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Effect size of various JLPT N1 study strategies (137/180 in 20 months/~1400 hrs)

I started from learning Japanese from scratch in March 2019 when the pandemic hit1. Now after 20 months, I've been able to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1 (JLPT N1) with a score of 137/180 (proof). This post covers my learning journey, JLPT strategies I've discovered, and where I'm going from here.

My Journey

I started learning Japanese in March 2019 as a way to kill time during lockdown. I had just discovered MattVSJapan2 and was particularly attracted to the claims that Matt had made around immersion. Gain Japanese fluency by giving yourself a free pass to watch as much anime as you want? Sounds like a freebie and no-brainer. Immerse enough and you'll develop basic fluency with no output training? His claim was super appealing and his arguments against classroom learning made sense to me -- I had tried studying Korean intensely for a year and a half solely in a classroom setting and ended up nowhere. I was curious about immersion learning so I went with it.

I followed the Mass Immersion Approach golden path of immersion. I did the RRTK, Tango N5 deck, Tae Kim, and spent about 3-4 hours a days immersing in Japanese. I read my first light novel about 6 months in and my first visual novel about 8 months in. I added about 20-25 new Anki cards a day. I felt really good about my progress and felt like I was making rapid gains that I hadn't seen before.

1 Year

Around the 1 year mark, I thought I was hot stuff for having 10,000 anki cards in my deck and feeling like I understood 90% of slice-of-life anime. You can see a long update video I've recorded here. I had self-evaluated myself as an N2-level learner because that's just how I felt. However, when I decided to try my hand on the Kotoba N2 grammar quiz, I had failed miserably, getting about 40% of the multiple choice questions correct.

That experience led me to a realization that is commonly referred in the immersion learning community as "whitenoising" and "fanfic reading". I realized that I was not really understanding the input I was consuming (whitenoising) and making stuff on the spot to feel like I knew what was going on (fanfic reading). I resolved to read with more clarity and tolerate less ambiguity, so I studied grammar again for the first time since I've started. This process took about 2 months of learning new grammar patterns and continue to immerse to solidify my understanding.

16 Month and my JLPT study journey

Around August when the JLPT registration was about to open, I decided to take a past JLPT N1 test to see whether I could pass the JLPT N1 in time. I went into the test blind and scored a raw score of 56/108, going over the allocated time. This was probably a non-passing score, but I felt like if I familiarized myself with the format and the test-taking strategies and did some grammar study, I could certainly obtain a passing score by December. With that confidence, I signed up for the N1.

2 weeks after my 56/108, I decided to take another practice exam to measure the effect size of being familiar with the test format. In those 2 weeks I've done no active study and just continued to immerse minimally. I scored a 70/108, which was extremely positive news since it would translate to a passing N1 score. This was "proof" that I could largely rely on immersion to acquire enough Japanese to pass the N1. I felt like if I could invest just a little time into studying, I could obtain a score with a lot more leeway.

So I started studying for the JLPT in mid September. I was the weakest in grammar, followed by reading, then listening, then vocab (which was my strongest). I brushed up on my grammar by going going through the Nihnogo no Mori grammar videos, Shin Kanzen Grammar Workbook, and the Kotoba Discord Bot Grammar Quiz. I worked my way through the Shin Kanzen Reading Workbook to improve my reading. I found these resources helpful for solidifying my implicity understanding of grammar that I had developed from immersion. I was pretty quick to pick up new grammar patterns by encountering them in the wild.

However, after going through these resources, my test scores have largely plateau'd. In fact, my score didn't significantly change at all between August to November, hovering between raw scores of 65 - 71/108. This was extremely upsetting because most people in the immersion learning community had claimed that the JLPT was extremely gameable and not really reflective of your japanese ability. I've been trying to game it had been extremely resilient to being gamed.

I also found that when I didn't immerse my original 3-4 hours a day, my japanese level would rapidly drop. This caused fluctuations in my score and contributed to the plateu.

So how was I able to improve my score? Stupidly enough I noticed starting the in the 2019 exams that JLPT had started recycling questions from past exams. Since I had been taking past JLPT exams regularly to measure my progress and subsequently reviewing what I got wrong, I had developed a mental bank of questions I've seen before.

In fact, in the 2021 December exam, my JLPT study group identified 18 recycled questions out of the 104 available. This included 3 entire passages with their entire question set. I had been a benefactor of about maybe 10-15 points solely from encountering the exact questions. I even did the math of how someone would fair if they got all the recycled questions right and guessed on everything else -- they'd get an average score of 73/180.

