Are you a beginner in Japanese?
Do you want to go up to the intermediate level?
Sure, who wouldn’t?
It sounds great but…
…what does being “intermediate” even mean?
The definition of specific proficiency levels is hotly debated in the Japanese language learning community.
While these tests provide helpful guidelines, your level of Japanese proficiency really boils down to what you can and can’t do.
The guidelines themselves are quite blurred: some say that you are intermediate if you pass N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Others say that passing N3 is closer to being intermediate, and N2 is more like upper-intermediate or advanced.
However, I didn’t figure out my skill level from any test. I figured it out from my daily interactions with native Japanese speakers.
How I Discovered My Japanese Skill Level
Here’s the story of how it all went down. I was in a video store in Japan looking for a cassette I’d wanted to rent (that tells you more or less how long ago this was). At this point in my life, my Japanese was good enough that I had the basic survival skills and phrases for life in Japan:
I could write my name in katakana – and get praised for it! Clerks at the post office would always say, “日本語うまいですね！” (Nihongo umai desu ne) – Your Japanese is good!
I could write my address, again hearing my favorite phrase “日本語うまいですね！”
I could understand totals at the cash register without the cashiers having to turn the display around for me.
Then, the video store happened. I thought I was good to go. A friend had me memorize the basic phrase to ask “Do you have _____?” ( ” ______がありますか？”/ “_____ ga arimasu ka”). The problem this time was that I didn’t know the Japanese title of this particular movie I had been seeking. I only knew its original title, and when trying to pronounce it in a Japanese way didn’t help the clerk recognize it, he asked me what the movie was about.
“あ… 男は… バカ… 家族… バケーション。でも、だめ。”
He had no idea I’d been looking for “What About Bob?” No wonder.
I still remember that as my “moment of truth”: the moment I realized that, for all the advances I’d made in my Japanese – and I’d made many, considering that I’d started from absolute zero – I would need to make more if I wanted to achieve more smoothness in my day-to-day life. That was the day I realized my Japanese speaking was still very much at the beginner level.
If you’re in a similar situation to where I was, then this post is for you. We’ll take a look here at some ways to identify your Japanese skill strengths, as well as opportunities to take your Japanese skills from beginner to intermediate.
Tips to Propel Your Japanese Skills From Beginner to Intermediate
Determine Your Japanese Skill Level
In order to accurately pin down your level of Japanese, it’s important to look across all four of the major competencies: listening, speaking, writing and reading. Look at what you can do in each. Remember: it’s possible – in fact, very normal — to be better in one skill than another. Many learners of Japanese find this to be true.
For example, let’s say “John” has studied Japanese somewhat regularly for about two-and-a-half years. His listening comprehension is good enough to get the gist of the average Japanese comedy program. But, if he were to read a transcript of the same program, he would understand only a word here and there, even with furigana to help him with the difficult kanji. While writing a summary of a two-minute segment of that program would be a really tough challenge for John, he could certainly have a basic conversation with his language exchange partner about it, even describing his favorite comedians.
If you want to find out where you stand with the four skills, the JLPT website is a great place to start. It has a lot of interactive, helpful tools for Japanese learners trying to evaluate their strengths and gaps. One of them, the “Can-Do Self-Evaluation,” presents a series of “I can…” statements regarding each of the four competencies. When you’ve found your breaking point, you’ve more or less found your JLPT level for that skill.
The JLPT site also has sample tests you can take for each competency at each JLPT level. Other online tests, such as those on Nihongo Pro are quick, interactive and effective ways for you to get a sense of your listening, speaking, writing and reading levels.
Make the Leap From Beginner to Intermediate Japanese
Once you’ve figured out which skills you are missing, it’s time to take action. Below, I have provided some tips for improving your Japanese listening, speaking, writing and reading skills over from beginner to intermediate. I’ve tried a lot of these strategies myself; ones I haven’t tried come with strong recommendations from colleagues and other Japanese language learners.
Regardless of which Japanese language skills you need to improve, make sure you choose a method that’s both effective and fun. If your selected method is only one of the two, or neither, then you’ll find it much more difficult make it part of your regular language learning routine.
It’s also important to have a well-planned and balanced diet – that is, if you are working on more than one skill, tackle different ones on different days. Plan out which skill, when, how and how long. Think of studying Japanese like going to the gym: if you only go once a week and try to furiously work out every muscle in your body, you won’t make much progress and may even come to hate doing it. If you go a few times per week with a planned routine that meets your needs and goals, you’ll see faster progress and will be more motivated to keep at it. But, just like with working out, don’t forget to rest once in a while, too!
It’s important to not try and reach too high when you start working on your listening. Sure, being able to understand your favorite Japanese dramas or films is a great goal to keep in mind. However, if you’re a beginner at listening, you’ll want to start with something that meets your current level better.
The key to improving your comprehension is building your vocabulary. The more Japanese words and phrases you know, the easier it is for you to understand context, glean central ideas and pick up on crucial details. Use listening resources that will teach you the common, everyday vocabulary you might be missing to help boost your comprehension.
One great listening resource is Japanese songs. Songs tend to use natural, everyday Japanese, and the words, phrases and themes that appear in one song will often be repeated in others. When you memorize a song’s lyrics, you remember the vocabulary in them. Before you know it, you’ll be using those words in your own original sentences!
