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education Japanese Sapporo

Why The JLPT N1 Was Worth it Even if I Failed.

Yesterday I took the highest level test of the JLPT, level N1, in Sapporo at Hokkaido University. The test consists of three main sections: A language knowledge section and a reading comprehension section administered in one 110 minute session, and a 60 minute listening section.

I took and passed the old level 2 (barely) JLPT in December 2008, after having passed level 3 in December of 2007. I began studying Japanese for the first time in the fall of 2004. I felt that retaking level two, even if it is the new, modified level N2, was sort of chickening out. Why take a test I’ve already passed? On one hand, I don’t have much faith in what these tests say about my Japanese ability. They measure only receptive skills, and no productive skills, which are 50% (or more) of one’s language proficiency, and arguably the harder part. On the other hand, not taking the test seriously as a measure of ability gave me an excuse for my unwillingness to commit to the kind of serious self-study necessary to actually pass it. So, this fall, after a visit back to America that caused me to question where I am going next in life, I decided to go for level N1, to see where I have come in these 7 years studying Japanese, travelling to Japan, living in Japan, marrying a Japanese person, and seeing no end in sight for my connection to this country.

First, I should admit that even after I registered for the test in August, I did not do anything more than cursory browsing of study guides until the week before the test, when of course I panicked, realized that if I were still going to take the test, I would be going in with whatever knowledge I just happened to have, along with whatever I could practically cram into my head in four or five days.

I should also plug some JLPT study guides that I purchased and found extremely useful, not just as a prep course for the test, but as a reference for anyone studying Japanese. These are the 総合まとめ “Sogo-matome” series of textbooks that are written specifically for the new N- prefixed tests. I feel that these textbooks present the vast amount of testable material in a very logically structured, friendly way. I bought the Kanji, Grammar, and Vocabulary books. There were many times while studying that I realized there was a word that I knew, and the kanji for which I also knew, but never knew that kanji had that reading. Big “Doh” moment. There were also English glosses of all example sentences – many N1 textbooks profess to teach all definitions in an intuitive way, with all definitions and explanations in Japanese. I’m almost there, but not quite yet. Overall, the textbooks are something that I feel are useful to have on my bookshelf even if I am not actively studying for this particular test. In addition to the three that I bought, there are also volumes on Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, and a book containing two full practice tests that I plan on buying as well.

Ok, so, I didn’t bother studying, I don’t feel the test is a good measure of my overall ability, and I don’t even plan to do anything specific with the certification. Why was it worth the effort? Well, I think because sometimes we have to put ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to do what the situation requires. Wow, that’s circular reasoning. Let me be more clear. If I did not take this test, I would have risked continuing to float through my life only learning those words which I stumble over or happen to notice, getting along just fine with the Japanese that I have. The test made me realize how much I don’t know, and that I actually want to remedy that. As one studies more specialized vocabulary and grammar, the applicable usefulness of that knowledge becomes inverse to the effort required to attain it. I think it’s easy to become complacent, satisfied with the significant effort required to reach an intermediate level, and lose sight or put out of mind of all of the things which you don’t understand. The JLPT tested a wide variety of words used in politics, industry, scholarship, most of which are outside of my comfort zone (I do happen to know lots of words relating to primary education). I want my Japanese to be more versatile, deeper, and more refined.

Basically, taking N1 reminded me why I began studying Japanese in the first place and why I really do want to continue studying. It humbled me to realize the hundreds of kanji and thousands of combinations that I still know nothing of, but encouraged me to know that my listening was remarkably good, and that my reading just needed to be much faster. It was enlightening, and it made me feel like I knew where I was in in my long, arduous slog through the Jungle of Nihongo.

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Let’s studying.

2 replies on “Why The JLPT N1 Was Worth it Even if I Failed.”

First, I like that I can see the korean translations (along with the chinese characters) in that first picture you posted.

Second, you wrote that “As one studies more specialized vocabulary and grammar, the practical acquisition of that knowledge becomes inverse to the effort required to acquire it.” That is exactly right. The curve is much steeper for some people though (me, for instance). I found that after 3 semesters of Korean class the usefulness of the new stuff I was learning was falling off rapidly but the effort i had to put into learning it skyrocketed. With so much other stuff in my life to worry about i had to put becoming bilingual on hold for a while. Since I’m not living in Korea, yet, its still hard for me to practice what I learned in those classes. And because Nan-Youngs english has gotten so good and she knows what Korean words I know and won’t use anything outside of that so that I don’t get frustrated.

In some sense this also mirrors my experience with learning piano. I took 3 years of piano lessons and classes, which was enough to learn the basic songs and understand the fundamentals of music theory. But after that I didn’t have the time or inclination to learn and practice more advanced songs. I got to the point, like in Korean, where my basis for understanding and practicing more on my own was solid, it was just a matter of time and effort on my part. But for me, that’s like on the climb up matanuska peak when you break above the treeline. You’ve put in the work climb out of the trees and see the shape of the mountains around you and see where you’re going, but to get to the top is still going to require a lot of effort and time. Sometimes, you just have to take in the view from that point and understand the view would be better and more satisfying at the top, but only if you have the time and energy and good weather to get there.

I found the So-Matome series to be a bit lacking actually. They really didn’t prepare me for the N2 test this December. I needed to pick up the New Kanzen Master series instead to get me close to the level I needed to be. They are relentless, but definitely worth it once you’ve gone through them.

I think you made some valid points in the sense that the test is a good motivator, but also not the only measure of Japanese level (it only tests input not output). I feel like my output has actually decreased because I’ve put in some much effort practicing my input. 🙂

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