JLPT Journal #4: How I study N1 grammar

I am writing three JLPT posts on how I study vocabulary, grammar and kanji. This is the second one, and it’s all about grammar!

Two resources

I am using two resources to learn N1 grammar. The first one is So-matome grammar and the second one is the dictionary 『日本語文型辞典』.

I use the So-matome mainly for its structure. I like that similar grammar is grouped together and the quantity of new content in each lesson is perfect for me.

However, I think that the book lacks explanations, and I am often unable to understand the difference between two different grammar points, or even, to tell exactly what a grammar rule means. This is where the dictionary is useful.

How I study new grammar

I am studying 2 or 3 lessons of So-matome per week.

First of all, I read the whole page and decide whether or not I understand the grammar in it. For example, I understood the grammar くらいなら at once, and I didn’t think that I needed further explanations. The example sentence そんなことをするくらいなら、死んだほうがましだ (I would rather die than do that) was clear enough.

In this case, I only read the example sentences twice, make sure I understand them well and start creating my physical flashcards (see the section below).

But to be honest, most of the time, I don’t understand the grammar well. So-matome does not give any explanation concerning the grammar points. The book gives an equivalent in Japanese and a translation in English. While it is enough to understand what the sentence means, I don’t think that it is enough to really master the grammar point. When is it used? What nuance, what meaning does it convey? What is the intention of the speaker when using this grammar?

Moreover, I find that the So-matome book tends to present several different grammar points as if they were the same. It certainly comes from the compact layout of the series.

In this case, I need to study with the dictionary. I look up all the grammar that I don’t understand and take notes on a loose paper sheet.

To give you a concrete example:

The lesson of week 3 day 1 presents three different grammar points using まで. The problem is that the book presents several different grammar points in the same section. The best example is the first “grammar” called までだ. This is how the book looks like:

As you can see, the example sentences have very different meanings. The first one means “I just wanted to…”, the second one and the third one have the meaning of “I don’t have another choice than to…” and the last one means “it is not useful at all”. I was very confused about what exactly the grammar meant. When I looked up the dictionary, I realised that there were three different grammar points here: Vる+まで, Vた+まで and それまで.

Explaining these grammar points is not the point of this post, so I will just show you the kind of notes I take:

I always try to explain the grammar in my mother tongue (French) and give an equivalent in French. More importantly, writing these three columns really made things clear to me: three different grammar points, three different meanings.

I have a lot of similar notes. It does take some time to look up the dictionary and write things down, but it is this process that really makes me understand and remember the grammar. I remember that at school, our teacher would tell us to re-write our lesson using our own words, instead of just reading it over and over. This is exactly what I am doing, I am re-writing the So-matome in my own words, using my mother tongue, using my own structure and layout. Only then can I say: I know exactly what this grammar means.

How I review the previous lessons

Reviewing the grammar has always been a challenge to me. Until now, I could not find a good method to review the lessons I had learned, and I always had the feeling that I was forgetting the previous rules as soon as I was learning a new one.

This year, I finally found a method that works for me: using physical flashcards. I have never been into physical flashcards, and I have always considered it unpractical. I have used Anki extensively to learn vocabulary and grammar, and two years ago, I would probably have created an Anki deck for grammar. But some time ago, I saw someone showing their physical flashcards on Twitter and thought that I could give it a try myself. I have been using this system for a month now, and I can say that it works and that I will stick to it.

This system allows me to reduce the time I spend studying Anki. While I love Anki and could not do without it, I don’t like spending too much time with it. If I were to learn vocabulary, grammar and kanji with Anki, all my study time would be spent adding new notes to Anki and studying one deck after the other.

Physical flashcards vs Anki flashcards

While physical flashcards do not provide a spaced repetition system, they also have advantages:

