There is this strange nonchalant attitude towards the JLPT N1 that seems to hover around advanced learners. On the one hand it’s really not a big deal; it’s an exam that does not do the best job of showing your fluency. But on the other hand it’s seen as one of the “goals” when learning Japanese.
Personally I’ve found the JLPTs to be great for me because they force me to study. I need a goal to work towards, and the N1 has certainly been a high bar that I have struggled with for many years.
Those who have passed this exam easily may think, “Pfft. Why are you complaining? It’s not that hard.” But I was hard for me.
And I would like to discuss why I struggled with this exam for so long and how I’ve finally made it click. Hopefully others who struggle may find my story helpful.
Why I Struggled With the JLPT N1 for So Long
The first time I took the JLPT N1 was the summer after my MA in Translation at SOAS, London.
It was a disaster.
The second time I took the JLPT N1 was in December 2016.
It also did not go so well.
When I took the JLPT N2 I passed first time, but by a tiny margin. After that I did not do a sufficient enough job to keep learning the N2 materials and get a good grasp of them. So of course the N1 flopped, I had huge chunks of key information from even N2 level missing!
I also found out during my MA that I am dyslexic.
Which for me means a variety of things (which I go over in Translation and Dyslexia) but mostly means I struggle to remember things. I have to learn words and kanji many, many times before they stick in my memory. And even then I can lose them easily if I don’t always practice.
My spouse, Wesley (who is also a Japanese English translator), has a brain like a sponge. I really admire (and I admit am jealous) of his ability to study something once or twice then know it. He can understand things so quickly.
We took the JLPT N2 together and it felt like I was studying three-times more than him just to get similar results.
So yes, some people are amazing and can learn new Japanese incredibly easily.
I am not one of those people…
However, I don’t think that should ever stop someone from learning something new or doing something they love. As a dyslexic person it just means I have to work 30% harder.
30 years with my defunct brain and I know it better than anyone. I know it because I am very reflective, and I think that’s been key for me; to learn my strengths and weaknesses, what I did wrong and what I did right, and how I can improve.
The first time I took the exam I reflected and learned three things about what I did wrong.
- I studied with incomplete materials (Nihongo Soumatome does not have everything).
- I did not give myself enough times to learn everything (only 3 months).
- I burned myself out (trying to cram but not understand).
I actually wrote about all this on an article from December 2016 on this site; My Experience Taking the JLPT N1.
The second time I took the exam:
- I focused too much on vocab, and not enough on kanji, grammar, reading.
- I needed to read a lot more.
- I still did not have enough time (6 months).
- I panicked – anxiety during the exam.
So this time I took all the above and created a new study plan for myself.
New Approaches I Took That Worked For Me
I began studying for my most recent attempt at the JLPT N1 in January 2018. I then took the exam in July 2019, a year and a half later.
One reason was because I was incredibly busy from July to November 2018 with work and moving to Japan. So I did not study for the exam for 6 months! (Except for the 2 months I spend studying in Kyoto.)
First I looked at what I was lacking: kanji. This meant refreshing JLPT N3-N2 kanji before moving onto N1 kanji. I might know vocabulary, but when a new word was thrown at me I’d panic and struggle.
To study the kanji readings I combined the in-app reviews and quizzes with my own hand-made flashcards. As well as using my own custom Memrise flashcard deck to study the vocabulary for each kanji.
This worked particularly well because it exposed me to more common vocabulary (even if that vocab wasn’t tagged as N1 vocab). And now if I come across a new work I can guess it’s reading more accurately.
Kanji was my main focus while I also tried to read more books for fun as well as reading for the exam.
So besides reading more novels in Japanese I used italki to find some teachers to work with. One went through high school reading exams with me every Sunday, while I had some other cheaper ones to do 45mins to an hour of reading with during the week.
I enjoy having teachers because they keep me on track.
Then, in February, I started focusing on my weakest area: grammar.
I used this technique I outlined in a Japanese Talk Online post I wrote a while ago; The Best Way to Study Grammar for the JLPT.
This involved working though the grammar drill book ドリル&ドリル日本語能力試験 文法 (Drill & Drill Grammar), creating flashcards of grammar I didn’t know, then studying them on the way to work.
Doing this for three months really boosted my grammar! Especially in the context of an exam and picking out differences in similar grammar.
Although in the exam a lot of the questions focused on the subtle difference between basic grammar rather than the complex N1 grammar I had studied! Just my luck!
Because I had focused on vocabulary last time I wasn’t so worried about this.
I re-studied as much vocabulary as I could from my Memrise course 3000 N1 Vocabulary 日本語単語スピードマスター .
Then, towards the end of my study, tried to go through a vocabulary drill book. But it was surprisingly difficult! I wish I had started with that!
I didn’t study listening for the exam at all because it’s my strongest skill.
But, I do listen to a number of podcasts in Japanese on my way to work. My favorite is ゲームなんとか.
Takeaways and Reflection for Round Three
There is never enough time.
Even after carefully re-learning N3 and N2 kanji, grammar, and vocabulary to get a solid base. Working with teachers to improve reading comprehension. Even after studying for a some-what solid year, there was still a lot I could have studied!
I wish I had worked with drill books a lot sooner than I did. And, of course, focused on reading more!
Whether I take the exam again or not I would like to finished studying the kanji and vocabulary courses I left unfinished. And, of course, read a lot more!
However, I did work incredibly hard not to fry my brain and I’m proud to say I didn’t panic during the exam. (Okay, maybe mild anviety, but I remembered to breath, which helped).
I feel my overall Japanese comprehension has improved dramatically.
Where I struggled to read even basic information, I find that I can now pick up anything and understand it and all the kanji/words without much difficulty.
Whether I’ve passed the exam or not…I honestly don’t care at this point. It would be nice to pass! But I’m really happy with how much my Japanese has improved studying for the exam.