Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Studying Japanese and the Japanese Language Proficiency Test

On Sunday I took level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). I've been studying for it on and off for the past year. I thought I would do fine on what little practice tests I tried and because my current Japanese class has been acting as a JLPT prep course for me, but the test was completely something different from what I was expecting. The moment I opened the test and started answering the first section of questions, I felt like I had an epiphany of how I've been going about this the wrong way. I really should have switched to the All Japanese All The Time method sooner. Not for this test though, but for my Japanese studies as a whole.

I thought that if I studied and memorized a bunch of words on their own I would get really good with vocabulary. However, that hasn't been working out at all for me. I've found myself not being to recall words during conversations even though it would be considered a mature card in my vocabulary deck. As this has been happening more and more often as I attempt to talk about more complex topics with the people I've been getting to know more, I've been growing more and more frustrated with it. One day it just hit me: studying words on their own and out of context really is useless; words on their own really are useless.

Nevertheless, I managed to somehow get through the reading, kanji, and grammar sections. They weren't quite what I was expecting though. I studied the new directions on the test, but it was still strangely different. It wasn't as rigidly structured as I was expecting. While I noticed lots of things that I had studied (but maybe not enough), I did find some questions where I ended up having to guess the answer based on my knowledge of kanji. But then I realized that I even though I did know words that were given as possible answers, I didn't really know what context a lot of those words actually should be used in. While that did not stop me from answering the questions (hopefully correctly) at the time, I still felt like there was a gap missing.

While I was mulling this over in the back of my mind, I finally reached the reading section with maybe an hour left. I always considered my reading to be just fine, maybe even a strong point of mine, considering I have no fear of reading novels. But at this point in the test, I just could not concentrate at all. I think I got through the first and second reading all right, but by then most of the people around me were finished with their test. Since they were done, they were flipping through their exams to check the answers and some were even using the test to fan themselves. The flapping noises of the papers just got louder and louder to me as I felt the end of the test nearing. On top of that, the two women proctors in our classroom were wearing heels. As the end of the test grew nearer and people were starting to make more and more noise and movements, the the proctors were walking a great deal more than they had before around the room. The noises from their heels just drove me mad. I wanted to get up, shake them, and scream at them to stop walking around. I read and read again, but what I was reading just was not sticking in my head. I wasn't even able to get the answers to stick in my head and found myself constantly asking myself what I had just read. I ran out of time and because I didn't specifically have my own personal watch so I could keep track of the time, I had 4 or 5 answers left blank at the end.

Then the break came. I was especially pissed off by everyone and everything because I felt I had done so poorly on the reading section, which I felt I should have done fine on. I began wondering why I decided I wanted to take this test now of all times in the first place. To prove something to others? Maybe to prove to myself that I'm better than this, and that I really shouldn't have been placed in the level I have been placed in? Even some of the graduate students in the Japanese department at my home university cannot manage to pass level 2. Since I'll only have a few credits left to fulfill before I'm eligible to graduate from university after I return from my year abroad here, I guess a part of me feels like I'm running out of time. Time to learn enough Japanese so I can immediately attempt to jump into an office job so I have a net to catch me instead of having to work as a waitress or retail or anything like that.

Though aside from my difficulties at recalling words, I've always thought that my grammar really, really sucks when I try to have a conversation. I can write an essay just fine, but I feel like I sound like a baby during conversations. I just can't come up with complicated sentences and ideas that I want to express on the spot during a conversation. Is that just the stress and pressure of being in a conversation? Or am I just too damn hard on myself and my speech is actually okay? This could be the case since I can usually get what I'm trying to say across, even if I feel like I had to flounder about in order to do it.

A part of me just wanted to quit and go home then and there, but I forced myself back inside the test site to complete the last part: the listening section. The listening section seemed painfully slow and easy to understand to me, though I kept on catching myself zoning out or thinking about the previous question at times and then missing out on maybe the answer or part of the conversation we were listening to. The listening exercises we do in class are much faster and much more like a real human would speak, if you ask me. Even the "choose the best response in this situation" section was a bit lame. As long as you knew the situation, it was pretty easy to judge the correct response based on the nuance of the speaker. It's almost like a joke when you consider the fact that this test is supposed to evaluate your knowledge when it comes to "everyday life." Japanese do not speak that slow and textbook-like in real life. I learned that very well back when I traveled with all of those Japanese girls to Akita during the Nogyaru rice harvesting tour (on a side note, I really feel terrible for being too broke/busy to find a chance to reconnect with them). After that experience, even the speech of my own teachers sounds slow to me.

I was more than ready to go home when the test finally came to a conclusion. As I got onto the train to Ikebukuro, I was feeling a bit defeated thanks to the reading portion. Naturally, the train ride was a time for some reflection.

I recently met someone who has already passed level 2 and took level 1 on Sunday. Despite this, I find him incredibly hard to understand when he speaks and I have to really concentrate. It kind of sounds like he's stuttering and tumbling over his words. He said he was not used to conversing in Japanese, so here he was in the same club as me, which is essentially a conversation club. So, maybe he's just nervous to talk in Japanese? And yet, when a Japanese person overheard the two of us talking with one another, I was praised for my Japanese abilities because I can speak "naturally." When I think back on a situation like this, I wonder what is the point of the test. I originally signed up for the test thinking I would use it to evaluate my Japanese. I know that it'll probably be required of me when I go to apply for a job in the adult world, but does it actually prove or properly evaluate anything at all? I've read and heard about so many other people who have already passed the test, but they can't speak at all. Yet, they can fill in the blanks just fine, and that's good enough to get a certificate showing how "proficient" you are. Now that I've gone and faced the big bad scary JLPT level 2, I feel a bit cheated in that respect.

At this point there's a part of me just feels stuck in my language learning. I know from now on I'm going to work on creating a deck on Anki filled with sentences, not just words. I've been reading and rereading portions of All Japanese All The Time looking for more inspiration. I'm just not sure where to start. Should I first start by taking sentences from the light novel I'm reading, Hakushaku to yousei (The Earl and the Fairy), or should I go through and add all of the sentences in my textbook? I really hate my textbook though; it's filled with newspaper articles from 15 years ago, and so out of date.

I'd kind of like to use the JLPT vocab list as a standard for which words I should seek out to know. However, I have a feeling that if I go through my light novel and seek out newspaper articles to mine sentences from, then I'll naturally encounter those words along the way. In any case, I really need to sit down and consider how I'm going to proceed in my studies from now on. Most of that though will be getting over my own mental roadblock.

As for how I actually did on the test, I won't find out how I actually did though until mid-February, unfortunately. For now I suppose I'll just forget about it, and move forward.


  1. So intense. We can only hope you did well.

  2. I never really had problems with JLPT at any level primarily because I was trying to learn a language not mug for some exam.

    But I did the exams anyway to see how far I could get.

    Passed level 2 in 2008 and level 1 in 2009.

  3. Sounds like you had a hard time here!
    I could speak volume about learning a new language, studying abroad and how I hope It'll go well for you, but I'll resume:
    *cross fingers for your test results*
    And *huuuuuugs*!! It'll be ok I'm sure =)
    Do what YOU want and not what you feel obligated to do and you'll feel better =)