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Power Labeling

Some recent research in how we learn languages has uncovered that there is no ‘language’ module in our brain exactly. We actually use our whole brain to learn words and use language.

So, for example, if I told you I saw a flying pig, you probably wouldn’t believe me, but you could easily imagine what a flying pig looks like even though they don’t exist in real life. Your brain can pretty easily combine your memory of a pig and your concept of the action flying into some kind of image. Maybe you imagine a pig with a cape or wings whizzing through the air.

The point is, that the words you are reading now are not how your brain sees words. This is just an easy and quick format for me to convey information to you, but it is not how you really think or use language. The abstract letters of this ebook are actually being changed into images (or sounds, smells, feelings, or tastes) by your brain in a rapid, automatic process whether you are aware of it or not or at least according to this new theory.

And actually the more abstract language becomes, the more difficult it is for people to understand. That is why a lot of N1 essays are so incredibly difficult to understand.

So it makes sense to have flashcards that are as concrete as possible. That are surrounded by images, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that you can use to plant the word in your head. Give it roots so it can grow and stay put instead of being washed away.

Pretty visual, eh? I could have told you that you need to build associations with visual representations, so that your brain can assimilate new words, but that doesn’t quite stick as well does it?

Anyway, there is a pretty easy way to create these visual flashcards so that you can really lock in the vocabulary. You can do it with a study tool I call ‘power labeling’. Basically, you are just going to label everything in your house or apartment using new words.

For example, you can take the word (mado), meaning window and write it down on a sticky note. Be sure to write the hiragana first on the very bottom, then write the kanji directly above it. This is so you can later rip off the hiragana once you have become confident with it.

The last step is to write an example sentence using the new word. For , we could use a simple sentence like the following:

窓を  開けてください
(madowo aketekudasai)
Please open the window.

This is an excellent example of something you can use for a more basic vocabulary words. What about something a lot more complex?

Here is a lovely example from my N1 So-Matome Grammar book:

私は、家では たいてい ジーンズに Tシャツを 着ています。
(Watashiwa, iedewa taitei jiinzuni T-shatsuwo kiteimasu.)
I wear mostly jeans and a T-shirt when I am at home.

This is something you could easily put on your drawer that holds your jeans and T-shirts, so that you can see it every time you wear your jeans and T-shirts.

All right, how about those tricky abstract words that don’t really have an object you can label? For example, there is an N1 word, 経緯 (ikisatsu), which roughly means ‘details, particulars, or the whole story’. This might seem like a hard thing to find a physical object to match up to.

But, what about a grater? A grater breaks things down into smaller parts, and aren’t details and particulars smaller parts of the whole? So you could label where you store your grater with this word and an example sentence. Or if not a grater, maybe where you store your knives. They are used to cut things into smaller pieces as well.

The idea is to think differently about abstract words, don’t try to simply remember the word by connecting it to just the English translation, but connect it to as many other things as you can.


1) Find an object in your house or apartment that you want to use more often or are not familiar with.

2) Look up an example sentence using the object from a resource like Tatoeba.org. Or write your own sentence and have it checked with a native or a service like lang-8.com.

3) Write the example sentence at the top of a sticky note, then the word in kanji (if it is used with kanji), then the word in hiragana at the bottom of the note.

4) Stick the note to the object.

5) At first, practice just saying the word. Once you can say it easily without looking at the hiragana, rip off the bottom part of the note (the section that has the hiragana on it).

6) Later, once you are pretty comfortable with the word, rip the word off and just leave the sentence. Add more sentences and actions you can do with the object.

7) Remember to act out the action and really get into it. Seeing (and the other 4 senses) help you lock in the new word.

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Teach Yourself Grammar

One of the best ways to learn something well is to teach it to someone else. If you have to explain something several times over and over again to someone, it becomes an easy way to learn the thing yourself.

So, naturally, the best way to learn a new language is to teach others what you know about the language. This will help you reinforce what you already know as you are teaching someone else. You are also helping a fellow studier in the process. This is one of the reasons why I started the JLPT Boot Camp blog.

