Should You Take the JLPT?

If you've been learning Japanese for a while, you've almost certainly come across the JLPT: the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test.

The JLPT comes in five levels, with N5 being the easiest and N1 the hardest to pass. This page has more information on what each level is supposed to mean in terms of Japanese ability.

While unfortunately there is still no way to sit the exam online, the JLPT is held in venues across the world twice a year, with a date in each of July and December. Although the pandemic has meant that many test centres have been closed for the past couple of years, many are now reopening. In the UK, July 2022 exams are taking place in London and Leicester, with JLPT centres in Cardiff and Edinburgh hopefully due to reopen in time for the December exams.

So: as someone learning Japanese, is it worth studying for the JLPT? Below, I introduce some reasons for and against sitting the JLPT based on my experience both as a learner and teacher of Japanese.

Reasons to Not Take the JLPT

1) It focuses on passive* skills, ignoring speaking and writing

*By passive skills, I mean reading, listening and the ability to recognise/correctly answer questions on grammar, vocab, kanji etc. In other words, you are tested on your ability to answer technical questions rather than put your skills to real use by actively producing language through speaking or writing.

If it surprises you that the JLPT doesn't include speaking or writing, it may help to remember that the test follows how languages tend to be taught and assessed in Japan. Unfortunately, this approach is unlikely to help improve your real-world communication skills, so be aware that if your aim is to gain confidence in speaking and/or writing Japanese, studying for the JLPT alone is unlikely to get you very far.

2) It can distract you from more fun and fulfilling ways of learning

One of the benefits of the JLPT can be that it condenses a lot of grammar, vocab, kanji and more into accessible(ish) lists that you can steadily work through and practice. However, ticking off grammar point after grammar point is not everyone's idea of a good time, and what's more, burying your nose in JLPT materials can take you away from a more diverse spread of learning materials, including those that create opportunities to learn about Japanese culture, daily life and conversation.

3) It can add unecessary pressure to your studies

While the JLPT can be a helpful source of motivation, the last thing you want is for it to ruin your enjoyment of learning Japanese. It's an unavoidable fact that passing the JLPT can represent a huge hurdle requiring a great deal of dedicated study. Depending where you're at with your Japanese - and life in general - you may want to set the JLPT aside for the time being and come back to it when you've progressed a little further or have more time and energy to put into exam prep.

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Reasons to Take the JLPT

1) It can be a useful goal and motivator

If you like having a specific goal to work towards, the JLPT might be exactly what you're looking for. Having a set list of language points to cover can be a great way to feel a sense of achievement as you work through them, and equally, having an exam date to work towards can very much focus your attention when it comes to sticking to a study routine.

2) It can help you track your progress

Especially if you've been learning Japanese for a while, or perhaps self studying without the goal of finishing any particular textbook or other material, you may find yourself wondering how far exactly you've got in your studies, what your next steps are or how to best describe your language level.

While the JLPT is only one means of measuring language proficiency, it is definitely one way of getting a rough measure of where you sit.

Top tip: if you already know some Japanese, click here to try some official sample questions or here to take a look at the Official Practice Workbooks that may help you work out your approximate JLPT level.

3) The JLPT can be a good addition to your CV

If you hope to use Japanese in your work or studies, this is a key point.

Having a qualification in any language can be a plus when it comes putting together a CV or application, but especially if you are looking to use your Japanese in the workplace - be it in or outside of Japan - it is seriously worth considering aiming for one of the higher levels of the JLPT.

Assuming you are applying for a job that requires you to use your Japanese, many companies will ask for an N2 certificate. However, there are plenty out there who will ask for the top level of the JLPT: the N1. The jump between the N2 and the N1 is significant, so bear in mind that even if you already have N2, it can be a long path to passing this final level.

As for the lower levels of the JLPT, while it's true that some learners don't bother with anything below N3, there's no harm at all in starting wherever you want. All you have to lose is the exam fee and cost of any associated travel, whereas getting used to sitting the exam and following the JLPT test format can be a real bonus for if/when the time comes to sit the higher levels.

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