  • First of all, I like having the cards in my hand and physically touch them. It might sound strange, but I remember a grammar point or sentence more easily if I have it in my hand, written in my handwriting. The physical contact somehow supports the memorising process.
  • I don’t have an SRS (Spaced Repetition System), but I still can create a system to roughly manage my cards. I keep it simple and only have three groups of cards: the new cards that need to be reviewed quickly, the cards I don’t know well and that I need to review regularly, the cards I know well and can review only once in a while.
  • I don’t review grammar every day, so not using Anki is a plus here. Sometimes, I even spend 3 or 4 days without reviewing the grammar. When I do, I just grab some of my cards (the new ones or the ones I don’t know well) and review them. I don’t feel overwhelmed with 200 cards waiting for me in my Anki deck.
  • Sometimes, I have 5 or 10 minutes of inactivity between two things. It is easy to grab a pile of cards and review some of them for 5 minutes. I could open Anki and start a custom study, but I don’t usually do it.
  • I know that there are tags in Anki, but I still find it easier to group and manage the flashcards on paper. Sometimes, I want to keep several grammar points together and study them together because they are similar. It is easily managed with physical flashcards, just group them together in a single pile. I have never taken the time to master tags in Anki.

I am not saying that physical flashcards are better than Anki or Memrise, but it is a different way of studying and while learning on paper is the old method, after years of using Anki it feels quite new. I would never prefer physical flashcards to Anki when it comes to vocabulary (I would end up with thousands of cards!), but as far as grammar is concerned, it is manageable and offers a bunch of advantages.

How I create the flashcards

I have always reviewed grammar through example sentences. I think that it is the best way to remember both the meaning of the grammar point, how it is formed and in which context it is used.

To create my flashcards, I use the example sentences of So-matome. On the front side, I write the sentence and leave a blank space for the grammatical pattern. I also write the equivalent in easier Japanese (provided by So-matome). On the back, I write the answer with the grammatical structure in a different colour.

The underlined part is the answer. I write the grammar (in bold in So-matome) in colour on my flashcard. I use the equivalent given in Japanese as a hint. I don’t write the English translation.
I use rubber bands of different colours to group my cards: new cards in green, cards I need to review regularly in yellow and cards I know well in pink.
I find that Instax mini are perfect to separate the cards I want to study together. I also thought of using a blank card and drawing something funny and encouraging on it.

Track N1 grammar in native resources

The most interesting part of the process is to track the N1 grammar in native resources (mainly novels in my case). For most of the N1 grammar, there is an easier way to convey a similar meaning so it might be frustrating to learn these grammar points, especially for the purpose of speaking. If you already know one easy way of conveying something, why learn another complicated grammar rule?

But N1 grammar is widely used in Japanese media, and this becomes obvious when you start reading in Japanese. While I have been learning the N1 grammar for only a little more than a month, I have already seen several occurrences of the grammar I have learned in books.

To give you some examples, I saw the grammar Nだの…Nだの in a novel the day after I studied it. Honestly, when I learned this grammar, I had this suspicion that many learners have when studying advanced grammar “what’s that? I never saw this structure before?! It’s probably never used! I’m learning useless grammar points!!”. And the day after that, I saw this sentence: 「あんた、本当にカフェだのラジオ局だので、町が蘇ると思ってるべか?」. In the novel, people are discussing several ways of giving a new life to the deserted mine coal town they live in. Someone is dismissing the idea that the town can find vitality again through cafés or radio stations. (『向田理髪店』by Hideo Okuda, p49.)

Another example is the grammar point なり. It has different meanings depending on the grammatical pattern in which it is used. Since I learned it, I saw an occurrence for two of its meanings. The first one is the structure Vる+なり which means “as soon as”. I saw this structure in Harry Potter, The Chamber of Secrets (p.132). When Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts in Ron’s father’s car, they are first confronted by Snape. Then professor McGonagall comes and “as soon as she enters” the room waves her wand: 「部屋に入ってくるなり、先生は杖を振り上げた。」(spoiler: it was just to light the fire.) 

In another novel, I saw the expression “自分なりの答え”, which would certainly be translated by “one’s own answer”. I find the nuance given by なり hard to explain, but I somehow understood it better thanks to the context of the novel. In the novel, the family members of a murder victim are asked whether they want to choose the retaliation law to avenge themselves on the murderer. They usually start talking about the victim to find their “own” answer. (『ジャッジメント』by Yuka Kobayashi, p. 183.)

Finding N1 grammar in native resources is the fun part of studying grammar. In these moments, I feel that I am not working for the purpose of the JLPT only, but that I am improving my level in Japanese and becoming better at reading.


This is my system to study and review the grammar. I will stick to it as long as I am studying the So-matome textbook. I don’t know it this system will change when I skip to another textbook (probably the Shin Kanzen), but I think that I will keep making and reviewing flashcards until the end of the year!