But there are some issues with running a blog. First of all, you have to go through all the work of setting one up. New blogging platforms like WordPress.com and blogger make it simpler, but not completely foolproof.

The other issue with blogging is that there isn’t exactly a built in way to review. In other words, once you’ve created the post or other kind of content it just sits there and probably won’t be seen again by your eyes unless someone makes a comment or suggestion.

And some people blogging just isn’t there thing. I mean, music isn’t my thing, so why should I learn guitar, so that I can play Japanese songs? Seems like some extra work if I’m not really into it.

An Alternative to Blogging

So teaching something is a good way to learn something, and blogging is a good way to teach something, but that might not be your thing. What’s the alternative to that then?

Well, there are several alternatives you can use. One method that I’ve been using recently is teaching myself grammar through little mini lessons. I was able to basically teach myself all the N1 grammar expressions in about a month using this method, so it can be pretty powerful.

This method involves doing some recording and using that recording to help you review the grammar. I have found that recording audio is really helpful because there are some great tools that can help you review the grammar on a regular basis automatically.

Find some Grammar to Review

First, you will need some kind of grammar textbook to work with. This can be a Minna No Nihongo book if you are just starting out with N5 and N4 or it can be a So-Matome or New Kanzen Master book for the N3 and above levels. For more details about different books, check out the guide on how to select a good book.

After you have gone through a particular section of the book and did all the exercises, isolate the grammar points that you have learned. There is usually a grammar section in every textbook that will present the grammar point they are focusing on for that unit. For the So-Matome and New Kanzen Master series this is pretty easy, the grammar phrases are pretty clearly marked in each section.

Now, grammar can be pretty tricky, some grammar points might have several rules. For example, for the particle, there are probably at least 7 or 8 rules or pieces of information that you need to know about it. So, it is important to break down one grammar point into several pieces. This way, your brain won’t be overloaded with all the extra information at once.

You may also want to look up the grammar point in a reference book of some kind. I’ve listed a few grammar resources that you can use to find more information about a particular grammar point so that you have a better idea of how to use it. Generally speaking though, a good textbook should have an ample enough description of the grammar point for you to understand what is going on.

Start Recording Mini Grammar Lessons

After you have found a good grammar point, and you are pretty familiar with it, it is time to do some recording. A smartphone works great for this, the iPhone has the Voice Memo app and Android also has an app simply called Voice Memo or there are a few alternatives you can use as well. Alternatively, you can just use Audacity and a computer microphone to record your voice that way, too.

Once you have your audio recording gear setup, it’s time to do some recording of the particular grammar point. The main idea behind these recordings is to give as much information as you need to understand the grammar point clearly, but not too much as to bore your future self to death because you’ll be listening to these recordings on a regular basis in the future.

At first, recording these mini grammar lessons will seem a little awkward, and you’ll notice that you might even leave out a few things by accident. But, over time, you will get better at explaining the grammar points and understanding what is important about each one. It’s a powerful way to take a different direction with how you study your grammar.

When I did this, I recorded the audio and then listened to it for a good 20 minutes or so a day on my walk to work. I was able to learn all the grammar from the So-Matome book in around a month, which is pretty powerful.

Grammar Corrections

Another thing you can use audio for is to use for notes on mistakes you made on the questions. Usually at the end of a particular section of a book, you will have some questions to check your understanding of the grammar point.

Try to analyze why you made those mistakes. If you made the mistake because you just didn’t know the grammar point, you need to really go back and review. If you made the mistake because you confused one grammar point with another, make a note of it.

For example, if you got and が confused, try to understand what the difference is between them. Then, record some notes on what those differences are, so you won’t make the mistake again. Try to imagine that you are the teacher and you are explaining the answer to a student who has gotten it wrong.


1) Say the grammar point you are focusing on in Japanese. This is to help you focus on the main point of the ‘lesson’. We are going to shuffle these audio files around and so they’ll pop up randomly and you’ll need to be able to focus quickly on the point.

So for example, if you are studying the particle は, you would say ‘the particle は’. If you are studying some of the higher levels, which are more phrases than grammar points, you could say something like ‘the phrase ついでに’. Some of the higher level phrases are two parts, so you can say something like ‘the phrase もし なになに たなら’, where なになに needs to be filled in with something.

