The Intermediate Guide to Learning Japanese
“こんにちは” (konnichiwa),”元気ですか? (genki desu ka)” .
These phrases were probably one of the first ones you’ve learnt in the Japanese language. At this point you’re probably thinking of all the progress you’ve made since you started learning it.
First of all, if you managed to reach the intermediate level at this point in your language experience in Japanese, well done! Particularly for those whose mother tongue is a western/european language, as it's very different to Japanese. Again, job well done! It takes a lot of determination and hard work to go past beginner level. However, your journey doesn’t stop here. That’s right my friend. There’s much more work to be done! Keep reading this article to find out more about learning Japanese at an intermediate level.
Those of you who read my previous article The Beginners Guide to Learning Japanese and followed that same study method, or those who completed a beginners course (either at a university or language school) or achieved the JLPT N4, or those who just simply self-studied the beginner stage by themselves, then you came at the right place to learn how to make the next leap.
Before we get down to it, I thought that it would be a good idea to explain what exactly is to be at an intermediate level. So there are 3 “sublevels” within the intermediate level. Lower-intermediate (N3), (mid-)intermediate (“high” N3/ "low" N2) and higher-intermediate (which is N2).
|650 Kanji||1000 Kanji|
|3700 Words||6000 Words|
|You can understand most relevant day-to-day topics (shopping, going out for food, etc.). You can also convey your options but with slight difficulty. You can deal with most situations (work, leisure, school, etc.) and most of the time you can accurately express your ideas.||You would be able to talk about complex and abstract topics, including technical subjects in a specialised field (company worker, teacher, nursing etc.)|
The sheer amount of words and kanji may seem daunting at first, but trust me, with a structured routine, motivation and determination, you will be able to reach the level that you desire in any language.
N3 vocabulary list: Tanos N3 Vocabulary List
N3 kanji list: Tanos N3 Kanji List
N2 vocabulary list: Tanos N2 Vocabulary List
N2 kanji list: Tanos N2 Kanji List
However, because it is such a long stage, it is pretty hard to determine the exact level that you are when it comes to intermediate level. What I would suggest is to take a free Japanese Language Proficiency Test from the makers of the official test and see whether you are at the right level or not. If it’s too difficult then I would try the lower levels and vice versa, if it’s too easy, then try the higher levels. Your main objective is to reach N2 level after approaching this study method. Plus, I think it is a good investment in attempting the JLPT exams since it helps you to keep track (to some extent) of your Japanese level. Check out the JLPT site to see how the exams work.
You can also check your level on marugoto online.
You’re probably asking yourself “What is the amount of time that it would take to get to higher intermediate?”. The answer to that is very simple. It will only depend on you. It will depend on how much time you dedicate it, how motivated you are, what resources you use, how much free time you would have, and many other factors. I know some people that took them a year to learn Japanese, and others took 7 years. It’s basically different for every person.
To better understand the different levels that one has in a language, the are plenty of resources on the internet that explains this. I would suggest to look at the CEFR 's website (page 111 and after 232 - official source) and other articles such as Fluent in 3 months and TrackTest to have a clearer picture of how each level is different form another and that you can have a clearer objective when wanting to reach a specific level.
How useful is being at an intermediate level?
This article is aimed at those who: want to become conversationally fluent in spoken Japanese, or in other words, those who want to communicate comfortably with Japanese native speakers and understand most things in everyday life; those who want to live and (especially) work long-term in Japan; and those who want to achieve JLPT N3 and/or N2. It is also aimed at those who are looking for different methods to approach the intermediate level.
If you are living in Japan or you’re about to move there, the intermediate level will be so useful that you won’t even need a native speaker to help you get by. For example, after living in Akita for about 7 months, I decided to move to Tokyo. Of course, one of the things you have to do when you move to a different city in Japan, is to update your residence card (在留 - zairyu), national health insurance (国民健康保険 - kokumin kenkou hoken), and “My number”. As soon as you update your zairyu, you can also open a new bank account with your local bank, which is also what I did.
Now, the reason why I’m saying this is because, even though you bring the right paperwork to your local city hall or civic centre, I firmly believe that having a low level or no knowledge of the Japanese language is barely enough to get you by. From my experience, one thing that they will ask you at these kinds of places is your purpose of being there, and trust me, is not a simple “one-word-answer”. Especially in my situation as they don’t get foreigners very often who want to update their residence cards.
