I remember when I first started studying Japanese well over 10 years ago, what could I possibly read at this level? Japanese is such a complicated language because you have to know 2000+ characters to read it (well/easily). Some other languages, that are based on roman characters are slightly easier to get into because you can read it from day one. You have a general idea of how to say the words too.
But that is not the case for Japanese. So, if you are thinking about taking the N5 test, you might be wondering to yourself what the reading could possibly be like with such a limited vocabulary and limited knowledge of kanji. Amazingly, you can convey quite a bit of things.
The same could be said about speaking at this level of course. What can you possibly say with the 600 words that are covered at the N5 level? Well, with a little practice you can say and write a lot with that set of words. You just have to practice with it a little bit.
And, I know what you are saying your head. “But Mac! I never know the words for what I want to say. It’s so frustrating!” Yeah, it is a bit rough. When you started riding your bike, you probably fell down a lot, you probably didn’t go very fast, but over time you got better and more skilled. And now, riding a bike is probably second nature to you.
You have to start somewhere, so if you haven’t already started doing some writing, now is a good time to start, even if you are at an N5 level. And doing some writing at this level will give you a good idea of what kind of topics will be covered on the test. So when you get into the test you will be confident with what you need to read.
The N5 Reading Section
So let’s talk about the N5 reading section. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There are only a limited set of topics that can appear in this section of the test. You are not going to see an essay about someone musing on what it is like to go to an onsen and see all the naked people there, which was an actual example from one of my reading textbooks for N1.
You aren’t going to have to sift through that. You will most likely see notes, flyers, short dialogs that focus around very common daily activities. They will be on things like trips you took, things you ate or did and come in the form of instructions, warnings or basic advertisements. Very common everyday things that you would probably see if you lived in Japan.
And it can be incredibly difficult to find material that mimics this level outside of ‘prepared’ material, things written specifically for the test. This a very common question I get from readers. And I always have to tell them that the best source material is from paid sources.
There are a few places you can pick children’s books for low cost or practically free. However, they are full of a lot of onomatopoeia and other children’s words that might not be all that useful if you are looking to make the most of your time studying for the test. They are fun to read though and it is a very good feeling when you complete your first kids book and understand it completely.
You can pick up some graded readers that are written with learner’s in mind. They can be quite pricey, but they include listening materials for you to review with and are a great way to learn and familiarize yourself with vocabulary instead of drilling away at your stack of items on Memrise or Anki.
The other option is write your own stuff. Once you go through the steps of trying to create your own content, you start to realize the limitations the test makers have for creating the test. It really helps you to understand that the amount of things they can write about is pretty finite.
I had a lot of trouble myself writing something with a limited vocabulary, but once I got started it was pretty easy to keep going. And forcing yourself into this small box can help you become more fluent. So give it try already!
Below you’ll find two sample reading questions that I whipped up for you. I challenge you to come up with some reading passages of your own. If you do, be sure to get them checked on lang-8.com and post a link here in the comments. Do it now, you’ll thank me later.
いつも ハイキングに いっしょに 行っていた こうこうからの 友だちが わたしに でんわをくれました。 日本に 来ると 言いました。らいしゅう、とうきょうへ 会いに 行きます。 ビール を飲んで カラオケを しますよ。 いっしょに 行きたいですか？
1) ただしいものは どれですか。
a）今、こうこうの 友だちが とうきょうに います。
b）こうこうの 友だちと いっしょに とうきょうに 行きます。
b）こうこうの 友だちと いっしょに ハイキングに 行きます。
c）こうこうの 友だちに 合います。
ちえこは おかしが だいすきです。 でも、今年 太って しまったので、ほそくなりたい と思っています。そのために いろいろな ダイエットを しています。 バナナ ダイエットを したいと 思っていました。 しかし、一つの ものだけを 食べるのは つまらないので、 つぎは ランニングを はじめました。 そのため、５キロ かるく なりました。 友だちと いっしょに マラソンを はじまります。
2) ちえこは どうして ふとく なりましたか
3) ちえこは どう なりましたか。
b）おかしを 食べるのを やめました。
What are the answers? Give it your best shot in the comments below (and no cheating if you already passed N5).