When I first came to Japan, I heard the rumors about how infamously difficult the N1 exam was. A common story going around the foreign community at the time was that the N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the highest level, was so difficult that even Japanese speakers would struggle with the questions and perhaps fail to get the 50 percent score needed to pass.
Surely that couldn’t be right, could it?
I didn’t really believe it until one day, trying to explain a grammar point to one of my younger students, I used the infamous (に)だに (even) grammar point from my N1 grammar cheat sheet to explain. At first, I got that look that Japanese people give when they are convinced that the speaker has made some fundamental error.
“Are you sure that’s Japanese?” she ventured.
I showed her example questions and she laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this,” she explained. “We’d use something like にも instead.” She’s actually right, I would later discover, as (に)だに is only really used in certain types of literature and にも is far more commonly used. However, it got me interested in seeing how Japanese people would actually do on the N1.
The guinea pigs for my experiment were a range of Japanese people. On separate days, using questions from the official materials for taking the exam, I interviewed businesswomen from a reputable firm who have a 短大 or 4-year degree, students at a 専門学校 (specialist school), and some junior high school kids to keep things interesting.
Initially, the hypothesis that the test would be difficult for native speakers was blown out of the water as the first questions, which test kanji and vocabulary, were a breeze for everyone—even the kids.
The best performers were the specialist school students who did the questions as fast as they could, barely pausing to think about the subtle differences between words.
Interestingly, the business women took longer on the vocabulary section, simply because often “these two meanings are almost identical” but aced the whole section whereas the students had occasional mistakes. When I later asked one of them about this, she explained that the difference came down to the use of a single word and so they wanted to make sure they accurately understood everything. It seems that the students’ approach of just whizzing through the questions without really thinking about them was better for this section.
A few of the junior high school students made mistakes on the tiny nuances in vocabulary. Most told me that they have seen the word, but have never really thought about its meaning. However, even they are far from the 49 percent mark needed to fail.
One of the most common complaints by visitors to Japan is the ridiculousness of the next part of the exam. Here, the test taker has to rearrange words and grammar points into an order that makes a sentence. This can be frustrating for many learners as it requires knowing, for example, that a noun followed by たる is usually followed by another noun. As a person who finds these exercises annoying in English, let alone Japanese, I wondered if this unnatural exercise would present a challenge for my students. After all, they’re not really used to doing this kind of thing, right?
If it is unnatural, it didn’t affect any of my test subjects as every single one of them breezes through the questions. At first, that surprises me, but on closer consideration, Japanese tends to be an ordered and structured language, so perhaps it is not surprising that questions like this are remarkably easy.
The N1 reading section
The reading test is where things get a little more interesting.
Generally speaking, the N1-level reading comes in five flavors: reading an opinion, filling in a missing word/sentence from a longer text, answering questions about what a sentence in the text is trying to say, reading two documents and comparing them, and skimming through a large body of text trying to get enough information. At the N1 level, the test examines how fast and how accurate you are. Many learners, including myself, have fallen at this hurdle because they run out of time or save time by skimming through the exercises too quickly, making elementary mistakes.
Interestingly, after they were told how tight the timing was, the tactics differed between the businesswomen and the students.
The students, fresh out of high school, did a lot of the same things that we, as learners, are taught in our classes. When they came to the questions where they had to fill in the missing word, for example, most of them didn’t read the whole text and instead read back a couple of paragraphs, looking for the part that connects to the key sentence.
The businesswomen, who have years of speed-reading reports and documents as part of their work, read the entire article quickly to find the answer. The businesswomen’s approach seems to be the better one, as the classic traps and distractors proved a little too much without context and one of the students ended up throwing her hands up.
“When we were at high school, we had to do this sort of question. ‘Look through this article’, ‘find out what the author thinks,’” she explained. “I hated it then, too. I guess Japanese people hate 国語 (Japanese).”
I heard a similar complaint from the junior high school students, who wanted me to know that Japanese was their least favorite subject, too. Perhaps appropriately, they struggled on the reading parts that required them to follow the writer’s train-of-thought but had not so many difficulties on the parts that simply required comprehension.
Interestingly, the opposite is true in the comparison of two texts exercise. The businesswomen read both carefully and then get into some mental gymnastics deciding which points the two texts agreed or disagreed, finally working out that the difference came down to a single sentence. Conversely, the students skimmed through the texts noticing the overall flow and got the correct answer in a much shorter period.
“This is some boring material,” one of the businesswomen complained as she looks at the page of text that she will have to digest for the final question.
A lot of the businesswomen read the article aloud. As a fan of this myself, I was interested to find online that this approach is championed by a lot of notable education researchers as a way to get the most out of the material. Generally speaking, the ones who read aloud got their question correct, the only problem being the amount of time that it took and the risk of looking like a crazy person in the actual exam.
Coming to a conclusion
It turned out to be an interesting experiment as most of the subjects used techniques similar to the ones that we non-native speakers use. It definitely gave me a little faith as I have often been critical of the questions that appear on N1, especially the rearranging words puzzles. However, seeing Japanese people breeze through them restored some of my faith. Perhaps to some extent those questions are designed to get us thinking in the ordered way that many Japanese seem to approach their language.
It was also validating to see that a lot of the techniques that I’ve used in exams such as looking for keywords, underlining sentences — although recently the examiners have started to look down on this practice as exams full of students desperately erasing their notes can attest — and reading aloud. It occurs to me that there is no use reinventing the wheel for every test and often the tried-and-true techniques are fine.
My experiment, overall, suggests that, yes, native speakers would probably not get 100 percent on the test (if that makes you scoff, try getting 100 percent on the TOEIC!), but they would pass the exam pretty clearly.
How about your experiences? Have you ever been surprised by questions that native speakers found challenging? Or have you ever tested the more difficult levels of Japanese exams on friends and families? Let us know in the comments.