It’s true that nowadays in big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka where you can find huge concentrations of foreigners, city halls do provide a lot of the information in English (as well as in Portuguese, Korean and Chinese Madarin). However, most office clerks cannot speak english at all (or maybe just a tiny bit). When I went to my local civic centre, I only brought the necessary documentation but I didn't prepare any phrases or anything like that since you can’t really prepare for the questions that they may ask you. Also, conversationally speaking, I was quite capable so I didn’t see that much point in preparing.
Luckily for me however, I was at the right level of Japanese for me to go through these things by myself. The language skills that you would need to be ready for when going through a particular situation such as this one are: listening, speaking, and kanji/vocabulary.
Listening and speaking of course since you will for sure, 100% have to communicate with an office clerk when you’d go through any form of documentation. At the time, I was much better at casual speech rather than formal (which is odd because when I started learning Japanese, I first had to learn the polite way of speaking first). In any form of customer service in Japan, they will always use the humble form (maybe formal if you’re a foreigner and so that it’s easier) to communicate with you. Then, the way you would reply would be by using the polite form. So I did struggle a little bit as I wasn’t used to it since I mostly speak with Japanese friends in an informal way. But I managed since I could understand the key words that they used and such. As for kanji/vocabulary, you will need to fill out for forms, and maybe even read and sign contracts (which are only available in Japanese).
I know I went off on a tangent on this part, but I wanted to give you a full insight on why it’s important or useful to be at an intermediate level. Especially when you live in Japan. As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do what the Romans do.”
Being at an intermediate level can open many different opportunities in the world of work. If you want to live and work in Japan or for a Japanese company in your own country, having an intermediate level will come in very handy. Most international companies won’t require you to have any proficiency in the language. That is to say that some of them, as well as some Japanese companies, may require you to have at least N3 level because you might have to communicate with your Japanese counterpart. Although, other companies (both international and Japanese companies) would rather look for people with N2 level which indicates that you understand business level Japanese. Some companies may even ask for the BJT (Business Japanese Proficiency) which is only useful for business japanese language context and nothing else.
For example, I have a friend that, with an N3 level, he started working as a hotel receptionist in Osaka (with a degree but without prior experience). After a couple of years, he became a hotel manager, and after, he managed to get a job at a company in Tokyo. He managed to get really far with just low-intermediate. However, by being at an intermediate level, you wouldn’t be able to work at a small/mid-size Japanese company. You would need a much higher level than that. Another area that you would also need to be at a higher level of Japanese, is teaching at a school or university (to teach other subjects other than english of course).
Check out our article for information about Japanese Visas.
Obviously many of you reading this are probably investing a lot of time and energy in Japanese in order for you to work and live in a Japanese environment. Then you would need to demonstrate your Japanese language skills when you apply for a visa.
What can you do exactly with N3 level? Well there are quite a few options out there. For example, sales positions where your customers are foreigners, like overseas carsales, some programming jobs, some design jobs, some marketing jobs, Some ALT positions at an elementary or kindergarten, some private schools. Restaurants with a foreign theme, and so on.
As to what I mentioned above, many places expect you to have daily conversations with Japanese staff. The expectation is not for you to have deep interactions with Japanese customers, but to focus on foreign customers and communicate that experience to that of a non-English speaking Japanese. This happens in many service industries where the value of one customer would not justify hiring an interpreter (e.g. elderly care, relocation, tour guides, etc.)
Here a list of jobs that you are able to do with N3 level:
- Service industry > relocation staff, housing companies, hotels, tours,
- Tourism industry moo
- IT companies (nowadays, mostly considered as acceptable)
- International companies (external companies that are based in Japan)
For N2 however, is a bit different. In fact, there’s a bit of a huge gap from N3 to N2 and you need to be much more confident with your Japanese speaking skills. Positions where they need someone who can communicate in Japanese in most situations, but not in a leadership role. You will probably be supporting a Japanese leader if your customers are Japanese or the team is Japanese. Many intro level positions where the customers are Japanese require N2 level Japanese. The other examples are experienced or skilled labor where there are not enough Japanese people to do it, so they would like a foreigner who can communicate difficult things, but hopefully do not expect you to be the leader or the one responsible. They expect you to understand Japanese culture, but not a master.
