One common question that comes up often is about the prerequisites for the JLPT. And to be honest there aren’t that many things you have to do before you take the test. You can in fact, take the N1 without taking a single Japanese class or studying a single Japanese word. You would be a fool to do so, but people have done dumber things I’m sure.
So, for example, if you have been studying Japanese for around 2 years casually, and feel like you are at about an N4 level and want to go for, you can. Or if you have been living and working in Japan and using Japanese on a daily basis for a few years, you could have a go at the N2 or N1 without taking any of the other tests.
As matter of fact, there are a good number of people that will tell you that N5 and N4 are not even worth taking. The idea is that the N5 and N4 are not worth anything because you are probably not going to get hired with an N5 or N4. A few schools will allow you to skip a few classes if you pass the N5 or N4, but they also provide tests that you can take to test out of those classes, so you don’t need to take the JLPT specifically.
So, you should you just skip the N5 and N4 entirely? Are they just some cruel joke that those JLPT makers pull on us twice a year? Not quite. It all depends on your goals and what motivates you.
Go for Gold
You can skip N5 through N3 and head straight for N2 or N1. This is what a lot of people aim for because this is where you will start to be taken seriously for any kind of job. And you will have good street cred in Japan. Also, the natives will generally be impressed that you care enough to take the time to learn the language. All of these things are valuable, and will generally seperate you from the other riff raff.
The option to go straight to the top is great for those that want to or are soon going to be serious students in Japan. People that are permanently committed to Japan in some way, either by family, or some other kind of relationship will also find this a good option. It is also a good choice for people that have to use Japanese whether they want to or not.
If this is you, you should definitely try for an N2 when you can. What you will learn at the N2 level is invaluable for real world use of Japanese at a higher level. Once you have cleared N2, you will have a good enough foundation to use and understand commonly used Japanese. Enough to study the language naturally by just consuming more native material instead of buying more Japanese textbooks.
The usefulness of the N1 on the other hand is debatable. Don’t get me wrong, it will help hone your skills and perfect your Japanese. But, the amount of work you need to put into it for what you are going to get out of it is not worth it for most people. It is very difficult (at least for native English speakers) to achieve this level, and it should be respected as such. However, you can probably get what you want done without it.
For example, all you need to have to do the vast majority of translation work is an N2. This is an informal qualification of course, most translation agency won’t ask you for a certificate. They just want to see your work. And your work is going to be a whole lot better if you are familiar with the structures and vocabulary that you learn at the N2 level.
N1 will put your resume in the shorter stack when it comes time for job interviews. But, any job worth getting will test your ability to communicate first and foremost. And preparing for the JLPT does not necessarily prepare you fully to communicate. So, if time is limited, I would recommend spending your time practicing your communication after passing N2, and not drilling through another pile of grammar points to pass the N1.
Of course, if time is abundant for you, by all means do both.
The other approach to the tests is a lot more casual. Not everyone is a die-hard Japanese fanatic. Not everyone knows for sure that they want to be perfectly fluent. After all, if you are at a healthy N4 level, you pretty much know all the grammar points you need to be conversational. You will need more vocabulary, but you can start to pick that up from regular conversation and your own studying.
If you are not entirely sure that being fluent in Japanese is your thing, it might be more beneficial to take your time and work your way up the tests. Passing the tests is a concrete way of seeing progress in your language studies. Not everyone needs this pat on the back, but for a lot of people it can be a nice reassurance, especially if your studies span several years and it might be otherwise difficult to see that progress because it happens to be going a little bit slower than you would like.
You should have other reasons of course for studying Japanese. Passing the JLPT should never be your sole reason for studying the language only a ruler to chart how your studying is going. Make sure you keep in mind why you are really studying a language – to understand the culture better, to talk to people from other countries, to play Japanese RPGs, etc…
In the End
Language learning can be a deeply personal thing, because it is all about how you communicate with others and no two people are alike in that regard. Just as everyone has different ways of communicating, people have different ways of learning how to communicate. Make sure you are regularly stopping and checking your methods and trying out new ones. You never know what will motivate you.
Just remember that it isn’t a race. Or at least, it isn’t race with other people. The race is only with yourself. Study how you want to study. The JLPT is a great ruler for a lot of people, but it is a big turn off for others.
Photo by Chi King