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10 tips to ace vce japanese

This is a guest post from Khoa Ly at vcejapanese.com.If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

I recently completed VCE in 2009, receiving a raw study score of 50 for Japanese, the subject of this article. Here's a list of 10 tips that I hope will be useful in your endeavours in Japanese SL. Some of these tips and techniques may not work for you, everybody is different, but I hope you can gain something from them.

1. Be exposed to Japanese as much as possible.

If the only exposure you have to Japanese is during class, with a non-native teacher who just teaches from the textbook, you aren’t likely to be learning very much. It is key that you are exposed to as much native Japanese for Japanese people as possible. This is “real” language, as it is currently being used in its country of origin, not with the intent to teach foreigners, but being used by Japanese people to communicate to other Japanese people.

Learning a language can be thought of as copying how others speak. You can’t just make up sentence patterns because you think it seems logical; you’ll most likely sound stupid. Copying how native speakers speak is the way to go. Just by listening/reading correct Japanese, you will find yourself being accustomed to correct and natural sentence structure, useful vocabulary, and even become more fluent at speaking.

How to do this? These days, with the power of the internet, it’s quite simple. The fastest way is the next time you want to Google something, Google it in Japanese instead. This will give you useful content that you actually want to read, with the side benefit that you get to learn some Japanese. It is good to read stuff that you would actually read/watch in English because you want to. This keeps you motivated, and also lets you learn vocabulary relevant to your interests. Most people would watch Anime, or Japanese TV shows. This is a very good start. There are probably many who doubt the effectiveness of watching Japanese TV shows/Anime/Drama etc, but I beg to differ – this can be used as a way to simulate living in Japan. There are not many people that would deny that the best way to improve your language skills is to live in the relevant country; this is just a way to simulate that experience. Apart from Anime, you can listen to podcasts on iTunes Japan, read Japanese blogs, news and more~. All these sources will help you improve your fluency and make your speech more natural and native-like.

2. Spread your subject out during the week.

Don’t study it like other subjects, cramming doesn’t work. But on the other hand, doing something as strict as a schedule (i.e I must study Japanese from 6 o’clock to 7 o’clock Monday – Friday) isn’t necessary, and it is pretty unlikely you will be able to follow it. The ideal situation is that you enjoy studying Japanese, and want to study it when you get the chance, not because your bitchy teacher keeps reminding you to do the exercises in your work book (which are really a waste of time). Even if you really can’t muster up the energy to put yourself through the more tedious aspects of language learning (learning Kanji) at least watch an episode of J-Drama. If you are sick of the sight of your wakatta workbook, write a Lang-8 entry to vent about how much you hate studying. If you can have fun while studying Japanese, you will be able to study pretty regularly, and not burn out. If you feel yourself burning out, just stop. Keep it fun (^0^)

3. Get your VCE grammar down pat, as soon as possible.

A solid grasp of grammar is essential to every aspect of Japanese, both as a language and during the exam. The VCE prescribed grammar is a good starting point, and you should know all of it very well before term 1 starts. Particle use can often be a problem, as well as the right conjugation when using different grammar forms. I find that most of these mistakes stem from over thinking the logic, and trying too hard to translate Japanese grammar into an English equivalent (even when none exists). This results in Japanese with mistakes that make sense to an English native speaker, but looks “off” to a native Japanese speaker. A common mistake is misuse of counters.

The wrong way to go about it is to think about grammar like a mathematical formula – grammar isn’t supposed to always make sense (look at English). While it is good to have some logical understanding to make it easier to remember, it is more important to know how to use it correctly, in a way Native speakers would use it. With a mathematical formula, when you get the basic concepts down, you will be able to adapt it to any situation as the basic principles and laws always apply. Unfortunately this doesn’t always apply with grammar (luckily it applies more often in Japanese than in English =.

Instead of thinking about it like a logical structure, it is better get used to it through repeated exposure. This is where the constant exposure to Japanese comes in. By being constantly exposed to correct, native language, you naturally form a bank of correct sentences in your mind to recall from, and will be able to form your own grammatically correct sentences from these examples. You don’t have to understand it to be able to explain it to others (Native Japanese speakers can’t); you just need to know how to use it in a natural way. Using native speakers as a role model to copy from is the key.

So basically, read the explanation of the grammar from your textbook (you should be using wakatta), read the sample sentences, then when you next see it in use in real Japanese you will get another example sentence, and another, then another, and eventually it will all make sense to you. Generally doing the questions from the workbook isn’t that useful.