Here a list of jobs that you are able to do with N2 level:
- Small, medium and big-size Japanese companies (HR, Marketing, sales, commerce, administration, etc.)
- Specific skilled jobs - construction and machinery industry, aviation industry (airport ground handling, aircraft maintenance), manufacturing industry, care worker
Here's the link for more information about the specific requirements for each sector: 特定技能
For specific fields such as accountancy, finance, engineering, medicine, or law, you would need N1 level Japanese. Here are links to two of our articles about looking for jobs in Japan Guide to Full-Time Jobs and Guide to Part-Time Jobs.
To clarify this section in a nutshell, the intermediate level is perfect for those who not only want to live and work in Japan, but also those who want to be confident in the language in their own countries. This level is the right one for you if you want to express your opinions freely and in a very fluid way, whether it is in the written or spoken manner. It is also great if you want to understand most content in the Japanese language. For instance, when you read texts, short stories and blogs, or when you listen to music, informal and formal speech, vlogs and so on so forth.
The struggles of intermediate level
I’ll be honest with you. In order to maintain or to go through this level is not a walk in the park. Actually, a lot of learners start to give up around this point on their language journey. Or some people only use Japanese in situations they are good at and avoid areas where they need to improve on like reading.
There’s a known concept when learning a language and that’s called the language learning plateau. In simple words, this concept means that when you are at the beginner stage, you go through it quite fast and you reach intermediate level in a very short time. However, when you go through intermediate level, because there’s so much to learn, there are so many things that you have to memorise during this stage, and because it’s a huge gap until you reach advanced level, it feels as if your learning process starts to slow down and that you don’t seem to improve that much. It is at this very point when people start to give up because you are not seeing those small wins on a consistent basis and motivation starts to decrease. This is the most difficult part when learning a language because the reality is, going from good to great is harder than from zero to good. It takes a long time (depending on the person, it might take longer than others) to be at a high-intermediate or advanced level.
There will be moments when you might find Japanese difficult (or any other language), frustrating or you just start to lose interest. You’ll probably go on a phase of a huge surge of passion for wanting to learn the language, but then start to procrastinate. Then again, you start to feel motivated and after a while you get frustrated. Believe me when I say that I had my fair share of these kinds of phases. That’s normal. In fact, it is human! Your body (or your mind) basically wants a break (or a small holiday). So do allow yourself a break from time to time. Allow your brain to recharge and feel refreshed when you get down to more learning.
But despite all that, it will be very rewarding for sure! Once you get down to it and you manage to reach the level that you want, that will be the moment where you’ll pat yourself on the back and say “you did it!”.
The purpose of this article is not to go through the intermediate level in a fast way, but to study the language the smart way and most important, to have fun! So remember, as long as you stay motivated and tell yourself to “never give up”, going past this “plateau” will be a piece of cake. I can guarantee it.
Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for. Here’s a study method that will help you learn Japanese (or any language) at an intermediate level.
The study method that I showed in my previous article, The Beginners Guide to Learning Japanese, consisted on focusing each language skill (listening, speaking, reading, writing) in blocks. For example, you start by practicing your listening skills for 2 months, then speaking for another 2 to 4 months, reading 2 months, and writing from a month to 2 months. If you followed this order you would’ve most likely reached a low to mid N3 level and have a good and solid foundation of the language.
However, the study method that I’m about to show you will work on is very different from the previous one. The beginner to intermediate process is a very linear one. You start with very basic sentences, grammar, or vocabulary to reach point B. When moving from low intermediate to high intermediate you will have to learn how to not only increase your level but also on how to“retain” your level. This is very crucial because a lot of people tend to go full on in only learning and memorising new grammar points for example, but then they start to forget what they previously learnt.
So instead of blocks, this time you’ll be using a weekly plan. Each day you’ll be focusing on a different language skill. For example, Mondays you can focus on Reading, Tuesdays on Speaking, Thursday on Writing, and Fridays on Listening. Then every day, you would learn a new set of words. You don’t have to follow the same exact order. You can always change the days that you want to study and what you want to do on each of those days. Alternatively, you can also do one language skill a week in blocks of 4 weeks. You can do Listening on Week 1, Speaking on Week 2, Reading on Week 3, and Writing on Week 4. But, I prefer the former because I think that it’s easier to keep track of what you’re doing on each language skill and then everyday you do something different to keep things fresh. The good thing about this study method is that you design your study plan whichever way you want it.