2) Say a sentence that uses the grammar point in Japanese. This is to help give you context and a feel for the grammar point. I feel like it is important to see the grammar point being used before you go into any rules about it.

For example, if you are studying は, you could make a simple sentence like ‘これは ほん です。’. At the higher levels, there are usually example sentences in the textbook that you can practice with. The So-Matome series in particular has lots of great examples using the grammar point.

3) Say the English translation of the sentence. This is to check your understanding of the grammar point and how it is used. Alternatively, you can use the Japanese re-wording of the particular sentence if you want a good challenge, but I prefer the English translation because it gives me one more way to look at the grammar point.

4) Repeat 2 and 3 as many times as you prefer. The point here is to give as many examples as you need to show all the usages, but be careful not to bore yourself with too much. Usually 2 or 3 examples are enough to get the point across.

5) Finally, finish off the recording by explaining the meaning of the grammar point and its usage. Be sure to mention how it is used. For example, can be used with a noun? Can be used with just adjectives? Also, note the connotation of the grammar point if there is one. Is it negative? Or affirmative? Is it used to declare something?

6) Stop the recording and save it off. You can now put it into rotation with your other audio flashcards.



Remember flashcards? I remember I used to make tons of flashcards for my high school Spanish class and then try to look through them whenever I could. They still never seemed to stick though. The vocabulary always kept falling out of my head.

From that experience, I developed a distrust in flashcards. They just never seemed to work for me. When I started studying Japanese, I didn’t even bother with flashcards all that much. Instead, I resorted to simply reviewing my textbooks over and over again. This also seemed a bit inefficient, but it got the job done.

Shortly there after I discovered Anki, and well, gave up on paper flashcards all together. In a world with high-tech SRSs for free, who needs paper flashcards? After all, I don’t have to carry around a million cards anymore, all I need is a smartphone and I’m ready to go. I can just pop open my SRS app and look at a few cards and then come home and pick up where I left off on my PC.

But, alas, even in our modern age, we still need paper. People have been talking about a paperless office for years too and we still haven’t gotten that either. Paper still has it’s place in this world, at least for a little while longer.

One major reason for this is that paper doesn’t have to be ‘booted up’ or ‘opened’. You can just whip it out at a moment’s notice to practice a few vocabulary words here and there. This makes them the perfect choice for when you are waiting in line at the grocery store or for the next train.

Another major reason to use paper flashcards is that they are a single purpose device. When you are studying paper flashcards, you aren’t going to get a text, phone call, or push notification in the middle of the process. If you are easily distracted by your smartphone, you might want to switch to paper.

I often carry about 10 flashcards with me on a regular day. I find that this is about what I can normally get done in the little cracks of time I have available for me during the day. I try to do this every day, although there are days I forget to pick up my cards on my way out the door.

Another thing you might want to pick up to help you with your flashcards are small flashcard-sized plastic sleeves to store your cards in. These will help cut down on the wear and tear of taking your cards in and out of your pocket and/or bag as well as offer up a little bit of rain protection. You can usually pick them up at a stationary store or at a 100 yen store here in Japan.


1) After finding some vocabulary words to practice, it’s now time to lock them into your memory by slapping them on some flashcards. First, write the Japanese in kanji on one side of the card, and the kana and English on the other side of the card. This way you get two for the price of one.

2) Take a peek at the kanji side of the card and try to make a guess at the meaning. Try to actively recall the word. Sometimes you might have to hunt deep into your memory before you can recall it. As long as you have something, try to fish for it.

If you draw a blank, flip it over and check the meaning and kana reading. Repeat the word over a few times in your head. If you know this is your second or third time missing the card, you might want to try building a mnemonic to help you remember the word completely. Alternatively you can try to visualize a situation where this word might come up. Remember, images are incredibly powerful.

The point is, that some words are just going to ‘pop’ into your head, others will need some persuading. For the words that just pop into your head, you shouldn’t do anymore work because they are already locked in. For other words, that you draw a blank on, those have to be engraved or they are most likely going to just fall right back out again. Spend the few extra moments now to come up with mnemonic or image and save yourself the frustration later.

