JLPT Journal #3: How I study Vocabulary

I am preparing for the JLPT N1 (December 2019), and I thought I would write three posts on how I tackle vocabulary, grammar and kanji. Let’s start with vocabulary!

One textbook only

For now, I am only using one textbook, the 『日本語単語スピードマスター』, advanced (see a review of the book of Japanese Talk Online)

So far, I love this book, and I find it more practical than the So-matome or the Shin Kanzen books that I had used for N2. Both these methods had a tendency to present the new words in groups of words. It was a way to learn several words at the same time and grasp the context in which these words had to be used. But the downside was that I found it very hard to study.

To give you an example, the Shin Kanzen textbook had groups of words like 財務省次年度予算案を作成した or 政府財政的課題取り組む. How do you study such words? Do you only learn the words? or do you learn the whole sentence? I remember that these short sentences were a nightmare to me! 

Plus, there is no real way to review with the textbook, as all the kanji have furigana and, as far as the Shin Kanzen is concerned, no translation. You could hide the furigana to quiz yourself of the pronunciation, but it is not easy.

This is an example of how the Shin Kanzen N2 (on the left) and the So-matome N1 (on the right) presents the vocabulary. The layout might vary depending on the chapter.

In 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』, you only learn one word at a time and almost every word comes with an example sentence. To me, this makes everything easier.

This is a page from 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』(advanced). All units have the same layout.

Apart from layout matters, the main difference between So-matome and Shin Kanzen on one side and the 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』 on the other side is that the latter does not have exercises. Both So-matome and Shin Kanzen have a series of JLPT like exercises that quiz you on the words you have just learned. The Shin Kanzen method is particularly strong on this point, with a good set of challenging exercises in each chapter.

On the contrary, 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』 is just composed of lists of words. I will have to make vocabulary drills separately then!

The method also comes with a CD, but I am not using it.

How I am studying

I am learning 2 units per week. Some are longer than others, but the longer ones tend to have more words that I already knew, so it does not bother me.

First, I read all the words and sentences once. Then I come back on all the words I didn’t know and try to remember them by repeating them several times, and by having a good look at the kanji. I always try to understand how the kanji make sense in the word, why the word is composed of these kanji and not others. It helps me to understand the word and remember it. For example, I had to learn the words 債権・さいけん (credit) and 債務・さいむ (debt). At first, I thought “pff, difficult words to learn”, but then I observed the kanji and realised that the word “credit” is composed of “debt” and “right” and the word “debt” is composed of “debt” and “duty”, which makes sense. These two words are much easier to remember now!

If I stumble across an unknown kanji, I look it up. I personally use the app The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (Revised and Expanded) for iPhone.

Then I make the first review using the red card provided with the book. At this stage, I don’t really expect myself to have remembered all the words. It is just a way to be sure that I am learning actively, and that I am not just staring blankly at the words without making conscious efforts to remember them.

The red card covers the pronunciation and meaning of a word. You only see the word in kanji (or hiragana). My aim is to pronounce the word and give its meaning. I don’t try to write it or learn it in the direction English to Japanese.

How I review the words

First of all, I only review using the textbook itself and the red card. I don’t use Anki to learn the N1 vocabulary.

I am learning 2 units per week, so I work on vocabulary only twice a week. Until now, I have reviewed the previous units before starting my new unit. This means that I only review twice a week.

The problem is to know which words I should review. There are three possibilities:

  • First, I could mark the words that are difficult to me and review these words only. The problem is that I cannot write in a book, even a textbook. I just cannot.
  • Then, I could review only some units. For example, if I review twice a week, I could review the first five units on day 1 and the following five units on day 2. Obviously, I will have to review more than twice a week if I want to review all the units regularly.
  • Finally, I could review all the units that I have already studied twice a week. It does not take so much time. For now, this is what I am doing because I have just started. I will certainly have to set a new strategy when I have dozens of units to review (there are 69 units in the book)

Not using Anki to review feels very fresh and new to me. For N2, I have studied vocabulary in Anki only. Reviewing words directly in the book might be less efficient, but it also has advantages:

  • First, I fully take advantage of the book’s structure. The words are grouped by topics, and each unit is devoted to a theme. If I had added the words to Anki, I would have had lost this structure.
  • It’s refreshing to study vocabulary outside Anki. While studying N2, I had the feeling that I was spending all my study time in Anki (studying Anki took me more than one hour). In the end, opening my deck felt like a painful task.
  • I tend to remember the words more easily when I learn them on paper. Of course, the position of the page helps and I might not remember the words as well as with Anki. But seeing the word on paper rather than on the screen appeals more to me.

I am not saying that this method is perfect, but I am satisfied with it for now!

Native material

To complement the work I am doing with the textbook, I am tracking down N1 words in the novels I read. Every time I see such a word in a novel, I write the sentence down.

I took the habit of having a memo pad with me when I read. I jot down thoughts about the book, characters name, things that I want to write in my review, and so on. If I find a word (or grammar) I learnt for N1, I will also write down the sentence in which it appeared.

While learning words in the textbook can be a little artificial sometimes, seeing them in context allows me to remember them better. It is a slow process, but it is a great way to make vocabulary stick!


This is how I am studying vocabulary for N1. It is certainly not the perfect method, but it seems to be working for me. More importantly, it feels fresh and new, and I feel happy to open my book and study/review N1 vocabulary in it.