Go it Alone: How to Learn Japanese on Your Own (for Advanced Learners)

So you can understand pretty much everything that people say to you in Japanese, and you can have conversations on most topics. You've probably tucked away 1000 or more kanji, and maybe you've even notched up a few grades on the JLPT. Congratulations! You are an advanced learner. It sounds like you've done an excellent job of acquiring Japanese, and you should give yourself a hearty pat on the back for having come this far up the mountain that is language learning. It’s been a long, hard climb, so it's worth stopping to check out the view and really enjoy your achievement.

However, reaching this particular apex does make you wonder where that next conquest lies. After all, there is always more to learn, and you want to keep setting goals lest all of that progress starts to go sliding downhill. With that in mind, we've prepared some handy hints that you can use to find that next, even higher mountain to scale. Here are some tips for learning Japanese on your own as an advanced learner.

Take the BJT

The JLPT is a tough enough nut for most people to crack, and even if you pass N1, you could always keep taking the test each year and keep improving that score. However, if you'd like to add a business feather to your cap, you might want to look into the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT). This exam is offered at test centres throughout Japan and in a select few countries abroad, and unlike the rigid twice-yearly schedule of the JLPT, you can book a test date that suits you.

The type of questions you may encounter include things like taking memos while on the phone, asking your colleague to send an invoice to a client, or responding politely to a superior - practical tasks that will not only develop your Japanese proficiency but will also foster a nuanced understanding of Japanese work culture and interpersonal relationships, skills which will serve you well as you find your way around a Japanese workplace.

Podcasts and other media

These days there are many opportunities to access authentic Japanese listening content over the Internet. For example, many of the major radio stations such as Bunka Hoso, TBS Radio and Tokyo FM publish podcast versions of their radio programs each day. If you are at the advanced level and can handle the higher difficulty, think about what a fantastic opportunity this is to listen to real native speakers voicing their opinions in Japanese about all manner of interesting topics using current, even trendy language that you can impress your friends with next time you talk about current events. Perhaps you’d like to listen to new developments in the field of health or science in Japanese, or you want to hear about Japan’s economic issues straight from the horse’s mouth. Most radio stations offer programs on a range of topics, so you’re likely to find one that suits your interest.

Then there’s the telly. Up until recently, Japanese broadcasters seem to have been a bit cagey about making their content available overseas outside of selective DVD releases, but that seems to be changing with the advent of streaming services, with Japanese movies, dramas, anime and even reality shows becoming available on Netflix, Amazon Prime et. al. Some even allow you to watch in Japanese with Japanese subtitles in case you’d like to work on your reading while you listen.

That said, I still think radio is better than TV as a language learning tool because TV can rely on gestures, on-screen graphics and editing tricks to convey the message to the audience, but radio announcers have to explain things clearly to the listener, relying only on their voice. I also think the radio does make your brain work a little to get a picture of what the speaker is talking about.

Specialise

If you've reached the advanced level, then you've no doubt learned a lot of general vocabulary that's useful when talking about everyday topics. Now it might be time to think about specialising. What interests you most? What did you study at school or in your free time as a hobby? You can start applying that interest to your Japanese studies.

For example, perhaps you have an interest in politics and you'd like to know more about what's happening in the political realm in Japan, so you might find a newspaper article, podcast or even a book about politics intended for the (Japanese) layperson. I used to like buying books that recapped all of the top news stories of the previous year because they cover a nice range of topics and give a bit of background on the newsworthy occurrence in question. If you're still finding this kind of written material a tad difficult or a bit dry, you may want to consider learning materials for young adults that use fun or interesting ways to teach the content. One example is the ‘Daigaku Nyushi Manga de ~ Omoshiroi hodo Wakaru Hon’ (University Entry Exam: A Book that Makes ~ Interesting with Manga) series, which teaches various academic topics. There are some quite difficult words in these texts, but the pictures, format and otherwise accessible language will help you to understand (and remember!) the content well.

Make a word list

Once you start to specialise, you might notice a problem. Up until now, you may have found a lot of opportunities for revision of general vocabulary, for example by hearing it in the news or spoken by a friend, but this is revision that you just won’t get with specialised, lower frequency words. Here's where storing a language vocabulary list comes in handy. You can use this very site to make up a list and give it a title, storing it away to open periodically and get in some spaced repetition.

Write a blog

Did this heading scare you a little? Once you've overcome the initial fear at the thought of writing something in your non-native language, something that may be read by hundreds or even thousands of people on the Internet, think about what an excellent learning exercise this is. By pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and writing a blog in Japanese, you have free licence to use as much of the language that you've acquired as you want, and you can write about any topic that your heart desires. You might find yourself reading the blog repeatedly to check it and make sure that it's ready to be published, which may help to burn the various words and phrases into your memory and make them a part of you.

Will your blog have mistakes in it? No question, but this is a learning exercise - nobody expects you to be perfect in your second language. Grammar mistakes or no, whether you are writing something about your own culture or about Japan, it may be of interest to Japanese readers by offering up a fresh perspective on the topic.

Most importantly of all, by writing blog content, you have made the transition from passively reading for understanding to actively using the language to create something new. Your thoughts and ideas are reaching a new audience, to interest, influence and inspire them. In some small way, your language skills are changing the world! You can’t get better motivation than that.

Summary

Reaching the advanced level is an achievement to be savoured, but you can still keep setting new goals. Taking the BJT, listening to podcasts, reading books and writing a blog are all things that you can do to keep your Japanese on the up. Just remember that at this level, it makes more sense to develop a focus for your studies and specialise in an area that interests you. You can’t climb every mountain, so choose one that you like the look of.

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