Before I go into detail about this study method, let me clarify one thing. By no means this method is the best one of all study methods out there. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this one is the right one for you either. In fact, There’s no perfect study method out there. All those study methods that you see on the internet are suited for those who actually created them. So this study method is suited to me. I already mentioned this in my previous article but don’t feel forced to follow every single step in order to achieve your language goal. Try to see if this method would work out for you. If not, see if you can gain something out of it because at the end of day, you will find something you can use to adopt to your quest to find the best study method for you!
じゃ、始めましょう！(Let’s get started!)
How to structure your study plan
Step 1 : I will start by explaining what your daily routine will look like and the amount of time you should focus on studying.
Step 2 : Then I’ll show you what different textbooks you can use to improve as I firmly believe that textbooks do help you a lot (not all of them of course).
Step 3 : Finally, I'll explain what resources you can use online. Whether it is paid or free.
Every person is different but the amount of time you should focus on studying solely depends on how much you can focus on doing so. Some people can do 5 hours non stop, others can do 6 hours with small breaks in between, and others just simply do 1 hour a day. I myself only study 1 hour and a half a day (which I will be basing it on this method) because I apply the 80/20 rule (a.k.a. The Pareto Principle) which basically means that 80 percent of your outcomes come from 20 percent of your inputs. Some famous polyglots (people who speak 6 or more languages) only study 30 minutes and manage to achieve great results.
So the very first thing you should do every day is none other than Glossika.
Glossika is a personalised language learning software where based on your level, it uses full sentence practice in context and the spaced repetition technique. This means that you acquire vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar in a more natural way. Rather than learning complicated and tedious grammar, you dive in straightaway on listening and speaking practice.
If you pay the annual subscription, it is $24.99/month which for a language learning site, is actually at a really good price since you can learn up to more than 60 languages. Not to mention the content and audio - they are excellent!
If you’ve already used Glossika since my previous article then you’re good to go. If you’re new to this, don’t worry! The good thing about Glossika is that they do a level test to see from which level you start from. But no matter which level you start from, you’ll learn many sentences. So don’t be disappointed if they place you in A2 level. The important thing is that you practice your pronunciation and listening skills on a consistent basis.
You should use Glossika for about 15 to 20 mins. Learn a new set of items everyday (two if you skip a few sentences) and then review about 20 to 30 sentences. It’s a slow learning process but it is very effective. So have a go at it!
Vocabulary (and/or Kanji)
This section is mainly aimed at those who want to tackle N3/N2 exams. So if you’re not thinking of doing the JLPT exams, you can skip this section. However, if you want to give it a try to build up your vocabulary, you’re free to do so.
Anyways, after Glossika, you will also memorise sets of vocabulary. The book that I used (and it’s perfect for those who are aiming for JLPT) is called キクタン (kikutan). What makes this book unique is that it uses a method called the kikutan method. You basically learn words and their meaning by signing. You learn 16 words a day on a course of 70 days. Another cool thing about it is that each word shows a sentence and its english translation to put it in context. On top of that, under each word you can see its furigana as well as the “pitch-pattern” which is an amazing feature to have as pronunciation is key to sound like a native speaker. This book is definitely a hidden gem.
The price for this book is ￥2,200 (+ tax). But if you check on Amazon, you may find different offers at a cheaper price.
After reading and listening to these 16 words (or whichever amount of words from whichever resource that you use) you would then add them to a flashcard app such as Anki or Quizlet. If you prefer physical flashcards then go for it. Take into account that it will take a bit longer.
The total amount that it should take you shouldn’t be more than 20 minutes.
As for Kanji, it is optional. I personally didn’t learn or memorise individual kanji at this stage. I prefer just to learn vocab with its kanji in context. However, if you want to learn kanji then I would recommend learning it through the Hesig Method and joining the kanji koohii group.
