I have been in Japan for a total of more than six years and I would like to think that in that time I’ve managed to pick up, at least a little bit of the language in my time here. But this December, for the first time, I will find out just how good my Japanese is.
I will take the famous; some would say infamous, Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
The JLPT has been around since 1984 and originally comprised four levels.
The level 4 exam was a basic introduction to Japanese. Candidates are expected to learn around 120 kanji, their various readings and pronunciations, as well as around 800 words of Japanese and the basic rudiments of Japanese grammar. Someone who passed the level 4 exam would have a level of written Japanese roughly equivalent to a grade 2 or 3 elementary school student.
The level 3 exam was considerably more advanced than the level 4. At this level students were expected to know around 300 kanji and 1500 words.
Level 2 represented an even greater jump up in requirements. At this level the requirement surges to 1000 kanji and 6000 words. People who attain level 2 are largely considered to have conversational Japanese ability and can say so on their resume.
Level 1 is, was as you would expect, the highest level. Students who passed this level would have to master 3000 kanji and more than 10,000 words.
Many test candidates complained that the gulf in requirement between the older level 3 and level 2 exams was simply too great and many successful level 3 candidates would often become disheartened and frustrated when they could not pass level 2.
Recognizing this, the test was given an overhaul in 2010, when new standards were set for the exams and a fifth exam level was added. The current system now looks like this:
- N5 replaces the old level 4 exam.
- N4 is the equivalent of the old level 3 exam.
- N3 is a new exam. Its difficulty level is pitched halfway between the old level 3 and 2 exam.
- N2 is pretty much the same as the old level 2 exam.
- N1 is the new pinnacle of Japanese examinations.
Although no official clarification has been forthcoming from the organizers, many experts and test takers have claimed that the new N1 is slightly more difficult than the old level 1 exam. This remains a point of contention however.
From my own point of view, I will be taking level 5, since I am a JLPT virgin. Like a lot of foreigners in Japan, I have picked up a lot of phrases words and mannerisms from my Japanese friends and colleagues in my time here, but I have never seriously or formally studied the language until now. One of the major downsides of the JLPT is the fact that it has no speaking segment.
N5-N3 has 3 sections: Kanji and Vocabulary, Grammar and Reading, and listening.
N2 and N1 only have 2 sections: The vocabulary, grammar and reading sections of the previous exams are all merged into one section. There is also a longer listening section.
How does one pass the JLPT?
That’s a very complicated question. In short the pass mark is around 60% for N5-N2 and 70% for N1. However, in order to obtain the certificate, the candidate must pass every individual section, and sections cannot be retaken individually later.
Taking the exam is one thing, but registering for the exam can also be a little tricky for a first timer.
The the first to start is at the JLPT website, please go to the website www.jlpt.jp . From here, you will be able to check the requirements for each level, as well as do some sample questions so see which level is best suited to you. Once you know the level you want to take, you can submit an application. The application form can be completed online or printed off and submitted by post. Application packs are also available from various bookstores around Japan.
Please bear in mind that the deadline for applications is usually around 2 and a half months before the test date. Tests are held in December and July every year for those in Japan. In some other countries it is only once per year so please check with the organizers in your own country if you live outside Japan. Information on exam centres around the world can be found on the website. For those of us already in Japan, there are test centres in each region. Its important that you find out which centre is closest to you before you apply as you need to state the test centre location on your application form.
Once you’ve completed the application form, you’ll then have to submit it along with your fee of 5,500 yen. This can be paid by credit card, bank transfer, or, if you’re feeling adventurous with your Japanese, at one of those ticketting machines you will find in your local convenience store. Please note that you can only take one exam level per sitting. So if like me your Japanese level sits somewhere between two of the test levels you have a choice to make. Personally, I recommend taking the lower of the two levels, as failing the exam could affect your confidence in taking further exams in the future.
What advice would I give to test takers?
Firstly, I would say you need to approach this exam seriously. Do not think that you can cram the exam for a couple of weeks before you take the test. This is not high school history, languages exams, especially ones that use a non-roman script like Japanese are very complex and need an extended period of time and study to prepare for.
I would really recommend taking some Japanese classes to help you prepare. These classes are vital to learn things such as grammar, appropriate usage, verb forms and so on. These are things you simply cannot learn having a few beers down the local izakaya with your Japanese friends.
If you can’t afford to go to a language school, don’t worry as all around Japan, many ward offices and local community centres offer Japanese classes taught by volunteers. These classes are very cheap, or sometimes even free to residents of that particular ward. Be sure to go and check out your local ward office and see what’s available.
Japanese is not easy, but with a bit of hard work and lots of determination, we can do it. If anyone has any questions about preparing for the JLPT or learning Japanese in general please be sure to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to offer any advice I can.