Friday, October 19, 2012

The JLPT: Grammar flash cards

Now that we have covered high level JLPT reading (see our posts on practicing with newspapers and opinion pieces) and listening practice (via radio and television), we can now move on to everyone's favorite topic: grammar.

I find that the best way learn is by listening and reading. Unfortunately, the grammar points found on the higher level JLPTs tend to be rather stiff and formal, especially the grammar found in JLPT N1. As a matter of fact, the top echelons of the grammar food chain are almost all very formal written grammar or at least grammar that is rarely spoken by those under 70 or so. In addition to a personal dislike for all things anime, this is one reason why I don't advocate the popular "let's learn Japanese by reading heaps of manga" approach to Japanese study.

While flash cards are all the rage with vocabulary fiends, I have found that they are a great help for JLPT grammar points as well. My approach is as follows:
  1. Get some big flash cards, none of those teeny-tiny 100 yen shop suckers. Write the grammar point on the front with no explanation. It is a good idea to develop a numbering system and jot it down on the corner of the card.
  2. On the back, write some example sentences (preferable ones from a study guide) and what the grammar point means, including rules and exceptions. I also have found it helpful to make a note of similar grammar points.
  3. If you are the anal-retentive type, you can sort your cards by categories (question grammar, time and place grammar, etc) or leves. If you are study for the JLPT N2 and plan to go on to N1, it is a good idea to hang on to your old cards since N1 makes plenty of use of N2 grammar. has a surprisingly through user edited grammar data base that can be sorted by JLPT level and grammar category if you need help dividing your grammar into categories. Study guides like Nihongo So-matome (日本語総まとめ) also divide up their grammar by category and have plenty of example sentences.

I find that it is helpful to quiz yourself on a few grammar points every night in addition to attempting to use said grammar points in various example sentences of your own. Not only does this get your brain used to writing with fairly complex grammar, but it also is good for the dreaded "word scramble" section of the grammar test. This is the part when you have the beginning and the end of a long sentence with four blanks in the middle. You have four numbered sentence fragments to rearrange in the proper order and answer which fragment fits in the designated blank. 

Basically, these questions are designed to test your knowledge of how a given grammar point works within a sentence and how to "rebuild" a sentence using grammatical clues. Needless to say, if you are able to quickly access you have a solid mental grammar bank to draw upon then you will have a lot easier time figuring out the scramble.

Any other hints or tips for attaining total grammar mastery? If you have any, let us know in the comment section.


  1. I don't have any tips, but thanks for pointing out that grammar learned for JPLT is overly formal! I just want to learn how to speak it conversationally and I'm finding Japanese grammar very difficult - especially conjugating past tense i-verbs and adjectives. And it's good to know not to 'over' learn the formal way of speaking.

    Anki is a great flash card system, however, there's something about hand writing the words that helps you memorize it better. That's how kids learn how to write Chinese - repetition. There's no secret formula.

  2. Thanks for the post Anon.

    Just as in English (or most other languages for that matter), there are certain words and phrases you just don't use outside of writing. However, if you plan to do anything work related with your Japanese or you just want to be on your best manners, learning a certain amount of "formal" Japanese can help.

    As you have probably heard, Japanese honorifics can be a real headache. As a silly foreigner, you are generally not expected to know the in's and out's of these complicated polite language structures. That being said, as you progress up in the grammar hierarchy, it is a good idea to learn more formalities since they are so built into the language. But take is slow and work at your own pace