An Unofficial Guide to the JLPT
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) takes place twice a year - July and December.
Do you really have to take it?
However, if a private school receives several applications with similar qualifications and backgrounds, they may prefer the candidate with higher Japanese ability. Frankly, schools are often relieved when their native English teacher can speak Japanese because it’s rare that anyone outside of the English department speaks English fluently, and cooperating with other teachers in the school is part of your job.
Sometimes, but not always, schools specifically request a native English teacher with at least some conversational Japanese ability. They’re doubly impressed by someone who has passed the JLPT N1 or N2, so while I can’t say your entire future in education depends on the JLPT, I would still encourage you to take it to improve your professional life, if not just your personal one.
The JLPT has 5 levels. N1 being the highest, “The ability to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances”, and N5 being the most basic, “The ability to understand some basic Japanese.”
We’ll start with the most important level first…
I would recommend anyone seriously considering a long-term stay in Japan to take the N2 test. It’s what I would call high intermediate to advanced Japanese. While studying for this test, you will learn a whole lot of useful phrases and grammar patterns that you will actually use and hear in everyday conversation. If your goal is to speak and understand Japanese, you should be aiming for this level. It’s more than enough to make your life easier, in and out of the workplace.
You should be studying kanji, but don’t get hung up on it and not study anything else. Honestly, studying kanji doesn’t give you any boost to actual speaking ability unless you’re studying it in combination with grammar and reading and listening all at the same time. Some people love studying kanji and I would not discourage them from memorising obsolete characters if that’s their passion, but just take a wide angled approach when studying for this test.
The reason I say that is because the test is divided into 3 sections that test different basic language skills. If you fail any one section of the test, there’s a high chance you fail the whole thing. That being said, the individual section failure line is kinda low, so you’d really have to bomb a particular section to fail the whole thing, but let’s not get overconfident. You should make sure you don’t have any major weaknesses in any of the following areas: kanji (and vocabulary), grammar, and reading - speed is what counts especially.
I’m very serious about the reading advice. The questions on the reading test are not difficult. The real test is to see how fast you can get through that two page boring article to answer one simple multiple choice question. If you start practicing by reading books in Japanese that are just slightly above your level (don’t stop to look up kanji unless it’s really important), your reading speed will naturally increase at an exponential rate. Then you’ll finish the test with time to spare and actually have the luxury of going back to double check a few answers, and walk out feeling much more confident than if you didn’t finish the reading section at all.
Recommended reading material: newspapers, journal articles covering various topics, the subtitles on NHK news, fiction and non-fiction novels. Unfortunately manga doesn’t really help much for the JLPT!
N3 through N5:
A lot of the advice above can be applied to the other levels. Choose a variety of study books that target a variety of skills, and get to work. I would never discourage someone who has no Japanese ability from challenging themselves to take level N5 or N4, but you should know that they don’t represent much more than stepping stones to level N2 and N1. Studying for those levels will get you where you want to go, but they shouldn’t be the end goal. Keep it up!
The N1 test is actually very similar to N2, except you have to be able to read much more professional level writing, newspaper articles (especially 社説 “shasetsu” - editorials), and registers of Japanese politeness that no one in their right mind would use in daily conversation. It is, however, very important to be able to understand and hopefully even use that language someday if your goal is to speak at native level. Don’t be discouraged. Most Japanese high school and university students have embarrassingly poor keigo skills, too.
If your goal is eventual Japanese fluency, then this level is for you. It’s basically for those who want a challenge, language geeks (not in a derogative way), and people who want to be a translator, interpreter, or work in a Japanese company. It proves that you have a very high level of Japanese, but it doesn’t prove your ability is native level. In fact, once passing this test you will realise that the gap between “fluent” and “native” is huge and vast, and you will glare at small children who speak more fluently than you as you continue to make silly mistakes throughout the rest of your adult life. I’ve met some people who have passed the N1 who speak as if it were their native language, but I’ve met a lot more who still use a lot of unnatural expressions in their daily conversation, and even some who cannot speak daily conversational level at all!
If you want to reach true fluency, you have to start studying Japanese like native Japanese people study Japanese. They listen and speak to native people around them, constantly copying their expressions. They watch English movies and TV shows with Japanese dubbing (tell them to stop that!). They read all day, every day, all in Japanese. They read novels, newspapers, and other literature of questionable quality. What’s stopping you?
Are you up for the challenge of taking the JLPT? Best of luck, and ganbatte kudasai!