3) If you want to, you can ‘recycle’ your cards by putting different words in different colors or on different places on the card, but I would make this a separate set that you study at a different time (after you’ve mastered the first set). This is to cut down on interference between the two sets of words.


Vocabulary Mind Mapping

New vocabulary is like a plant. It needs to put its roots down into fertile soul or else it might get washed away the next time it rains. Mind maps are a way of concretely and visually mapping out the roots to your vocabulary.

The more roots or connections you can make with what you already know the better. You want to try to mimic the way your brain recalls the word. The first connection you usually make is between the English word and the Japanese word, that is probably how you learned a lot of words in Japanese, but that is a little inefficient because you will have to always think in English than translate it to use the word.

To speak fluently, to make everything automatic, you will have to be thinking all in Japanese instead. So it is valuable to build up Japanese to Japanese connections in your head. You could do this by looking up words in a 国語 or Japanese to Japanese dictionary, but that is not really how words are rooted in your head is it?

For example if you look up the English definition of ‘cat’ (from dictionary.com) you get the following:

a small domesticated carnivore, Felis domestica
or F. catus, bred in a number of varieties.

Even in a learner’s dictionary, you don’t quite get the full picture:

a small animal that is related to lions and tigers and that is often kept by people as a pet

Now imagine if you have never seen a cat. Would this definition help you to understand what it is? Not really.

Now, if instead I told you that a cat is about the same size as a small dog, but has softer fur. And that they are one of the most popular pets. You would at least have a rough idea of what a cat looks like, right? This is how Japanese to Japanese connections should be made to make your conversation flow better and smoother. And the more connections you can make the better, of course.

Try to think of the word from all possible angles when you are building a mind map. What are all the possible ways you can root that word in your head so it’ll stick and you can easily recall it? The English translation is a start, but you can do more.

This process may seem a little more painful and involved than rolling through some flashcards or doing a set amount of SRS every day, but that is kind of the point. The more you push your brain to think, the more likely it will put down roots and these words will stick for longer and be easier for you to use smoothly.

Also, by creating the mind maps yourself, you are creating a personalized dictionary that is mapped to your mind and the way you think. This will make it easier for you to communicate in the way you are used to communicating in your native language.

I personally use an application called Freemind to do this mind mapping. It is freely available and is also multi-platform. The only drawback is it is not as user friendly as some of the other mind mapping software out there. I walk through exactly how to setup your first mindmap though so don’t worry.

Using Freemind on YouTube

You can also use bubbl.us which is a free online mind mapper. It has a beautiful interface and is really easy to use. The free version can be a little limited because you can only have 3 sheets, but it is worthy alternative to Freemind.

Again, this isn’t going to be the fastest way to study in words, but it might prove to be a fun little break from the drill and kill.


1) Open up Freemind (or another similar mindmapping piece of software) and start with a new word as your center node or mind as they are sometimes called. Type the word you want to study into this node in its ‘native’ form, how you would see it in a dictionary. In other words in kanji or if the kanji is extremely rare, like 其れ(おれ) meaning ‘that’, then use just the hiragana.

2) Start by adding the English of the word as well as the kana reading if necessary as nodes that branch off from the center node.

3) You might want to try adding a picture from flickr that illustrates the word.

4) Add in example sentences from Tatoeba. Try to find the simplest sentence that still manages to show the meaning of the word. For example, それは ねこです。 (This is a cat.) is probably not the best choice.

5) You might want to add a few synonyms as well. Use a good thesaurus to find a few synonyms that make sense to you.

6) If you want to take it even further, you could add antonyms or opposites of the word as well. Again, add as many things as you can to ‘root’ the word in your head.


Personal Phrasebook

Keeping a vocabulary notebook has been found to be extremely useful in a variety of studies. Students say that they were able to remember vocabulary more easily and use it more confidently. In my opinion, when you are doing all this extra work with a word you can just ‘root’ it in your head a lot more easily because you are getting your hands dirty and doing some research.

