To JLPT or Not To JLPT? Part 1

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (which Shikow talked about here) is arguably the most famous test of Japanese ability for non-Japanese people. Yet, the decision to take the JLPT is not always straight forward. Let’s talk about why you should take the JLPT… and why perhaps you shouldn’t.

In this post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons why the JLPT may be a bad decision. The JLPT is far from a perfect way of measuring your ability to read, write, speak, and understand Japanese. Here’s why:

1. It’s A Test

Like most if not all tests, the JLPT is a measure of your ability to take the JLPT, just as much as it is a measure of your actual Japanese language ability. This means you have to familiarize yourself with the test before your take it if you hope to pass at all. What kind of questions are asked? What kind of answers are expected? Your studying has to be very specifically geared towards the JLPT.

Let’s be honest: not everyone tests well. Anyone who passed through the 8-4-4 system can testify: sometimes tests and exams get bogged down in the tiniest details. I remember studying for my Geography paper several years ago and having to define the word “river” using a specific set of words in a particular order, and each word contributed to you getting a mark. Pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry knows what a river is, but defining it in any way other than “the KCSE way” would make you fail.


Now this isn’t to say that the JLPT is the exact same way in terms of specific words and phrases. (It is actually multiple choice.) But you get the gist of my point: passing the JLPT (even the most difficult, the N1) doesn’t prove without any shadow of a doubt that your Japanese ability is on the native level. It just proves that you passed the JLPT. Similarly, failing the JLPT (even the easiest, the N5) doesn’t mean you know nothing; it just means you failed the JLPT.

2. It Doesn’t Test Everyday, Informal Japanese

Book-headAs a learner of the Japanese language, chances are you’ll learn very formal Japanese first. This is because chances are you don’t know any Japanese people well enough for you to let your “-masu” guard down. Your primary interactions with Japanese people (if any) will probably be formal in nature.

It is this kind of Japanese that the JLPT tests. Textbook Japanese. And real people, don’t sound like textbooks. Now I’m not saying it’s absolutely unnecessary to learn formal Japanese. All I’m saying is, people looking to learn informal everyday Japanese should look somewhere other than JLPT study guides.

To summarize, I’ll borrow from this post on the website:

Anyway, the JLPT matters far more to and among gaijin, than to and among actual Japanese people. Because guess what — Japanese is not about passing tests, it’s about listening to, reading, speaking and writing real, live, uncut, unedited, NON-MULTIPLE CHOICE Japanese. Are Japanese people going to come up to you and be like:

“私は東京に行きました” And then go,
Did I go (a) TO Tokyo (b) FROM Tokyo (c) IN Tokyo or (d) AT Tokyo?

No! For one thing, Japanese people don’t say lamo, borderline textbook-sounding things like “私は東京に行きました” any more often than English speakers say “how do you do?!” or “what is your good name?”. More importantly, there is no multiple freaking choice in real life. Real life is “harder” like that, in that you either understood fully and correctly or you didn’t.

 But Wait.

After reading this post, you might paint me as the ultimate JLPT hater. I can see how you might come to that conclusion, but I can assure you that it isn’t true… per se. 😀 I have actually done the JLPT N5, and passed. Why did I do it? To find out, stay tuned for the next part in this series, where we’ll cover why you may want to take the test after all. 😀

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