Passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level N2

My JLPT N2 Certificate
My JLPT N2 Certificate

A few weeks ago, I received my certificate for passing the JLPT N2 test in December.

JLPT stands for “Japanese Language Proficiency Test” (日本語能力試験 Nihongo Nōryoku Shiken) and is administered in Japan by the Ministry of Education and overseas by the Japan Foundation. In the United States, the test is only given once per year, the first Sunday in December.

There are five levels to the test with N1 being the most difficult and N5 being the easiest. After browsing through some reference material last Summer, I decided to try the N2 level based on the level of Kanji covered. As for the selection of Kanji, N2 was indeed just about right. The test itself, however, kicked my butt. The issuers of the certificate very graciously did not include any clarifying comments like “Just Barely Passed” or “Crawled Across the Finish Line and Collapsed”  which would have been quite accurate in my case.

Although the test was tough, it was also useful in that it showed me the limits of my personal learning strategy for Japanese. About fifteen years ago my language skill had hit a plateau because I was really only absorbing Japanese through conversation. This approach had me stuck permanently at something like the level of an elementary student. Very aware of this limitation, I decided to make an all-out effort to conquer the Kanji. This is a formidable task. Although there are only a few thousand Kanji in common use, any one can have as many as twenty different reading. Even worse, most useful words are combinations of two or more Kanji and there isn’t any completely air-tight and predictable method of determining which combination of readings and individual meanings will apply to a word which is a combination of two Kanji. I attacked the task with computer power, using Visual Basic to generate flashcards  in PowerPoint which I then printed, pasted back to back, cut with paper cutter and laminated into sets of one-hundred. I then practiced endlessly with these sets of flashcards. Altogether, I made 4,700 flashcards and spent a few thousand hours in coffee shops and wine bars practicing with them.

By and large, this strategy has worked. I can read a newspaper reasonably comfortably. I can read magazines, checking a few words each page. I can read literature by alternately reading a chapter in English translation and in Japanese. However, although I did not realize it until I took the JLPT, I have pretty much exhausted the benefit of this strategy and to punch through to the next level, I need to shift my focus to another area that I had not even considered to be particularly important before.

Sample Grammar Problem from Practice Book
Sample Grammar Problem from Practice Book

The writers of the JLPT call this area “Grammar” but in any other language, this area would be referred to as “Idiomatic Usage.”  More precisely, I would describe this as something like “Usage of fuzzy modifiers and complex passive constructions”.

The terms of the JLPT forbid takers from revealing content.  Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to because security at the test was  rigorous. There were tight controls of what you could take into the room (nothing) and what you could take from the room (nothing) as well as what you could discuss with fellow participants during the break (nothing).  Instead of discussing the test content, I have included a snippet from a commercial practice text above. This snippet is quite representative of the “grammar” problems on the test. In order to pass the N2 level of the test, you have to be an absolute master of fuzzy modifier words like “mono” (thing), “koso” (matter), “koto” (thing or matter depending) “wake” (because) “to-iuu” (seeming to be) and exactly which of the numerous Japanese compound negative and passive constructions is best used with each combination of fuzzy modifiers in which circumstance.

The practice text was quite an eye opener. Japanese has hundreds of these things and thousands of possible combinations of them. My impression had always been that the Japanese just sort of shoveled these things randomly into sentences with no particular rhyme or reason. These constructions always seemed to me to be more of a decorative aural art form than anything with any particularly clear or understood grammatical meaning. The Japanese seemed to be sprinkling them artfully here and there like an artist making a work of modern art by whimsically dribbling cans of pleasingly colored paint across a large canvas spread on the floor.  The text disabused me of this notion. It had hundreds of pages of intricate flowcharts with special markings to show that certain paths through the chart would indicate firmness, while others would indicate warmth.  Clearly, to break through to the next level, I am going to have to focus my next round of efforts on mastering this intricate web of fuzzy modifiers.

Sample Kanji Problem from Practice Book
Sample Kanji Problem from Practice Book

By and large, my Kanji preparation was pretty solid. However, a test that does not different levels of mastery in its students is not a real test. The test did include a certain number of problems similar to number 18 in the snippet to the left from a commercial practice text. For native Japanese who grew up with the language and read it day in and day out, this sort of problem is probably not too tough. For non-native speakers, however, differentiating between several extremely similar Kanji, all of which are below around 1500 in the order of frequency ranking, without the aid of sentence context to help you identify the Kanji, is a tough test indeed.

Actually, Kanji and Grammar were the smaller parts of the test. The larger proportion of the test was on reading comprehension and listening.  Here again, the challenge came as a bit of a surprise to me. The difficulty was not that the text passages were inordinately difficult to understand. The challenge was time pressure. In order to get a perfect score on the test, you had to be really, really fast.

Likewise, the listening sections were tough because of the speed. The voices were clear and the dialogs were well articulated, but they were quick. I have been in a few thousand hours of Japanese business meetings and I would have to say that the pace for the dialogs would be what I would categorize as “excited” No one in the speaking sections was talking slowly or thoughtfully. Rather the pace was that of native speakers who had both just had several cups of coffee and were anxious to rush out the door.  Relatively speaking, I did better on the listening comprehension section.

All in all, I think this test is comparable in challenge to U.S. standardized tests like the GRE or MCAT. I have never taken TOEFL or TOEIC, but the concept seems to be similar.  Of course, there is quite a debate about whether such tests really do a good job of measuring actual linguistic capability. The ACTFL has a much more sophisticated approach which is undoubtedly a better measure. However, the ACTFL’s approach is also extremely labor intensive.  By my count, there were approximately 120 students just taking the N2 level of the JLPT and this was at only one of five testing centers in the United States. Clearly, the entire test covers thousands of students. The ACTFL’s approach including video taped interviews with each student would be prohibitively expensive at that scale.

At any rate, it was fun and interesting. I am glad I was able to pass the test, even if just barely. Clearly, I have an enormous mountain to climb before I can take on the N1 level of the test. With the enormous amount of effort we are putting into getting our first book written, there is no way I am going to tackle that challenge this year,


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