If you’re Japanese, you probably have no idea what the JLPT is. If you’re not and you’re studying the language, you’re probably familiar with it, or at least have heard of it.
JLPT stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and is the standard test Japanese learners have to take to demonstrate to Japanese companies their language skills. Today I’m going to talk a bit about how it works and about whether you should take it.
First things first: I think that as a test to, well, test your Japanese skills, the JLPT is not particularly great. Actually, it’s pretty bad. This goes for other language tests designed in Japan, like the TOEIC (a story for another day), which emphasize listening and reading at the detriment of actually speaking the language. The JLPT is no exception. While there are three sections (grammar, reading, listening), it eventually comes down to “can you read” and “can you understand”.
Not only this, but like TOEIC, the JLPT is also a multiple choice exam, a baffling decision for a language test, and one that goes against all standards set by other test makers. These at least try to test your writing and speaking skills, and include more involved questions than “choose one of four options”. Unfortunately though, the JLPT is the only real option available when it comes to the Japanese language.
Ultimately, if you want to do well at the test, it all comes down to recognition, rather than actual mastery of the language. That is, if having the answer in front of you is enough for you to remember it, then you’ll do well, regardless of whether you would have been able to use the grammar and vocabulary in real life, arguably an entirely different skill. There are usually three or four choices, and one of them is often a clear outlier. This means that even people who achieve the highest grade aren’t always that great at communicating in Japanese.
The way the test is designed also leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion, as knowing how the JLPT itself works is almost as important as knowing the language. It is basically essential that you do JLPT specific practice and a mock test before you take the actual one. Once you recognize the patterns in the test, you’ll have a much better chance.
The process of taking the test itself is rather tedious and most of the time is spent listening to recordings that explain the procedure (in Japanese), waiting for the papers to be handed out (why they don’t do it beforehand escapes me), and taking breaks. The actual test-taking is less than half of the approximately four hours you’ll spend in some building an hour away from where you live.
Not all is bad news though. In order to even be able to read the test questions, you’ll have to be able to read kanji, which at least means your comprehension in real life will improve if you study the required kanji for the test. I know my life got much easier once I was able to read a moderate amount of characters (moderate meaning several hundred), and the motivation of having to take an exam probably helps.
Also, while the lowest three levels of the test (N5, N4 and N3) are pretty useless except to test your own abilities in some aspects of the language, passing the most difficult levels of the JLPT will open many doors. You’ll start getting job opportunities at N2, though these are usually jobs where English is also used to begin with or that are not looking for skilled labor. N1 is the one you’ll have to aim for most probably, as this is the one most companies require of foreign employees.
The JLPT is conducted every half a year, so if you start at the lowest level and improve by one level every time, you could get N1 in 2.5 years. That might optimistic if you don’t study hard, but it’s doable.
At the end of the day, the JLPT is not a great tool to test your communication skills in the language, but it is essential to be able to access most jobs in the Japanese market, and it will at least motivate you to study kanji, so I would say it’s at least worth taking once if you want to improve your reading, and worth aiming for N1 if you want to have access to more and higher paying jobs.
Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
My email is ” email@example.com “, by all means contact me about anything!
・Efficiently studying Japanese
・Payslips ; Japanese-English contrast ：給与明細の項目を英語にしたら？
・Job title in English and simple Japanese：肩書を英語と「やさしい日本語」にしたら？
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