Right after doing your Glossika and Vocabulary routine which is your input method, or later during the day, you would then focus for the remainder of your study time (which is roughly about 30 to 40 minutes) on the language skills for input and output.
I’ll start with Listening (note that you can do it on any day of the week). A textbook that I used to improve on listening (and also speaking - or pronunciation) is Speaking Skills Learned Through Listening Japanese “Live”. You listen to many situational and natural conversations and then it tests you on your listening comprehension. After that, there is a section where they explain certain expressions that have been used on the recordings. The good thing about it is that they show all the different formalities (from casual to polite speech ) for each expression.
I highly recommend this book instead of any JLPT listening comprehension books because the only thing you learn on JLTP books is how to pass the exams. They do provide good exercises and practice but Speaking Skills Learned Through Listening Japanese “Live” also helps better understand the spoken language in real life situations. Plus, because all recordings sound so natural that it feels as if you’re listening to the radio! This is good since a lot of audio from listening practice textbooks and such out there sound quite monotonous or like robots. You wouldn’t want to sound like that when you come across native speakers.
Other textbooks that you can use for listening practice:
- ブラッシュアップ日本語会話 (similar to Speaking Skills Learned Through Listening Japanese “Live” )
- Or any JLPT listening comprehension practice
Instead of textbooks, you can also use apps. A very famous one for listening is FluenU.
FluenU is a video platform for language learning. All video content that they use come from Japanese YouTubers (or videos in Japanese) and they categorise them depending on your level and your interests. You can watch videos with their subtitles of your target language. A few cool features that this app offers is that you can interact with the video. What I mean by “interact” is that you can scroll over the word on the subtitles and then it will give you the translation of it. Plus, they have a flashcard function where you can learn words you do not know directly from the video to build up your vocab as well as quizzes after each video.
FluentU is often not recommended for beginners N5 but starts to become useful and easier to follow at around an N4 and especially N3 level.
If you have a Netflix account, you can also practice listening (and reading) by using a chrome extension (for free) called Language Learning with Netflix (there are many different ones but the one I’m familiar with is this LLN). Similar to FluenU, its main feature is that you scroll over the word on the subtitles and it shows you the different meanings that a word can have while at the same time the video pauses automatically. When you move the mouse away from the subtitles, the video continues by itself. It’s a neat feature to have for listening/reading comprehension. You can also do this method during your free time as you don’t have to think as much. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you become at listening.
One last resource and it's completely free, it is none other than YouTube itself. There are many videos out there that you can choose to practice your listening (obviously within your level). Here is a video by Luca Lampariello, a famous polyglot, where he explains how to learn any language with YouTube. You can also use this method during your free time when you watch videos on YouTube. How cool is that!
With Speaking there are several options.
If you don’t mind paying a little, you can use italki and book cheap sessions online (especially if you’re not in Japan). If you happen to be in Tokyo, and would rather have face-to-face conversations, then I would recommend Japan Switch. They offer the most affordable morning group and/or private lessons. The highest level that they currently offer for intermediate level is low-intermediate. This is perfect if you need to brush up a bit on your speaking skills at a really cheap price. I worked as a marketing intern there and the teachers are really kind and welcoming.
As for free resources, you can use HelloTalk or Tandem. The speaking section of my previous article fully explains how to use HelloTalk effectively (you can apply that to Tandem as well). There are also meeting apps like MeetUp or Internations where you can attend language exchange events. This is great for meeting people who have the same interests as you, and of course, where you can make Japanese friends as well. Most of these events are free but some of them you may have to pay a small fee (which is barely nothing). See our BFF article on how to make Japanese friends to learn some unique things about Japanese culture that you and your other foreigners friends may not know: The Ultimate Guide to How to Make Friends in Tokyo
If you are an introvert and don’t have enough confidence in speaking with someone, or you’re just simply struggling to meet Japanese people, then if you stick to Glossika you should be fine. However, you will have to eventually try to speak to someone to see your speaking capabilities and a teacher could help you make that jump.
Lastly, you can also use one of the textbooks that I mentioned - ブラッシュアップ日本語会話 - and practice by yourself in front of the mirror. That’s another good way to practice speaking.
The amount of time you should dedicate to speaking will only depend on how you approach it. Whether it is a 30 minute/one hour private lesson or a two hour event. It is up to you!
