Sunday, December 6, 2009


Yes, it's the time of year again, when the leaves have fallen, when the rain turns cold and miserable, and when people's thoughts turn towards the year-end parties and the coming holiday - and when foreigners throughout the country gather to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Like last year I took the level 1 test, and like last year I'm going to fail.

Which is fine; I took it just for practice. Unlike last year, however, it didn't feel impossible. I have a decent idea on what parts of the language need improvement (everything) and how much more I need to improve (a lot.) The JLPT is being remade next year, with a new level in between the current 2 and 3, a somewhat different scoring system, and new names for the levels. Oh, and level 1 will reportedly become slightly harder.

So I figure that to the extent passing level 1 has any meaning1 I might as well take the new test rather than the old. My current plan is to make a real attempt on level one this time next year, and if/when I fail that, try again in June next year. Of course, the vagaries of life can and will interfere (when work and study competes for attention work wins every time) but that's the plan at least. I've already started going through the vocabulary and kanji "for real". We'll see.


#1 A lot of people seem to really overestimate the value of a JLPT1 certificate. Here's a bit of reality: If Japanese proficiency is important for a job, then having JLPT1 or JLPT2 may make the difference between landing a job interview and not doing so. But that's it - no interviewer, in Japan or abroad, is going settle with a test score. They'll make sure you actually can use the language, including conversation and writing which are not covered by the test. Actually knowing the language is critical in other words; having a test certificate is much less so. "Studying for the test" is relly pointless in this case.

And if Japanese is not important then a JLPT test certificate is much like being treasurer at your local photography club, or having a forklift licence - it makes for a nicely rounded CV but it's not going to have any material effect.


  1. Come back with your "overestimate the value of a JLPT1 certificate" talk once you actually have one AND work in the corporate world... ;)

  2. Actually, I seem to encounter two misconceptions fairly frequently:

    1) "a JLPT 1 certificate is all you need to show your proficiency", with the attendant idea that you can study for the test and not worry too much about actually being able to use the language in real-life situations.

    The other one is worse:

    2) "A JLPT 1 certificate/a degree in Japanese is the ticket to a good job in Japan". Which of course ignores the little detail that if there's anything you have plenty of already, it's proficient Japanese speakers.

    What I wanted to point out was simply that a test certificate is not going to do anything like the above. It can be helpful of course, and occasionally open doors, but it's not a substitute for actually being able to use the language.

    And in Japan (or in Sweden if you study Swedish, or in Germany ... and so on) the most that language proficiency can do is level the playing field for you compared to the native speakers; it will be a very rare thing for a non-native speaker to be good enough that their ability is an actual asset.

    In a way, a certificate - like a second language - is probably a more useful professional tool outside the country than in it (for actual daily life it's the other way around of course). Outside of Japan you would not be competing with about a hundred million people all better at the language than yourself after all.

  3. I would also add

    3) "JLPT 1 contains only obscure grammar and archaic words that no one uses. It is very hard even for Japanese people to pass". Which is of course just bullshit, or possibly confusion with the Nihongo Kentei's level 1.

    The way I see JLPT 1 is that it's a certificate of Japanese literacy and a certain base level of general vocabulary and grammar. As you say, actually knowing the language is what's critical. But, in my opinion, anyone whose Japanese skill is good enough that they can honestly say they "speak Japanese" without having to add some classifier like "conversational" or "business" etc will have no problem passing JLPT1. So having passed JLPT1 shows that you have at least graduated from the hobby level of Japanese studies.

    Anyway, in the software world at least, HR departments are usually not the brightest of stars... So for a software engineer, having a JLPT1 certificate could mean the difference going to interview as a project manager @ 9m/year instead of a developer @ 6m/year. So I guess some people's over-estimation becomes other people's real estimation...

    I passed JLPT1 a year ago, by the way. Unfortunately my company doesn't have an HR department. ;)

  4. Well, yes and no about the difficulty. A native Japanese has not problems with the test of course (they might need to see a test beforehand to avoid losing unnecessary points from not knowing the format and time limits). But JLPT1 does include a fair amount of pretty obscure grammar and vocabulary. At the same time the test ignores a lot of potentially more useful vocab - a simple word like "電位" isn't on the test for instance.

    As I said, having the test can be good specifically to get a foot in the door. But that is only a foot - you still need the actual proficiency to back it up.

    Also, I suspect that the kind of jobs where Japanese is important enough that JLPT1 makes a real difference, but not so important that you just go ahead and hire a native speaker are few and far between. In practice I guess it's far more common that someone has a rare and sought-after skill set while the language requirements are secondary and mostly along the lines of "do you know enough for the language barrier not to become a major problem for everybody?"

    In my field you're either a post-doc or researcher and don't really need any Japanese at all (research, lectures and seminars are mostly conducted in English); or you're expected to teach, in which case the JLPT1 is probably insufficient, as you need to be able to hold forth for hours at a time on your subject, answer questions and grade papers, all in the native language.

    So for me, level 2 is really sufficient; level 1 is more of a motivator - something to aim for with my studies. Whether or when I pass doesn't feel hugely important.

  5. I think one of you (Janne or Henrik) read Harry Potter when studying for the JLPT1. Did that work well for you? And if you have tried KanKen for the Nintendo DS then I would appreciate your comments on that aswell.

    Tack på förhand!

  6. Hi,

    Actually, I read the first Harry Potter just after passing JLPT2. I wasn't specifically aiming to practice for the JLPT exam; I just wanted to start reading longer texts, and I figured that a children/young adult book I liked and already had read in English would be about right. Since it's aimed for young people the language isn't very hard, and most kanji have furigana the first time you encounter them in each chapter.

    Finishing that improved my self confidence a lot - a little too much, perhaps - so my next book was Reason, by Miyki Miyabe. Excellent book, but a whole different kettle of fish; I spent a whole year reading only that one book.

    I do use "kanken DS2" by "Rocket Company", and it's fairly fun - but honestly, it's not that good for learning kanji. It's good for _practicing_ kanji you already know, but it does assume you don't need to learn them in the first place.


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