The drawback, of course, is that this activity, like mind-mapping is very time-consuming. You have to look up words and do a lot of research. So, I wouldn’t recommend doing it for every word or phrase you come across, just the words and phrases that you keep forgetting or have trouble being confident with. It is also useful for those once-in-a-lifetime type phrases that you might not use every day, or even once-a-month, but you want to keep them close just in case you need them in the future.

But, now, if you are really interested in language, and you are fascinated by how it comes together, you might want to use this strategy more than regular SRS. This way you can really explore all the possibilities of the language.

Whatever you do, don’t force yourself to do this because it will drive you crazy if you spend most of your study time buried in dictionaries and thesauruses (unless you are incredibly passionate about language.)


1) As you go through your day, consciously think about what you are saying. Can you say it in Japanese?

2) If you can’t or are not sure. If it is an expression or phrase like “How do I get to the post office?” then just write the English and Japanese phrase in the book. If it is a particular word you are having trouble with try to write antonyms (opposites), synonyms (similarly meaning words) and an example sentence using the word like the Mind Map activity. You could possibly draw or find a picture that goes with it to.

3) Get it checked by a native or a service like lang-8.com

4) Optional: Record your native friend saying the phrase or use a service like Rhinospike to get a recording of it.

5) Save it to your flashcard system. Evernote is especially handy for this, but you can use other systems as well.

6) Be sure to review the phrases often and try to use them as much as you can in conversation.


Kanji Writing Drills

Kanji always inspire mixed feelings in people. Some people are huge fans, others can’t be bothered, but they are an essential part of Japanese, and in fact Japanese is a little hard to read without them. And of course knowing kanji well will help you not only in the kanji section of the test, but also the reading because you will be able to read and understand the passage faster if you are more confident with your kanji.

Realistically, nowadays, you really don’t need to learn how to write kanji. There are computers everywhere – at the office, at home, in your pocket, so there isn’t a big need to learn how to write them (as a second language learner of Japanese). Although it would be useful if you are leaving a note for someone else.

However, after saying all that, it is still helpful to learn kanji by writing them. Why? Well, kanji writing drills are helpful in that they force you to pay attention to how the kanji is formed. Some kanji are very unique and are distinguishable from one another. A good example of this is (mother) and (father). Easy enough right?

But, kanji can get pretty tricky at the higher levels (N3+). For example, I recently saw on a test (product or pile up) and (roughly meaning results or records). These two kanji have the same onyomi (or Chinese reading) of せき, but have different meanings and are obviously used in different words. As a matter of fact, is only used in other words, it usually isn’t used by itself. The only difference between these two kanji is the 部首 (ぶしゅ or kanji radical) on the left of the kanji.

If I had practiced a little more kanji writing, I might not have gotten this question wrong on the N3 test I took. So, it can pay off to do some kanji writing practice from time to time.

I tend to practice writing kanji with a Kanji iPhone app about once a day for around 5 to 10 minutes. Nothing too serious. There are a variety of other ways to practice writing kanji though. In the activity guide, I’ll go over how to do this with pen and paper, but there is also Skritter.com which is a kanji practicing site (for both Japanese and Chinese kanji) that offers some good kanji writing practice as well.

Skritter.com has its advantages and disadvantages though. It’s best used with a tablet so that you can write out the kanji naturally (as opposed to using the mouse) and there is a small monthly fee involved ($9.95/month at the time of writing). The website is built with Flash, which makes it unusable for iOS devices (iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad), but there is an iOS app that you can use. Overall, if you are interested in getting into the beauty and art of writing Japanese kanji, Skritter is probably the best choice.


1) First off, you’ll need kanji writing drill sheets. You can either pick them up at a bookstore in Japan or make them yourself (online). I would recommend making them yourself as it is pretty easy and then they will be specific to your needs.

2) You never want to write too many of the same kanji in a row. It’s a bit of a waste of time to do anything over about 5 in a row. For me, this is about where my brain shuts off and I stop paying attention to what I’m doing. So, if you have a drill book with more than 5 in a row, just cut them short.

3) While writing the kanji, it’s helpful to repeat the word over and over again. This is to get in some extra speaking and listening practice along with your kanji writing practice. You might as well, right?

