There are 5 different levels of the JLPT. From N5 all the way up to the big daddy N1. I recently got an email from a reader asking about whether to head straight for N2 or to take the tests in succession. This is an awfully good question, because it’s hard to know where to start. Especially when it seems like the N2 and N1 are the only two that mean something to potential employers and it is also where you are able to really use Japanese well enough to read books or manga and watch Japanese dramas.
It’s important to know where to start because some of these tests take a lot of effort to pass, and that effort could be wasted if you go for the wrong test. For those outside of Asia, you probably only get to take the test once a year. Even inside Asia, twice a year isn’t very much. If you fail a test, you have to wait another 6 months or more before you can take it again.
So, should you take each test one by one? N5 the first year, then N4 the next and so on? Or just go straight for the prize of N2 or even N1. Well, it all depends on your motivation and why you are taking the test.
Taking the Tests in Succession (N5, N4, N3…)
The tests are divided out into 5 levels. Each of these levels targets specific grammar points, vocabulary, and kanji. The tests will assume you already now the previous level’s grammar points, vocabulary, and kanji. So it won’t test you on the previous level’s grammar, only the current level of grammar.
You might think big deal right? But, previous level grammar might not actually appear on the test anywhere, so if your goal is to be able to understand Japanese fairly perfectly, this might not be the best option. I’d say to be fluent in any language you have to have a pretty good understanding of the grammar. After all, there will always be new vocabulary and idioms in any language.
So, if you are looking to use Japanese heavily, say for example, you need to do a lot of business in Japanese, or you have family that only speak Japanese or you want to teach Japanese, or you just want to sound smart and correct, it is important to over-learn the grammar, so it always sticks in your head.
Also, Japanese has the added disadvantage or challenge depending on how look at it, of having a different writing system. Actually 3 different writing systems, kanji, hiragana, and katakana. It’s important to know these as well, and the tests go over these in slices so you are not so overwhelmed.
Taking the tests in succession really helps to permanently embed grammar and kanji into your head because you will be focusing on each level or ‘slice’ of the language at a time. It is crucial to learn how to use a grammar point the right way from the very beginning.
I have met several (English) students that have high fluency, but still mess up do/be verb sometimes. They know it is a weakness, but they learned it wrong from the beginning and so consistently make the mistake. So, I can definitely say that if Japanese is important to you, it’s important to over-learn the grammar and fully understand it.
Going Straight for N2 or N1
This is a great strategy if you are already living and working in Japan, and just want to get the qualification for a job or personal achievement. I know a lot of people that went to school in Japan (took classes in Japanese) and took the test as a final achievement to prove their language ability.
I would recommend this strategy if you are already comfortable with Japanese and are quite conversational, but want to study up and learn about all the possible grammar points as well as some key vocabulary that you might be missing.
However, there are a few people that recommend skipping N5 through N3 and going straight to N2 because it is the only test that ‘means’ something to employers. The reasoning behind this is why waste your time taking a test that you can’t use anywhere.
Well, there is some truth to this, and it really depends on what kind of a learner you are. If you are someone who is easily distracted and needs something to stay focused and motivated on (like me). It might be difficult to spend 2 or 3 years studying intensively every day to pass the N2. Especially if you are outside of Japan.
Another common complaint I’ve heard is that the $50 or so fee to take the test is a lot to spend on something just to measure your level. In all fairness though, $50 is a small price to pay to measure your level. Even inside Japan, your average lesson with a good teacher is going to run you about Y2500 ($30) per lesson. And some people will take up to 5 lessons a week to pass N2 and N1.
I think if you are a self-learner, then taking the tests in succession is probably the best way to go. This way you are getting feedback every step of the way. On the other hand, if you are enrolled in a Japanese school and already have a set curriculum you are following, it might be better to go for the N2 straight away.
What are your thoughts? Are you planning to take the tests in succession or are you going straight for N2? Let me know in the comments below.
Image by dalberia, available under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License