Last year I did something I should have done a long time ago. After 6 years of living in Japan, I finally got serious about learning the language. So, I enrolled in an evening class, bought a few books and started looking at the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
Since its inception in the early 1980s, the JLPT has become the gold standard for employers and educational institutions in assessing applicants Japanese language abilities. For someone like me, who plans on spending the rest of my working life in Japan, the JLPT is a stepping stone into a whole new world of opportunity.
However, as any of my friends will tell you, studying is not my strongest suit. I often find it hard to ignore the various distractions that life presents when one is trying to put one’s self into “study mode”. Movies, video games, cleaning the house all suddenly become more viable and more enjoyable alternatives to hitting the books.
Nevertheless, I got my head down, studied hard for a couple of months and in the end I was rewarded when last December I took my first step on the long road to Japanese language mastery when I passed the JLPT N5 exam.
So, how exactly does the JLPT work?
Like most things in Japan it can seem very complicated to the uninitiated.
The test itself is broken down into a series of sections. First up is grammar and vocabulary. This section will test your ability to read Japanese Kanji characters as well as your knowledge of the various grammatical forms and particles. From my own point of view, I’m glad Kanji and grammar are lumped together. My Kanji is pretty good, but my grammar is undoubtedly my weakest area. Next up is the reading section. Here, one must read short extracts and then answer the questions that follow. Anyone who has ever attempted an English literature exam will have a rough idea of what to expect here.
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Finally comes the listening section. The listening portion is relatively short, but it is also, I believe, the most challenging part of the test. No matter how hard I listen, I always find myself doubting what I have heard and wondering if indeed I did write the correct answer. Time is also a major issue as it is easy to miss the next question whilst still contemplating the answer to the previous one.
Thankfully writing down lengthy answers in the JLPT is not necessary. For the N5-N3 levels, all the answers are multiple choice, selected by simply marking a line through option A, B, C or D on an answer grid. If you’ve ever attempted the US SAT exams then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here.
Taking the JLPT is also a test of endurance though. Whilst there are short 15-20 minute breaks in between each section, the whole exam can take 3-4 hours to complete, depending on the level you are taking. Your mental and physical stamina will both be tested to their limits.
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So, what can one expect to find in each exam?
As I said before, the JLPT has 5 levels, with N5 being the easiest and N1 the most difficult.
Although the administrators of the exam are keen to emphasize that there are no “set in stone” criteria for each exam, to prevent test-takers from simply studying for the exam rather than developing their overall language abilities, there are some areas where we can use past experience and previous exam papers as a guide.
The N5 is the basic exam, where students will be tested on the most rudimentary of Japanese kanji, vocabulary and grammar. To pass the N5, one will need to know around 150 kanji characters, about 800 words and basic sentence structures. If you have been studying Japanese formally for 6 months to one year then you should be ready for this test.
The N4 represents a bit of a significant step up in requirements. At this stage, candidates are expected to know around 300 kanji, as well as about 2000 words. The grammar usage in the paper is also considerably more advanced. The N4 is seen as a benchmark beyond which people should be able to engage in basic daily discourse with Japanese people and understand simple everyday documents and signage.
The N3 is a new addition to the JLPT criteria. Prior to 2010, there were only 4 JLPT exams, with the level 4 being equivalent to the current N5, and the level 3 being equivalent to the current N4 exam. However, in response to feedback from test takers over a number of years, the organizers felt that the gap in difficulty between levels 3 and 2 was too great, and they were concerned at the number of candidates who seemed to give up after passing level 3.
To remedy this, the exams were reformed, with the new N3 exam being created to act as a bridging gap between the daily conversation level of N4 and the business level Japanese of N2. N3 requires around 5-600 kanji, about 3-4000 words and an advanced level of grammar comprehension.
N2 is the pinnacle for many learners of Japanese. The perception amongst both test takers and a number of employers in Japan is that the N1 is ridiculously difficult. As such an increasing number of companies are willing to accept N2 as proof of a candidate’s ability to converse fluently in Japanese. As I have previously stated, N2 suggests a business level ability in Japanese.
Finally, we have the N1. If you can pass this then you truly are a master, with a Japanese reading and writing ability superior to the majority of the native population. For the N1, one is expected to know around 5000 kanji, including many more obscure ones that are not in everyday use, as well as around 8-10,000 words. People who pass the N1 can expect to have a level of Japanese suitable for advanced academic study in Japan.
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As for me, I’m taking the N4 this July. For those who are considering taking the test, here is my advice.
Firstly, try to set aside some time, ideally at least one hour every day to review and study your Japanese. Buying a textbook such as Minna No Nihongo, is a good idea. In general terms, completing Minna No Nihongo 1 and 2 would qualify someone to take the N4 test.
Secondly, make the most of every opportunity you have to practice and improve your Japanese with those around you.
If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded almost entirely with native Japanese who don’t speak English at work, then maximize this opportunity. Talk to your coworkers as much as you can in Japanese, and ask for their advice with any grammar or reading issues you find puzzling. Not only will this help to prepare you for the test, it will also better ingratiate you with your colleagues, who will really appreciate your efforts.
The commute to and from work is also a good opportunity to study. Find podcasts, listening practices and other such audio files you can listen to during that time on the train or bus.
One particularly good resource I recommend is “News in Slow Japanese”. You’ll find the podcast on iTunes. It provides a short, daily round-up of some of the top news stories in Japan, at a slow and easy to follow pace. For the more advanced learners, you also have the option of listening to the broadcast in the regular “fast version”.
I’m not going to lie and say that the JLPT is easy. It isn’t. Even passing the N5, which most people regard as an “easy” exam, seriously tested my abilities. I approach the N4 with a sense of hope rather than confidence. Of course if you do fail, then it’s not the end of the world. In Japan the test is administered every 6 months. Outside Japan it varies from country to country but you will have the chance to attempt the exam at least once a year. Good luck, and get studying!