Saturday, July 22, 2006

Japanese Language Proficiency Test

The JLPT tests are held once a year in early December around the world and throughout Japan. There are 4 levels, and I'm planning on taking level 2 (2nd hardest) this year. This post is mainly to see if I can learn anything useful from others who are furiously googling "jlpt" to help devise effective studying strategies :-)

As a brief background for the regular readers, each of the 4 levels roughly doubles in difficulty over the previous one. Eg this site says
  • 4: 150h study, 100 kanji and 800 words
  • 3: 300h, 300 kanji, 1500 words
  • 2: 600h, 1000 kanji, 6000 words
  • 1: 900h, 2000 kanji, 10,000 words
Learning kanji is the biggest headache, especially at the higher levels. For those who don't know about kanji, they are an incredibly obtuse and dysfunctional writing system which takes the natives more than a decade to learn to a tolerable level. But I'll save the anti-kanji rant for another post. I'll not persuade the Japanese to give them up in the next few months, so there is little alternative for now but to learn them!

Looking at a kanji frequency list, it seems to me that JLPT level 2 reaches a bit of a sweet spot. The most common 1000 kanji represent 95% of all characters by usage, which should be enough to get the gist of most stuff pretty well. You need to learn another 600 just to get up to 99% (which still means that every two or three sentences, there will be something you cannot read or understand). In contrast, the first 500 kanji only cover 80% of usage, which is helpful for understanding signs and stuff but obviously not a great deal of use when it comes to reading normal written material.

I've been in Japan for 5 years but not really studied or learnt the language very seriously at all so far. Our work environment is highly geared towards English speaking (which is pretty much essential for all climate scientists) and coping with daily life via pointing and body language hasn't been too hard! Moreover, over the last couple of years it had started to seem fairly likely that we would be leaving Japan about now, so in fact we had virtually given up making any effort at all. But our futures here now seem a bit more secure, and recently our company arranged for a Japanese teacher to come on site twice a week, which is much more effective than our previous arrangement of trudging into the city after work for an evening class when we are too tired to learn. So I've decided to put a bit of effort in for the time being and see how things go.

I haven't taken any of the JLPT tests before, but reckoned that even with my limited previous study, I was probably already at about level 3 when I started with the new teacher in May. Another 7 months to brush up on the basics and push towards level 2 seemed like a tough but realistic challenge.

Hints and tips for learning strategies are welcome. Here is what I am doing:

Most of my effort is going in to kanji and vocabulary learning, and for this I'm working through the "Kanji in Context" books (both reference and workbook). This seems to be the best system for kanji/vocab I've seen (and is often praised on sci.lang.japan), because simultaneously with the individual kanji, you learn a number of common words that use them, and see the words used in their normal context. The example usage and sentences in the workbook make good reading/grammar practice too. At ~5 kanji per day it is a bit of a struggle (and I'm not even trying to learn every single compound) but I reckon it won't matter if I don't get right through the 1000 anyway, so long as I get as close as possible. Currently I'm just past 400, comfortably ahead of schedule, but of course I already knew a lot of the more common ones. KiC isn't specifically arranged to match the JLPT kanji list order (ie the 1st 1000 in the book aren't quite the same as the JLPT 2 set), but obviously it's going to be close. I'm also learning new vocab as I come across it while practicing past tests.

I have a simple flashcard application that I wrote for my Sharp Zaurus. It's my one and only Java program and extremely ugly and flaky but it does just what I want (which none of the available software seemed to). It uses a slightly modified Leitner system and is quite easy to add new words to the flashcard list by cutting and pasting from the dictionary (either the inbuilt one, or Jim Breen's excellent Edict). So as I learn new words, they go into this and I try to spend 20 minutes each day going through them.

I've also recently started got the Unicom JLPT level 2 grammar book, which seems good so far. As well as the grammar points, it is also useful reading practice as the explanations are 100% Japanese, with furigana over the harder kanji. I've just bought the listening comprehension book by the same people, which I plan to work through while my teacher is on holiday for August.

I try to listen to one of the news stories on the ANN news page each day, which has a brief streaming TV broadcast of each story. The spoken script doesn't always exactly follow the text but it's generally very close. With rikaichan I can check the readings and meanings of unknown text, but keeping up with the newsreader is a challenge!

On top of this, I'm wading through past tests. Learning how to handle them effectively is definitely an important skill. To be honest, after spending the last couple of decades on stuff that I can understand pretty well (ie science and maths) it is a bit of a shock to have to learn how to muddle through in a sea of confusion without too much panic!

If any other Japanese learners have any hints or tips, I'm all ears...


Anonymous said...

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James Annan said...

Oops. Oh well, I didn't lose as much as I could have done. You're referrring to this FX claim of course...

Anonymous said...

Sorry I didn't give you enough time to react. My email was playing up, and by the time I had posted this, Genyin had noticed.


James Annan said...

That's OK, I was in bed :-)

Memory Lane said...

You may need to study the different Kanji -hen forms (i.e, hana and cha has the same kusa-hen) and different usages of Kanjis. If you don't know (during the exam) just look at the whole text/sentence and find the nearest meaning you can think of...i believe you'd be OK! Genki de, Gambatte ne! :-)

Hank Roberts said...

Practice test page:

James Annan said...

One's saying to the other "you're standing on my foot, and my foot, and my foot, and my foot..."

James Annan said...


As far as kanji go, for the present I'm focussing on tyring to cram in the vocab that I really ought to know properly :-) As I get more familiar with the kanji though, I find educated guessing ability also goes up, both for reading and meaning.