In Short

Here's all the practice tests I've taken and their scores

If I were to measure the effect size of my JLPT strategies, here they are:

  • 85 points from immersion (~1400 hrs)

  • 20 points from knowing the test format

  • 15-20 points from going through workbooks

  • 15 points from doing and studying past exams

If someone paid me $800 for JLPT advice (Thoughts)

  • I found that if I solely focused on studying without immersing, my brain starts to compartmentalize JLPT study into its own "box" that's not Japanese. It's like I'm studying a set of language rules and not really studying Japanese as a language people use and speak. I feel the effects of it 2 months after the JLPT -- I've forgotten a lot of what I've studied.
  • Studying is such a chore. I don't know how anyone puts hundreds of hours into studying Japanese. I find it way easier to put in large amounts of time in Japanese (2+ hours/day) immersing. There are stuff you can consume that is more JLPT-aligned (shares more vocabulary/grammar as the JLPT). Ask your local community for recs.
  • Whether not people should study grammar has been a Holy War fought in the immersion-learning community for forever. My advice? If there are successful data points from both camps, then there is room for individual variation. The other thing worth noting is that studying grammar in an immersion-based approached takes like 10 hrs -- a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of hours people already spend on Japanese. If you're unsure, try it and see if it helps.
  • JLPT workbooks can be helpful for REVIEWING N1 material, but don't expect to be able to ace each section just because you worked through some workbooks.
  • Do past exams and review what you got wrong! The organizers have been recycling a bunch of questions and answers recently. Even if they don't use the exact question, they might share the same answer bank. For example, I've seen めきめき as the correct answer in one exam and as an option in another one. Ask people you know where you can find past exams, they tend to originate from Chinese and Vietnamese sites. The other benefit of doing past exams is it builds endurance to grinding Japanese and helps you learn to manage your time.
  • It helps to be part of a community that studies together. I found my home in TheMoeWay where we had a bunch of people taking the test who would share resources with each other, answer questions, and support each other. There's a lot of goodwill in the Japanese learning community if you know where to look. We had about ~15 people in our server take the N1 and collectively had a 80+% pass rate (including Jazzy's 8.5 month perfect score 😩)

Where I am now?

My original plan was to pass the N1 and feel like I'm on the brink of having basic fluency. I was promised that I'd be able to speak with very little activation energy on my output, but even now at 22 months of my journey, being able to understand most of what I read and listen to, I still have a lot of trouble forming basic N5 sentences. How could that be possible? Here are some hypotheses that I've heard that may contribute to my utter lack of output.

  • My comprehension isn't high enough: This would be Refold's interpretation of my situation. I may be able to understand 90% of my content, but maybe it takes more like 98% comprehension. Maybe comprehension is more than just understanding the meaning, maybe it's understanding the nuance or pitch accent, which makes it more difficult to measure and improve.

  • I'm not immersing in enough natural speaking japanese: I've mostly been in immersing in stuff in the fantasy genre. I've noticed that I don't really come across the same types of sentences and phrases that you would use in a day-to-day conversation with Japanese strangers. This is a theory expoused by immersion learner Aussieman, who recommends people immerse in conversational japanese as much as they can.

  • I just need to work on it separately.

I honestly give some credit to each theory. I still have lot I could work on on my output. It's just hard because I don't find the activity of practicing output particularly enjoyable so it does feel like a chore.

It's not all hopeless and I'm not starting my output journey from zero. Here were some things that I've experienced that have been helpful with output:

  • Being able to recognize whether something is translated in my head versus natural speech. Recognition of natural japanese is pretty decent even if I'm not able to produce it myself
  • If I want to say a word and don't know how to say it like "poverty", I can look up the word in the dictionary and I'll roughly know which Japanese word will suit my sentence best, for example between 貧困、困窮、乏しい、不自由.
  • I can say recall words and set phrases without too much difficulty, like 逆ギレ、勉強になりました、or 身を持って. Conjugation and chaining things is the hard part.

Where next?

I started learning Japanese as a way to kill time during lockdown. I don't plan on moving to Japan or using my Japanese anytime soon so my Japanese learning has been taking a larger backseat compared to my other life interests. Since practicing output is a chore, I'll probably do the minimal HelloTalk and watch Dogen's pitch accent series, but otherwise I like being in the place where I can enjoy Japanese media natively without much help (going through a manga phase right now).

  1. I took an intro Japanese class in college (concurrently with intermediate Korean) and proceeded to forget everything immediately afterwards. I am also a heritage speaker of Chinese. 

  2. Please don't cancel me. I'm not a MattVsJapan fan anymore after observing his past conduct (including Uproot). After following his advice to the T for some time now, my take is that some of his advice is sound, some needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and some are just shady marketing. 

Last update: 2023-03-12