My method of learning Japanese up to now can be described with three words “Above and Below”. That is, if you are willing to call it a method, which is anything but to be honest. What it means is, that I am working with material way above my own level, and with material that was and is way below it. My passive knowledge has grown quite a bit, the active abilities are way behind, which is still considered to be normal. From the first day I started working on the Kanji Odyssey project, I started reading, or to be more precise deciphering the content of the book I was trying to read. My grammar knowledge was way below, my vocabulary knowledge was little, and on the whole it was a pain to read.
The first book I finished was ナルニア国物語, way, way above my level. KO, on the other hand, was easy. This was mainly because the grammar knowledge was appropriate for the material, but the amount of known vocabulary was very small. To counter this, I didn’t start to search for level-appropriate stuff, quite the contrary. I started to work on even more complex books, deciphering at first, and real reading months later. This is what I have noticed. While the other books were overly difficult, and not all the vocabulary I learned was recognizable at an instant, and much less the possible translations for words in a given context, it made working with other material that much easier. By other material I refer to textbooks, and specifically the 日本語総まとめ books.
In every part of what is making up the Japanese language, or only Japanese, besides grammar, vocabulary, readings, particles, adverbs, passive forms, active forms, different readings, kanji usage, what a language, even the passive-passive abilities lack behind by using material that is anything but level appropriate. This doesn’t bear fruits for a long time, but it will and does so, if though later. When, for instance, after working through some so-called Intermediate Textbook another two or three for grammar, particles, and kanji, listening, conversation and what not follow, one should be ready to move to the Advanced Stages. This is the zone where it should be within reach to read full newspaper articles, to understand some magazine articles, to give explanations, to understand more difficult concepts and such.
If you were to follow the path, and only using what is said to be appropriate for any given stage, then it would probably take 4 or 5 years until you touched your first book, or manga, or even hoping to read a newspaper. In reality it doesn’t even take a year until you can read articles, magazines and such, and being able to understand most of it and in many cases all the author is writing about, or talking as this is also a passive skill. What it doesn’t mean that you don’t stumble over many words that need to be looked up, because they are written in different Kanji or such, or when a particle is giving a sentence a whole new meaning. But by catching up with learning, this also will go away very soon, and your comprehension goes up.
The above is an example of the amount of unknown vocabulary from a 58 page text I read today. It was a text about Digital Repositories. And the above is only a slice of the real amount of unknown vocabulary. But thanks to learning passively hundreds and hundreds of grammar points with A Dictionary of Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Grammar, and thanks to having worked through another grammar book covering JLPT N5 – N1, it really only was the vocabulary that still is and will remain a problem for a very long time. By not having to translate things, meaning sentence by sentence, but only the words here and there when the definition doesn’t give away what it actually means, the text was rather easy to read as it was.
But still, my actual level, and I don’t think it is an underestimation, is N2 level or maybe upper intermediate. Anyway you look at it, by always working with more difficult material, and mixing everything with articles and even books that are easy, ナルニア物語, and some others I re-read currently just for the fun of it, I can make noticeable progress. What this also did was that I learned what isn’t needed at all, and this is translating everything in a sentence. And by knowing what is necessary and what can be left out, either in a text, or in conversation in writing or speaking, both of these activities have also become a whole lot easier. What I am not saying is that in Japanese there isn’t a tendency to repeat things over and over again.
Take news for instance, it is a pain to read or hear the same thing more than once. If you look at it from the point of having a repetition that allows for reinforcement of what has been learned, this can be quite positive, but it can get old very fast. And if you don’t like to SRS every word you come upon, and instead keep vocabulary lists, or whole databases as I do, it can be helpful to remember words in the long run. This works quite well, too, actually. But back to topic. What is level appropriate for me right now, are textbooks such as Authentic Japanese: Progressing from Intermediate to Advanced. And from passively reading through it on the side, this is really no challenge, the exercises are because it is asked to use what one has learned. And in the active skills, I lag behind, as was already mentioned before. For my active skills, I would say I am at An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese Level right now. If not somewhat below, at Genki II.
The important thing with this method, or just the way I work, or whatever you want to call it is, that it comes with a cost. Namely, not being able to recognize grammar when you see it, or words learned in a bulk, and then come up in the wild, to recognize those. This sometimes takes an additional look-up, preferably in Japanese, but in many cases just with J>E. And this way I plan to continue until my goal is reached. Before I go back to the book I am currently reading on the side, here is a resource that could be interesting for those looking for free, more advanced texts. It is a link to digital repositories all over Japan, where you can find dozens of academic texts for all sorts of fields. NII Instituational Repositories Program