This section is a bit difficult as it is hard to determine which resource is the right one for intermediate. Especially when you’re using online resources. But don’t worry, here’s what you can do.
Depending on how good you are at reading comprehension, I would use the following textbooks (from low intermediate to high intermediate).
- いつかどこかで (￥2,500 + tax)
- 読解厳選テーマ１０ (￥2,200 + tax)
- 読む力 (￥2,200 + tax)
- The Great Japanese - ３０の物語人物で学ぶ日本語 (Vol. 1 & 2) (￥2,000 + tax)
- Or any JLPT reading comprehension practice corresponding to N3 or N2 level.
All these books are basically reading comprehension practice. What a like about the top 3 is that they have very realistic texts that could be useful on your everyday life such as looking for a flat to when you go to hospital
Here’s a list of free online reading resources:
- Hirugaru Nihongo
- NHK - News Web Easy
- Wasabi Japanese Grammar
- Wasabi Japanese Grammar - Manga
Only dedicate it for 30 minutes. If you really want to finish an article or a text, then do 30 minutes, take a 15 minute break, and then finish reading and completing the exercises (if they have any) for the remainder of your study.
In this section is where you have to challenge yourself a bit. It’s also hard to determine your writing level but there is this really good textbook called Japanese Writing for Higher Proficiency (￥1,980 + tax). This textbook is probably the best and only textbook for writing Japanese skills. Most of them are a bit rudimentary but this teaches you how to write all sorts of things. From how to make an appointment with your sensei to writing blog posts.
For instance, the first lesson you'll learn how to make an appointments by email. Then, one of the very first exercises is that it will ask you to write one (there are bullet points with specific information on what the book wants you to write). After that, there are a few exercises that help you understand the dos and don'ts when writing emails. Surprisingly enough, the mistakes that they show on these exercises will most likely be the same ones that you would have made on your first attempt. Finally, you have to write another one with different instructions. Only this time, you actually know how to write the perfect email at this point. After all that, there’s a section for expressions that show you the different degrees of formality when writing them which is the exact same concept as Speaking Skills Learned Through Listening Japanese “Live”.
Furthermore, this book is perfect for those who need Japanese writing skills when working at a Japanese company. You’ll learn how to write business emails and understand the different nuances of written and spoken Japanese business language.
If textbooks aren’t for you, then the best thing you can do is to write a diary or journal of your everyday life. Try to use higher level vocab, sentence structures, and such.
To know whether your written work is good or not, there are a few free sites (Hi Native and LangCorrect) where you can upload your work and then a native speaker will mark it for you. You can also ask your Japanese friends or your own tutor on italki or Japan Switch.
Since writing can take a bit longer than the other language skills, you should dedicate this one for 1 to 2 hours.
That’s all there is to this study method. It’s not as long as in my previous article. But the main thing for this is that you’ll have to maintain this routine for a longer period of time in comparison from the beginners guide. If you maintain this routine you’ll start to see some improvement after 3 months, and even more after 6. If you want to check whether you’ve reached high-intermediate you can ask your Japanese tutor or friend to see what they think, or you can attempt the JLPT N2 exam. If you pass it, it’s safe to say that you have a high level of the language only for reading and listening. For speaking and writing, you should ask a Japanese teacher as they’ll be able to determine your level much better if you show them your work.
Another point that I should mention and you’ve probably noticed it, I didn’t write anything about grammar. The reason for that is because there’s simply no need to do so. By using Glossika every day, and by reading, listening, reading and writing in Japanese, you’ll acquire grammar the natural way. If you think about it, you don’t learn grammar points when you're a baby or a child, right? You learn sentence patterns (with the grammar implemented in them) the natural way!
However, if you feel like you need to learn or practice grammar, for this level, I recommend the following textbooks:
- 初級から中級への日本語ドリル−文法 (￥1,320 + tax)
- 初級から中級への日本語ドリル−文法 (Challenge Version) (￥1,320 + tax)
- 日本語文型トレーニング−中級 (￥1,980 + tax)
- レベルアップ日本語文法−中級 (￥2,420 + tax)
To finish off, I'll reiterate what I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Your OWN study method is the best one! Don’t feel pressured to follow every single step of this article. See what your learning method works best for you!
Good luck on your language learning journey!