and trying to remember the right vocabulary words for the situation you want to express. That’s also where the native speakers are going to judge your overall language ability the most, even though I don’t think it’s a fair assessment, since usually you can read/understand better than you can write/speak! I know my French host sister (teenage, and thus impatient/unforgiving) decided I was an idiot because my pronunciation/accent and ability to express myself out loud were so bad, and then when we chatted on Facebook after I got home she was like, “Oh, so you can speak French. Huh.” But of course, as English native speakers, think back to how easy it is to get impatient with someone struggling to express themselves in English, someone with an accent and bad sentence construction. It’s really easy to think, “This person can’t speak English” when probably in reality, they can read and comprehend infinitely better. I hate to think of myself in a foreign language/culture as that person who others get impatient with because they aren’t fully fluent, who sounds like an idiot all the time, but that’s just part of language learning. You have to put aside pride and just keep pushing through, hoping practice leads to improvement even if you sound stupid for a while. At least in Japan, people are more patient with you than in, say… France. (Hmm, why do I prefer Japan/Japanese again…?)
I’ve found that in every language I’ve studied substantially, there’s one major thing that I get stuck on–for years. To this day I have trouble with that one thing, sometimes a handful of things. It’s like a hump you have to work super hard to get past, and if you don’t put in that work you’ll never master it. With Spanish it’s telling the difference between when to use ser and when to use estar; with French it’s many things but especially how to insert y and en into sentences, as well as ce and all its forms. These are things you think you should only have to learn once but when it comes time to write or speak, you keep messing them up. It’s enough to make you want to quit the language because it’s just too hard. But it also feels like this is the breaking point of learning a language, the point of no return: it will require a lot of effort from here on out to push through to the other side, but once you do, you’ll be much more advanced and closer to fluency. I feel like I’m at that point with all the languages I’ve studied the longest, and only with Japanese do I have the willpower to keep pushing and trying to make it through. I feel like the distance between mastering N3 and mastering N2 is that wall; once you’ve gotten there, you’ve made it, but until then, it’s an uphill battle. That’s where I am right now, and actually it’s where I have been for the past couple years. Only now am I really putting in the amount of effort that it’s going to take, though, so I’m the most confident I’ve ever been that I will do this.
In many ways Japanese is easier than romance languages: no genders to learn with each noun, no making the adjectives agree with those genders, no six conjugations to learn for each verb, and so on. But of course it has its own difficulties. Keeping my politeness level consistent is really still super tough for me, especially when I’m speaking and I get nervous. There’s also the fact that you have to learn a lot of different forms of the same verb: the polite and regular forms (and in some cases respectful and humble synonyms), as well as the transitive and intransitive forms. (And all the tenses too, but those aren’t so bad. They don’t have to agree with a certain perspective [“I” “we” etc] so in that respect romance language verbs are harder.) The transitive stuff is also one of those things that I worry is still a little confusing for me; it’s easy to read, not so easy to remember how to produce correctly. “I do” and “It does [that]” require their own version of “to do,” for example. So every verb has a transitive and intransitive form to learn. (Words like “transitive” and “intransitive” used to make me zone out even in English grammar classes–even though I graduated an English major, I have no patience for nitty-gritty stuff like diagramming sentences and so on–so when they came up in Japanese too, I thought I might be in some major trouble here.) Once you learn enough common phrases and get a feel for how things are said, it gets a little easier, but I still get worried that I’m going to mess it up. I don’t think I actually have though.
Really my main difficulty, that I mess up often, is politeness level consistency. I always seem to switch throughout the story I’m writing or telling, without realizing it. It’s so frustrating! I have a lot of formal phrases that I fall back on to explain things about myself or answer questions (“Sou desu” and so on), but then I’ll start telling a story and slip out of my formal speech as I focus on simply expressing myself clearly. It’s so, so, so hard to be consistent. Of course you also have to judge the situation and decide on a politeness level at the start. What if you’re talking to someone you just met, but she’s younger than you? Polite or regular? Regular seems a little rude/forward for someone you just met, but polite seems over-the-top for someone your junior and also for someone around your age. To make things easier I will often try to go for a combination of regular forms with some “desu” thrown in, to make a sort of in-between politeness level. Using only regular forms still freaks me out and makes me worry I’m being rude, though! Of course as a foreigner you get a lot of leeway and Japanese people generally won’t take offense at a too-casual politeness level in your speech (most of the time; my horrible landlady from study abroad is a glaring exception) because they know you’re just clueless and not actually rude, but you still want to get things right.
It’s also hard to judge your politeness level when writing like blog entries, because you don’t know your audience. Should you make everything polite? Everything regular? Based on the lang-8 corrections I’ve seen, the Japanese people there seem to think we should be writing using all polite speech. (Is that because we’re foreigners learning the language or because they feel blog entries in general should be polite? But what about the Japanese blog entries I’ve read that are all regular/casual?). What if I know my audience, like if I’m writing on mixi, is all people my age who would think my using polite speech a little unnecessary and strange?
I think this is one of those things where you just have to study, study, and study native speech, and eventually you’ll pick it up yourself. It’s my belief that an immersive environment will eventually cure you of these mistakes if you pay enough attention… I hope!