Saturday, May 30, 2009

What does the JLPT mean really?

Given recent circumstances which I won't get into here, I've been getting back to the basics, studying the 'ol Nihongoes. I feel like I've hit one of those linguistic plateaus over the past year or so and am thinking it might be about time to finally polish a certain spur that's sticking out in terms of the JLPT.

As many reading this know, the JLPT currently has 4 levels with 1 being the highest, although they are scheduled to redo the format on next year's test to have 5 levels (the jump from level 3 to 2 was too big for most people) and allow the highest level to measure higher levels of ability better. Up until last year it was only offered once a year (it's now twice a year for the top 2 levels), and worldwide only about a third of those who take the top level pass.

I last took the highest level of it (1Q) 2 years ago, which you currently need a 70% to pass. I got a 278/400, which is roughly 69.5%. Ouch. Given practical knowledge I've gained since then, I should have no problem with it and was planning on taking it again eventually, but was originally thinking that if they're going to change the format I might as well wait for that in 2010... now I'm thinking it might be useful to take it or some other test this year.

So why take the test, and why have I been putting it off? First off a little background - JLPT 1Q is a minimum requirement for entrance into undergrad programs at many Japanese universities, who basically think you need this level in order to be able to understand what's going on in your classes and participate. It is also looked upon favorably by the JET Program, who sees 2Q as the minimum Japanese ability for a CIR from western countries and 1Q as the minimum requirement for a Chinese CIR. Outside of this sphere you may get some recognition out of having it, say in translation circles, but for the most part Japanese people have never heard of it much less people anywhere else in the world. I've heard 1Q thrown around among translators as a bare minimum to get into the field, but the truth is that if they think you can do the job and you pass their trials then 1Q doesn't mean anything. So basically, this means that actually holding a JLPT certification is useful if you want to go to a Japanese school for 4 years or be a CIR - I have a degree already, and I've been a CIR.

The reason to take a test for me is really more about setting a personal goal. Living in the country and doing certain things in the language do raise your levels to a certain extent, but once you can do all the things you need to do comfortably you're learning will start to plateau off which is where I am. The only way to get off this plateau is to set a goal and stick to it, and studying for a test is a great way to force your hand. Sure it's something to put on your resume I guess, but since most people don't know what it is and will probably judge you more on your production ability anyway, I rule that one out.

So what about the reasons NOT to take the JLPT? Well there are a few I can think of, not least of which is the lack of practicality mentioned above. Another is the contrivance of it all - the two main deficiencies I see with the test are 1) it only tests passive knowledge, so no writing or speaking and 2) it's geared towards literary language in the higher levels and thus involves a bunch of stuff not normally needed in daily life, unless you read a lot of higher level stuff daily. 1) means that you can theoretically pass 1Q and not be able to write any kanji or hold a good conversation, which to me defeats the purpose of learning the language. 2) means that you pretty much have to study specifically for the test, again making it less practical to daily life.

There are also other testing options out there depending on where you are in the world and what you want to focus on, such as the Kanji Kentei for kanji nerds (only offered in Japan), BJT for those in the business world (formerly offered by JETRO and includes an interview test if you get far enough), and the little known nihongo kentei(offered to Japanese as well as foreigners) and J-Test(apparently geared towards Chinese), both of which go beyond JLPT levels.

Now given all this, is the JLPT for you? Think long and hard.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I'm not defending the test itself as a great measure of Japanese ability, but I can think of at least one other reason the test would be worthwhile.

While it might not mean much in Japan, landing a job that requires Japanese ability in any other country outside of Japan will be a lot easier with a certificate stating your proficiency, especially when the employers themselves don't speak the language.

If you really think about it, have you ever heard of a test that is not criticized over its approach and application? The only real exam that tests true ability is real life.