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Ace your Japanese proficiency test with the best free Web tools

by Koichi Ko

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) comes up on July 5, so it’s time to get studying. What will be your strong points? More importantly, what will be your weak points? The test is divided into three categories — writing/vocabulary; listening; and reading/grammar — and most struggle with at least one. Luckily, there are free Web sites and applications out there to help you, no matter which section you need help in.

Writing/vocabulary

smart.fm: Formally known as iknow, smart.fm has revolutionized the flashcard business. The site started out producing only Japanese and English ones, but it has recently branched out to cover all kinds of subjects. Smart.fm lets you keep track of your progress and choose or create lists. It also gives you various methods of studying vocabulary, which means many different types of learner will find kanji a little less painful. Smart.fm even has an application to allow you to study on your cellphone.

Lang-8: Lang-8 is a journal-writing Web site with a twist — when you write something, a native speaker of the language you are learning fixes it for you, using a correction tool that highlights your mistakes to help you to avoid repeating them. It is a sociable learning experience, letting you have fun and make friends that speak the language you’re learning, and it goes far beyond boring practice. The two biggest communities are of English and Japanese learners (though all languages are welcome), so as someone taking the JLPT, you won’t have any trouble finding people to correct your writing!

Listening

eduFire: EduFire aims to revolutionize the way we learn and teach, and Japanese is one of its most popular categories. You can learn one-on-one or take a group class with up to 100 people, all from home. Classes and lessons are live via webcam and include features such as file-sharing, notes, presentations, white boards, screen-sharing and more. You’ll find lots of free Japanese classes on the site; but if you want to get into something a little more intense, or do one-on-one lessons, you’ll have to pay for it. Luckily, rates tend to be much lower than the cost of face-to-face lessons.

iTunes: Apple’s online iTunes store does a great job of compiling Japanese-study podcasts. All you need to do is download iTunes, open it, click the “store” in the menu, scroll to the bottom, set the country selection to Japan (already preset if you are in Japan), and then click on the “Podcasts” section. With this, no matter where you are, you’ll have access to endless, entertaining listening practice on your computer or iPod. To get started, check out the “Junk Podcast” series. Ironically, it’s quite good!

Reading/grammar

Guide to Japanese Grammar: Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar is a great resource translated into 11 languages, laying out Japanese grammar from beginner level to advanced. Tae does a great job of organizing grammar into sections, explaining it well and giving examples.

JGram: This site is a kind of Wiki for Japanese grammar. The content is created by JGram’s user base, which means a couple of things: First, it might not always be completely reliable (though they do have a pretty good system to filter out bad stuff), and second, there are many examples for all levels of grammar, even for the JLPT 1, for which examples tend to be hard to find. There are also explanations of the grammar, and people there to answer questions to help learners.

Rikaichan: Using the Internet is a great way to practice reading Japanese, but when you run into words you don’t understand, Rikaichan saves the day. Just by hovering your cursor over a word, Rikaichan will tell you in English what it means and how to read it. You can even copy the word for future study. Rikaichan is a Firefox plug-in, so you’ll need to download the browser.

As you read this, I’m sure you will think, “What? How could you miss …!?” There are so many learning resources on the Web, with more and more appearing every day. These are definitely my favorites, though, and I hope they help you ace the JLPT!

Koichi runs a “wonky” Japanese-language and culture blog at www.tofugu.com. He is also marketing manager for eduFire. E-mail bilingual at japantimes.co.jp with your suggestions for other Web sites that deserve to make the list and we will post them online.