JLPT Level 1 (without studying!) Impressions

by mo on 12/11/2009

Or, why everyone needs to chill out about this test.

Last Sunday, December 6th, some 200,000 non-native Japanese speakers took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) to show off their Japanese skillz, hoping to impress potential employers, schools, or just for their own personal amusement. This year, I took Level 1 (the hardest of the 4 levels offered). The Japan Foundation, who runs the JLPT in the US, claims Level 1 tests whether:

The examinee has mastered grammar to a high level, knows around 2,000 kanji and 10,000 words, and has an integrated command of the language sufficient for life in Japanese society.

Okay, so this is a hard test, we get it. It’s offered once a year, on the first Sunday in December. It’s a several hour drive away from me (not really something to count on in December), costs 50 bucks, and consists of 4 hours of intense SAT-style Japanese multiple choice questions. All of these things can add up to a fair amount of pressure to NOT MESS IT UP.

Which is why I decided to take the complete opposite approach: I aimed to fail. I did not study for the JLPT at ALL.

My strategy was basically this: Since I’ve heard the JLPT is pretty hard, I am probably going to fail anyway. But, I have no idea how close to passing I actually will be, so why not use this year as a baseline and study my weaknesses next year? This approach makes sense for a couple of reasons:

1) I’m a busy college student, not taking any Japanese classes. I don’t have extra time to devote to studying (unless I sacrifice eating, sleeping, or having friends), so I will likely do a half-assed job studying anyway. If I felt pressure to study properly, I probably would just give up and not take it, which leaves me with less experience.

2) Taking exams can be pretty stressful for me. I’m kind of a test-taking perfectionist, so spending extra brain cycles worrying about whether I was studying enough, whether I’d pass, what would be on the test, etc. is detrimental to my learning and overal mental health. Which brings us to:

3) I don’t actually need to pass the JLPT this year. I’m not using it for any immediate employment/studying options — thus, I have time to NOT pass the test. I’m considering doing IUC or something similar in the future, but even those programs don’t require you to already have passed JLPT 1. So for now, I’m sort of in the “taking this for my own personal amusement” category.

4) I’m curious how much of my Japanese usage in my daily life improves or at least maintains my abilities. I have taken a few semesters of Japanese here in college, but since May the only Japanese I encounter is in the form of watching lots of jdrama, translating manga, and talking to people on Twitter.

Past JLPT Experiences
I never took JLPT 4 (I planned to, junior year of high school, but got sick and couldn’t go that day). JLPT 3 I took senior year, and did a bit of studying for about a month beforehand. I had been to Japan once for a 2.5 week trip at this point, and studied Japanese throughout high school. It went fine. I passed. Hooray.

A year later, in December 2006, I took JLPT 2. At this point I had been living in Kobe, Japan for just over 3 months, and going to high school there. You’d think I’d get a lot of natural practice, living in Japan and all, but I felt extremely insecure about my ability to pass this test and ended up studying a LOT. In school, I had an amazing tutor, Nagai-sensei, who helped me especially with the grammar. I learned 10 new kanji every day and practiced writing them over and over. I bought like 6 books of the past exams and went over them multiple times. I didn’t use any fancy software, but I did a lot of daily self-studying and I learned a lot doing it. Unfortunately, I had all this free time mainly because I was not happy with my host family and having generally a very poor experience at the time. I didn’t have any friends at school yet, my house was a little out-of-the-way from places one would go exploring, and so I spent many lonely weekends in my room practicing kanji. (Maybe this is why I have a negative association with studying for the JLPT XD) When I took the exam, I felt horrible about it, and thought there was no way I passed. Here were my thoughts about it at the time. However, the hard work apparently paid off and in February I found out I had passed level 2!!

This year: JLPT 1
The week leading up to the JLPT involved a grueling amount of not-studying. Instead, I was busy participating in a Japanese Fashion Show at school (wearing my adorable pink yukata, of course). Saturday night I hit up about four parties, including the fashion show afterparty, in rapid succession and still got to bed by about 1 am. In the morning, I started making my way towards the test, helpfully transported by Dave. We arrived early and I had time to spot the Aldo store a couple of blocks from the test and scope out a somewhat gratuitous pair of black leather ankle boots that sent me on a great post-shopping endorphin rush.

I don’t think I’ve ever been less stressed out before a test.

When I arrived at the testing room, it felt vaguely familiar (since I’d been there 4 years ago). There were very few people in the room and the proctors were worried not enough would show up to start the exam (if 30% of people are missing, apparently they are supposed to delay the test). However, we reached some critical mass, listened to instructions, and had about 8 minutes of awkward waiting-for-the-test-to-start time. Our proctor was this really genki, amusing Japanese guy who tried to make small-talk with the room at-large instead of letting us wait in painful silence. He asked who had worked in Japan before, who was still a student, who was taking level 1 for the first time, etc. Then he moved onto asking when we started studying Japanese. The majority started in college. When he asked who had started studying in high school, only about 3 or 4 people (myself included) raised their hands. For some reason, Mr. Proctor looked right at me and said, “Hmm… you seem like you would have…” [been studying Japanese since high school]. Everyone laughed, including me. What is that supposed to mean?! However, I couldn’t get an answer out of him, as he had already began questioning the girl who has been studying Japanese since elementary school. わからないな。

Anyway, onto the actual test!

Writing-vocabulary: Basically, a lot of kanji. I expected to randomly guess on everything, but surprisingly, I legit knew about 30% of the kanji, some of which I’ve known and been using for years. Hmm, not so difficult. The sections where you had to find homophones and homonyms to a given word were more difficult. Which of the following kanji has the same reading as the given kanji? You have to know at least 2 kanji and be pretty secure on the readings. Kinda tough.

Listening: Surprisingly easy. This is definitely the part I struggled with the most on JLPT 2 and 3 (I tend to be more of a visual reading/writing oriented person than a verbal one), but I caught most of what they were saying on all the questions here. A few tricky ones here and there, but I’d say there is a good chance I passed this section. One possible explanation is that while I didn’t actually study, I have watched over 14 jdramas so far this year, which is close to 168 hours, the same as a week straight of jdramas all day every day (or a full month of watching jdramas as if it were my full-time job, 8 hrs a day… if only…) Anyway, I have clearly spent a reasonable amount of time listening to Japanese. Did it help? Probably. Oh, and one other thing about the listening section… the last question on the listening section was a LITTLE ridiculous. Mhm.

Reading/Grammar: Ugh. An hour and a half of OUCH. Honestly, it was not incredibly difficult, there were just a lot of passages to read, some of them far too long. It was mentally exhausting, and by the end of the 1.5 hour period allotted for this section, I was still completely racing for the finish. Note for next time: pump up reading speed.

Aaand the test was finally over. As usual for 4:40 PM in December, it was pitch black outside, so I headed out, feeling like the day was gone, before getting a chance to see a couple of friends I hadn’t seen in a while and returned home, feeling not as exhausted as standardized tests normally make me. I came to the realization that a not-so-small part of me actually ENJOYED taking the test. Yeah, I know enjoying the JLPT is kind of a sick thought. But, it’s Japanese after all, guys. It’s fun.

Did I pass? I don’t think so. But besides my twisted sense of enjoyment from the whole thing, there are some other up-sides:
• I now know what JLPT 1 is like, and am no longer scared of it. TOO MUCH HYPE, GUYS.
• When I get my scores back I’ll know which areas to focus studying on for next time (possibly next year)
• Those shoes I bought before taking the exam are freaking excellent, and there is no Aldo store in my town. So if it weren’t for the JLPT, I would’ve missed out on these, which is not really an option XD