Once you get the VCE grammar down, you should start learning some post VCE grammar. Unlike many VCE subjects, studying beyond the syllabus will reward you, particularly during the Oral Exam, and the Essay section of the written exam. An example of a post VCE grammar that is indispensible is the passive form. This is stuff that you’ve probably seen before, read the definition, and thought it was a separate word, from which it is actually conjugated. I’m not exactly sure why this isn’t in the VCE syllabus – VCAA certainly use it during their texts.

4. Once you get the basic grammar down solid, you reach the point where vocabulary becomes more important to grammar.

Most of the time spent learning a language is spent on vocabulary, and it is usually lack of vocabulary that limits you from saying what you want to say. Try reading a blog entry from Yahoo Japan Blogs The first thing you will notice (unless you’re Chinese) is that you there are many words you can’t read because it’s all in Kanji. The second thing is that you can’t read a lot of it because you don’t understand the vocabulary, even though you understand the grammar. You could then justify this by saying “pfft I don’t need to know this”. These are just blog entries. You need it. In fact, if you ever read/heard a Japanese word that you don’t understand, chances are that you need it. “VCE level” vocabulary was created by some randoms at VCAA; if you are ever exposed to a Japanese word and don’t understand it, chances are that it is useful. Unless you regularly indulge in reading classical Japanese literature.

How to learn Vocabulary? There are a few ways you can do this. You can do it the “old school” ways (remember look, cover, write and check from Primary School?), you can do it using the various SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) available, such as this and this, or you can just pick it up by osmosis from exposure to Japanese and good use of online dictionaries. Keep in mind that the best method is…do what works for you. There is a fine line between being too method-orientated and being too random. There is no magic way to learn Vocabulary (although I admit SRS can come in handy). Just do what works for you.

Having a wide vocabulary will help you in every aspect of VCE Japanese assessment, from the Oral Exam, to the Listening and Reading sections to the Essay. Ideally, you don’t need to use your dictionary at any point during the exam. If you do need to use it, hopefully it will be during the reading section, as not understanding a word during the listening section can be quite fatal. For your essay, I suggest you don’t use your only to check – don’t be learning new vocab during the Exam, it’s pretty likely you will stuff up.

5. Ensure you know all your VCE Kanji perfectly as soon as possible.

VCE only requires a total of 200 kanji to be known – 150 for “active use” (writing and reading) and a further 50 for “recognition” (may appear during reading passages). It is unwieldy to have to look up Kanji during the exam; you should know how to write all 200 (and some more) off by heart. Markers are extremely strict on Kanji. Even if you are one stroke off you risk losing marks, so make sure you don’t just write approximations of Kanji.

There aren’t really secrets to learning Kanji, repetition does it. Instead of learning Kanji by itself, it’s good to learn it in context, at the same time you learn vocabulary. The more Kanji you learn, the easier it becomes as you become accustomed to all the radicals that make up each Kanji.

6. Start your detailed study early. As in right now.

Your school may start detailed study preparation from the middle of the year, but I strongly recommend you give it an early start. This ensures you are more familiar with all the possible areas within your elected topic, and really enables you to speak on your topic with more authority. Structuring your Detailed Study properly in script form doesn’t have to be done in great detail before term though. Just getting a general feel for it is fine.

7. Script your oral conversation, and practice it with native speakers.

I realise that the examiner’s reports often talk about those who obviously have memorised responses. The people mentioned in the report are those who scripted random sentences, rather than a fully blown script on every possible topic. A detailed script covering all possible areas in detail is very, very helpful for obtaining high marks during the oral exam.

However during the year, in the interests of advancing your Japanese speaking skills which are essential to be able to utilise your script to the fullest, it is best to speak with Native speakers, whether these be your teacher, a tutor, or your friends etc. Although even without actually practicing speaking, you can naturally become more fluent just from being exposed to Japanese. Not being fluent usually stems from lack of vocabulary preventing you from saying what you want to say.

8. Know your essay structures well.

This is a simple way to ensure that you don’t lose marks you shouldn’t during the exam. Losing marks on your essay to incorrect VCAA structure is such a waste.

9. Write practice essays on every form (except story, don’t do that), using varied topics.

Although reading is more effective (imo) for improving your Japanese, writing essays can help you with structure, and gives you a bank of ideas to draw from during the exam, as you’ll probably get a very similar topic. I don’t think it’s beneficial to do it under timed conditions until very, very close to the written exams. It’s better to give yourself all the time you want so that you can gather ideas, which is harder to come up with under timed conditions than structure. When you finish writing an essay ensure to upload it onto Lang-8 for free essay corrections.

10. Near the Written exams, do lots of practice exams.

I only know of JLTAV, Leading Edge and VCAA past exams. The JLTAV exams are written very, very poorly so do not worry if you aren’t so well on them. VCAA exams are generally much simpler, and the questions always fit the passages perfectly.

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