For foreign students of the Japanese language, there is no better way to feel miserable about your progress than by taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT, 日本語能力試験). Offered twice per year by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services, the test offers students at five different levels the chance to officially certify their language prowess.
The test comes in five difficulty levels. N5 is the easiest, and if you have ever eaten at a sushi restaurant, you might have a good chance at passing this one. Perhaps it’s a bit more difficult than that, but at this level, the focus is on “understanding some basic Japanese.” Knowing the two phonetic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, is important, plus some of the more elementary kanji characters.
Next comes the N4 level, still considered a beginner tier, but certainly more challenging than N5. The hope is that you can handle some everyday sentences, “provided they are spoken slowly.”
N3 and N2 are the intermediate tiers. Here, you are expected to understand things like newspaper headlines (N3) and articles (N2), and everyday conversations at native speed, limited to the expected vocabulary and grammar pools for each level. This is also the level where SAT-type “what are the core ideas of this essay” questions begin to overwhelm the senses.
Finally, there is N1, the level where you are expected to “read written materials with profound contents on various topics.” I can barely do that in English, but if you like that kind of thing, there is a test in Japanese for it. Basically, when you encounter someone for whom you can say, “Wow, their Japanese is really good,” they can pass N1.
I took the N3 test six or seven years ago and just barely squeaked by. I should have immediately jumped on the N2 bandwagon, but you know how these things go. This year, I finally got up enough courage and paid the ¥6,500 for a chance to take the N2 exam this coming December. It turned out to be extremely easy. Paying the fee that is; the test will be an immense challenge.
Last week, I spoke to a friend who lives in Los Angeles and who was also planning to take the N2 exam. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic situation, there are tight limits on the number of people who can take the test in the United States. Registration opened in the US just a few weeks ago, but seats in southern California were already filled at the N2 level. He will need to wait until 2023, or travel to some other American site that still has room.
Here in Japan, there doesn’t seem to be any such venue restriction. The domestic test is also offered twice per year instead of just in December, so that may make availability easier.
To help prepare for the test, I purchased a new textbook called Try! 日本語能力試験N2. The book covers nearly 150 different grammar points across fourteen themed chapters. This new study guide arrived in the mail just as I was finishing up 上級へのとびら, another great textbook for students at an intermediate level.
If you live in Japan and you want to or need to determine your language level, you have until September 15, 2022, to complete the registration process. To apply for the exam in English, visit the official JLPT web site at https://www.jlpt.jp/e/.
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