Thursday, July 22, 2010


I first decided to learn Japanese back in 1990, when I saw the anime movie Akira. It was an English dub from Streamline Pictures, but when I tried to find more anime like it that I liked, all I could come up with was 3rd generation video tape copies of TV episodes, unsubbed. So, to understand the stories, I went out and bought a couple of dictionaries, a beginner's textbook, and a color comic version of an old Lupin III TV episode. It took a couple of months of constant writing out of the characters to memorize hiragana and katakana. I started on the first, easiest, 50 kanji (iku, watashi, me, hi) but gave up when I found some introductory conversational classes at the Minnesota community evening college (Open-U). That used up another 9 months or so. By that time, the contract software programming job I was on wrapped up, and I decided it was time to visit Japan to study in a more immersive environment, which happened in 1992.

Fast-forward to 2010. Most of my studies have been informal, driven by the manga I read. I do try to hold conversations in Japanese, but there are holes in my understanding of basic grammar, and I use electronic dictionaries to look up kanji rather than memorize them. In order to get more work here in Japan, I need to boost my Japanese level, and to get formal certification from one of the testing agencies.

Enter the JLPT. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is one of the two main tests (the other is the Business Japanese Proficiency Test. Initially there were four levels of the JLPT, and you'd test for the specific level that you wanted the certification for, with level 4 being the easiest and 1 the hardest. However, there was a big gap in difficulty between levels 3 and 2, which was one of the driving forces for a restructuring of the entire program. The new system now has 5 levels, where the new N5 corresponds to the old level 4. N4 = old 3; N2 = old 2; N1 = old 1. It's the new N3 that represents a big break from the old program, filling in the gap between the old levels 3 and 2. The first time the new tests were held was July 4th for N3-N1. (N4 and N5 are only conducted in December.)

I do have to say that studying for the N3 test has made a big difference in my Japanese ability. The deadline for applying for the test was at the end of April, which is when I decided to apply at the last minute. I then ran out to the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjuku to pick up 4 books. First was the official test packet, i.e. - the Red book. The red book has sample questions for all three levels under one cover, plus a CD to let you practice the listening exercises. The idea is that you can take the tests for N3 before you start studying to get a baseline feel of where you're starting from, and then again later to see how far you've progressed.

I then got the Nihongo Somatome series from ASK Publishing. There are three separate Somatome books, 1 for kanji study (336 individual kanji plus combinations), one for vocabulary, and the third for grammar. These books are conversational, with situational examples of supposedly real-world usages. Each book follows the same structure. There are 6 units, where you're supposed to study 2-3 pages of material per book each day for days 1-6, and then day 7 is a review test for the week. If you follow the pattern, then you're going to finish all three books in 6 weeks. I had 8 weeks to work in, and even then I didn't have enough time to go back and refresh my memory on the earliest materials again. Obviously, to get a solid handle on everything, you're going to want to spend more than just 6 weeks on this.

Cramming: I put in an average of 4 hours of study per day on the Saotome Nihongo books, with extra emphasis on grammar. I memorized a few more kanji this way, but it's obvious that I need to keep reviewing them to retain the ones that I don't normally encounter in the books I read.

The JLPT itself is very ridgedly structured. N1-N3 are to be offered twice a year, in July and December. N4 and N5 will only be held one day in December. The application packet is released about 3 months in advance, and the deadline for the July 4 test was the end of April. The tests are held outside of Japan in multiple countries at roughly the same time as in Japan. Within Japan you need to submit a money order for the application fee (about $50 USD), plus a 2"x3" photo. If everything is filled in correctly, you'll get a confirmation letter a couple of weeks before the test, along with a voucher that has your photo on it. The testing agency assigns test locations based on your zip code, and you can't change locations after the fact. Forget your voucher and you can't take the test. Fortunately, I received the voucher with no problems. Unfortunately, my assigned test location was Fuchinobe - 1 hour and 3 train transfers west of my apartment along the Odakyu line.

Fortunately, I'd gone out to Fuchinobe back in March, in preparation for what I thought was going to turn into a job interview (the position got filled before I could get the interview), so I knew what to expect in terms of having short connection times and having to walk a couple of blocks between stations at the transfer point in Machida. Plus, the test site was a couple of blocks east of the Fuchinobe station, and I'd walked around that area in March. So, while I would have liked to have been somewhere a lot closer and more convenient to my apartment, the total trip out was about like my regular commute to Akihabara for my teaching job.

The doors opened for seating at 12:00, and the test started at 12:30. I had to leave the apartment by 10:40 to get the first train out, and I arrived at Fuchinobe at 11:40. This gave me time to recover from the heat and humidity at Becker's, a hamburger shop at the station. I didn't have to worry about finding the test site - guides had been positioned all along the way with traffic guards specifically assigned at the major intersections to direct the crowds in with the cars. The test itself was held in separate locations for N1, N2 and N3. N3 was broken up into 2 classrooms, with about 150 people in my room. The entire operation was highly regimented, and very efficient.

From beginning to end, the test, including breaks, took close to 4.5 hours. The main difference from the original level 1-4 system is that previously you could pass with a 60% total score. Now, you have to pass each of the 3 parts (grammar/vocabulary, reading and listening) with 60% per part. Fail one part and you fail the entire test. The place where I felt weakest was grammar/vocabulary, although I also struggled with the last third of listening, too. It didn't help that I miscalculated the amount of time remaining for grammar and had 2 questions remaining when the time ran out.

One of the rules you have to follow closely is to put your pencil down when the end of the test is announced. Failure to do so will get you a Yellow card. Two yellow cards (or a Red card, earned by cheating or having someone else take the test for you) gets you ejected from the room and your test card shredded. So, I didn't bother trying to fill in the last two questions at random "just in case", but one person near me did, and pulled a yellow card for it. Someone behind me tried reading the question book before the start of the test was announced, gaining them a yellow card as well. I didn't see anyone get a red card, but several people failed to return to the room after the breaks ended, which invalidated their results.

At the end, I felt drained. I'm thinking that my score will be right on the border line for grammar/vocabulary, and just slightly better for listening. Either way, I'm planning on continuing reviewing the kanji and vocabulary books that I have right now - if I passed I'll move on to N2, and if I failed I'll be in a better position for trying again in December.

One comment on the listening section. The red book has a CD with several actors reading various pieces of dialog, and then you check your answers to questions about the dialog, in the book. The first time through, I had a little difficulty following all of the questions, but I could understand most of the dialog for the N1 test, so I felt fairly confident. Then, when the test started for real, I was surprised to find that the first dialog was word-for-word from the red book. I happily got ready to write the answer down when I noticed "example" written on the page. The actual dialogs were at least twice as hard to follow as what was in the book. I consider the red book to be misleading in that way - it doesn't give you a fair expectation of how well you're going to do on the real test.

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