Another useful resource for making the beginner-to-intermediate jump is a good language learning podcast. There are tons of Japanese-specific podcasts out there to cater to all levels of learners.
If you really want your Japanese listening to take off, though, you can’t go wrong with FluentU.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “Add to” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language skills.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or Android!
While there are a lot of resources out there for you to improve your Japanese listening, improving your speaking is a different story. One trick is to add speaking elements to other facets of your Japanese language learning routine.
For example, let’s say you regularly listen to podcasts to practice your listening. Why not try “shadowing” the podcast? “Shadowing” means repeating along while you listen, trying to match the speakers’ pronunciation and intonation. This is a fantastic way to improve your fluency and accuracy, and turn the input from the podcast into output.
You can also improve your speaking by finding a partner for conversation exchange. Your language exchange partner can help correct your mistakes, teach you more natural ways to phrase your ideas and also provide unique cultural insights you might not get otherwise. Find a partner that’s right for you and your level: one that has made a similar jump studying their second language may be more empathetic to your situation and have some good advice for you.
A major part of writing is learning the kana – hiragana and katakana – followed by the kanji. If you don’t know how to write all the kana yet, get on it now: kana unlocks the doors to the kanji, and the more kanji you know and can write, the more writing tasks you’re able to do in Japanese. Timothy G. Stout’s “Japanese Hiragana & Katakana For Beginners” is arguably the best drill book out there for mastering the kana: each unit is easy enough to complete in one sitting, and it also has fun and effective review quizzes.
Similar books are out there for mastering the essential kanji you’ll need to jump to intermediate. The “Essential Japanese Kanji Characters” series, published by Tuttle, is one of the most popular. It is clearly written with the Japanese language learner in mind. If you live in Japan and are feeling brave, you could try a drill book in the Gakken series. Gakken publishes kanji exercise books for elementary school students which are available at pretty much every bookstore in the country. Their units are compact – usually just a page or two – but the exercises provide lots of practice. First, you just have to wade through the Japanese instructions.
While learning the kana and kanji, it’s important to put them into context by writing basic sentences. Online diary sites such as lang-8.com give you the opportunity to do a written language exchange: you can have your writing corrected by native speakers, and in turn, you can correct entries by people studying your native language. You collect points for every post you make and every entry you correct! There are Japanese learners of all levels on lang-8.com, from complete beginners to advanced students, and all of them are there for the same reason: they want to learn! Don’t be shy!
Lots of beginner-level Japanese textbooks are available in romaji, which is Japanese written in the Roman alphabet. If you’re a beginner and are still using a romaji textbook, ditch it. The longer you cling to romaji, the more difficult it will be for you to make the jump to reading and writing in full-on Japanese. Romaji is also not good for your Japanese pronunciation: when you speak, you will visualize Japanese as romaji, and thus be more likely to “Anglocize” your Japanese speech. Jumping into Japanese reading with the kana is hard for beginners, but it pays off in the long run. It will make the beginner-to-intermediate crossover go much more smoothly.
To boost your reading of kana and essential kanji, you can’t go wrong with old-school flashcards. The ones published by White Rabbit Press are among the most widely used and respected: they’re durable, logically-organized, and each card lists several words or compounds that contain the kana or kanji. You can improve both your reading and your vocabulary at the same time!
If you’re going to go the flashcard route, don’t go for too much at once. Stick to a few cards a week. At the end of the week, review: which ones have I remembered the best? Which ones am I having trouble with? Add any cards from the latter category into your pile for next week.
There are also digital flashcard apps that can take care of this step for you and customize your learning path. One of the best-known is Anki. When Anki shows you a card, you decide how well you remember it by clicking a button: “easy,” “good,” “hard” or “again.” Anki then uses its algorithms to track your progress and show you kana and kanji that you have trouble with more frequently.
Finally, as with your Japanese writing, you’re going to need some way to put all that kana, kanji and vocabulary into context. Are you using a textbook for your Japanese class? Read aloud the example sentences or dialogues in your text book, then cover them and repeat them again. This is a really effective way to boost your reading speed and pull everything together.
If you want to challenge yourself to read something authentic, how about a simple manga or anime? Classics like “Sazae-san” and “Doraemon” are available in English, with Japanese above the panels. Try reading a story in English first, then reading it again in Japanese with the English speech covered. As you notice your comprehension and speed improving, take things to the next level by reading in Japanese first – or, better yet, reading the all-Japanese version of the same manga!
If you’d like other tips on how to get practice on these essential skills, check out our post on how you can achieve immersion without leaving your house.
Don’t Give Up (あきらめないで / akiramenaide)
In this post, we’ve looked at some ways for you to identify your Japanese skill levels and how to take them from beginner to intermediate. We’ve discussed some best practices as well as some pitfalls to avoid. What happens next is up to you.
Where do your Japanese language skills currently stand?
Where do you want them to be?
How are you going to get them there?
Whatever your goal is, make it clear, make it visible, and make it part of your life. As they say in Japanese, 挑まなければ、得られない (idomanakereba erarenai) – nothing ventured, nothing gained. The beginner-to-intermediate hurdle is high, and some days it may seem higher than others. But if you stay focused, and stay positive, you will clear it!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.