4) As you are writing the kanji, be sure to think about the individual radicals of the kanji not the kanji as a whole. By breaking down the kanji into its respective parts it’ll be a lot easier to remember and also to distinguish it from other kanji.


The ‘if’ game

The final game that I sometimes play is the ‘if’ game. This is a little bit more advanced than the last two and might be a bit slower because it takes a little bit more thinking, but that just means you’re learning a lot more in the process. This game also really helps with conjugation which can be really helpful for increasing your fluency.

Unfortunately, it only really practices one grammar point, the conditional, but it can be fun to use your imagination and your vocabulary to come up with some interesting ideas. The better your imagination, the longer the vocabulary will stick in your head.


1) The first person starts off by making an ‘if’ statement. For example, お金持ちだったら船を買う。 (If I were rich, I would buy a boat.)

2) The second person has to use the last part of the sentence to make a new ‘if’ sentence. For example, 船を買ったらびわ湖に行く。(If I buy a boat, I will go to Lake Biwa.)

3) Keep going until you run out of ideas. Again, it’s a good way to use your imagination and help the time go by waiting in line.


I bought …

This game goes by many names, including the alphabet naming game and the basket game, but no matter what you call it, it is a simple game that you can play while waiting in line. It doesn’t require any writing or board of any kind.

You’ve probably played this game in English at some point, and this is just the Japanese translation of it. It is also very good for training your memory, too.


1) The first person starts out by making a simple sentence with one item. For example, りんごを買った。(I bought an apple.)

2) The second person adds another item. For example, りんごとバナナも買った。

3) This continues until someone can’t add another item or they forget one of the items in the list.

4) For added difficulty, you can have categories that the words need to belong in like animals, food, buildings, etc…



Shiritori is a great game that you can play with other speakers of Japanese whether they are native or not so native. It’s often played in grade school in Japan, so most native Japanese speakers will know how to play it right off the bat. Another good thing is that it doesn’t actually require you to have any materials of any kind, so you can play it while waiting in line for something or on a long car ride.

One other aspect of this game is that you can learn new vocabulary from your friends and nobody has to crack a dictionary. It will also reinforce your understanding of the word if you have to explain it to a friend that hasn’t heard it yet. This can make for a fairly painless learning experience.

I usually play it while waiting in lines at theme parks, which I love to visit. It can make that hour in line fly by. So, the next time you are with a friend that knows Japanese, give it a try.


1) Start out by saying a word in Japanese.

2) The next person in line has to say a word that begins with the same mora as the last mora of the word you said. So for example,

Player 1: きれい (pretty)
Player 2: いたい (painful)

3) Keep playing until you run out of ideas. One rule to keep in mind is that no word can end with the ん sound because no words in Japanese begin with the ん sound.

4) For added difficulty, players can say the word and then use the word in a sentence to check usage.


Accelerated Reading

Reading is one of the toughest sections of the test, and probably the most common complaint about it is not being able to finish in time. A lot of times you can answer the questions correctly if you just had more time, but the clock stops and you are scrambling to fill in the answers.

Accelerated reading can help you speed up your reading (as well as improve your listening skills) by forcing you to read faster. The basic idea is that the audio will push you to read faster and your brain will get used to identifying and reading the kanji and kana faster.

If you don’t have a recording of particular reading that you want to do this with you can always head over to Rhino Spike where a volunteer will read it out for you or you can get your conversation partner/tutor/teacher to read it out for you into a smart phone and do it that way.

I’ve just started to use accelerated reading to improve my reading skills. I don’t do it too often, but for some challenging reading passages, it can really help out.


1) Find some appropriate level listening material with a script and listen to it one time while following along with the script.

2) Repeat step 1 until you are fairly comfortable with the sounds and can read at that pace. (This may just be one time.)

3) Speed up the tempo of the piece with Audacity by 10% (or more if you want a challenge).

4) Listen to the piece again and try to follow along with the script. Make sure you are able to read at that pace.

5) Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you can’t keep up, you need a break, or your brain starts to ‘fog’.

6) Try to read through the piece one more time as fast as you can. Pay attention to each word and make sure you are comprehending the piece not just blindly reading.