How I Prepare For My JLPT Exam

K-ON Tanaka Ritsu

Before I delve any deeper into this topic, I’ll begin first on how I started to self-study Japanese a few years ago. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started. But it was one boring night, I decided to want to be able to read the Hiragana & Katakana I see in some of the anime so I signed up at iKnow.jp. The service was free back then and it used a flash card system to help me remember the letters. It’ll keep flashing letters that I’ve studied or just studied until I complete the whole course.

After learning Hiragana & Katakana, I moved on to learn basic vocabularies like family, numbers, etc. Then, I stopped. I think it’s because they just announced that they’re going to start collecting subscription fee and whatnot. Being a student back then, money was pretty tight so I didn’t want to spend it unless it’s absolutely necessary. I didn’t have smartphone too so I don’t have access to apps like Duolingo, etc.

Hana

Fast-forward to today, I’m ready to test my Japanese language skills. With some extra cash to spare, I signed up for JLPT exam which took place in Kuala Lumpur. The exam fee is 80 RM for N4 / N5 so it’s not too bad. For Malaysians, you can register online here for next year. The registration is open a few months before the exam dates in July and December for about 1 to 2 weeks. So far, I know April is the registration period for July exam while September is for December’s.

By the way, I didn’t sign up after a few quick lessons I took on iKnow.jp. That would spell disaster. Knowing how to read alphabets doesn’t make me understand words. So, I studied.

Why I Chose To Sit For The Exam?

Nope, I have no ambition or dreams to work in Japan. It’ll be a pleasant surprise if one day I find myself living in Japan, but that’s not my goal. I’ll put it nice and simple: I simply wanted to know where I stand in terms of understanding the language. I’m the kind of person who likes formal measurements to determine my level of anything as opposed to saying “I think I can understand for the most part”. That’s vague.

So, I gave myself a goal to sit the JLPT exam to determine my level of fluency. This may not work for you, but it works for me.

The JLPT Exam

The JLPT exam has three sections: Vocabulary, Grammar/Reading and Listening. For N4, Vocabulary section takes 30 minutes, Grammar/Reading section is 60 minutes and Listening is 35 minutes. More information about the JLPT exam format as of today can be found here. Passing criteria can be found here. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t find any information on the points system. No one knows how much each question is worth. I don’t know about you, but to me, that scares me.

To have a basic idea of the exam format, you can try this link.

K-ON Hirasawa Yui

How I Studied

My most important advice is to do a lot of practice tests. It was the golden advice given to me and trust me, it does wonders. I even went as far as to time myself because I was worried I used too much time trying to understand a sentence. Not only do the practice tests or past year papers helped me familiarize with the exam format, it also gave me a rough idea of which area I should focus more.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find many online resources for the practice tests. I borrowed the books from my friends instead. If you have a Kinokuniya in your area, you’re lucky. They bound to have a few books offering preparation exercises.

Doing past year papers isn’t quite enough for me, mainly because I lack practices and wasn’t invested in learning the language prior to signing up. So here’s a further breakdown on how I study for each of the sections in addition to doing the practice tests.

Vocabulary

You have no idea how hard I tried to remember as much words as I could. I found the list of vocabulary I need here & here.

I spent one whole month going through the list once every single day by covering the English meaning written on the right panel. That way, I’d know for sure if I really know the word. What I find challenging is whether a word has a small つ or has a う. It’s hard to tell by listening so I struggle with this for a bit. This is important because we’re tested on Kanji. Even if we know how to read the word doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to spell it.

That being said, there are a few questions on Kanji and lists can be found here and here.

Grammar

japanese verbs

I suck at grammar. I really do. My practice tests told me that. I’m on borderline “pass” most of the time.

I have trouble with using the correct particles, etc and coupled with the word form changes in different situations, I tell you, I spent most of my preparation time trying to get it. Trying to understand what triggers what. It didn’t help that there are “special cases”. So how do I study? Doing the practice tests! Do it and redo it (don’t be surprised if you make the same mistake twice!). Practice, practice, practice. This is the only way I know if I’m right or wrong. Disadvantage of self-learning, if I may say so.

Grammar resources can be found here and here. The screenshot above is taken from the PDF file here. If you’re the one who drew the chart, let me know so I can properly credit you.

Reading

In my opinion, the most important thing is to know as much words as possible. That way, you can understand the passage easier. So, cram in the vocabulary lists above. At entry levels for JLPT exam, the Kanji in this section are accompanied with Hiragana. They’re Furigana, so to speak. Once you have the vocabulary covered, it’s all about reading speed. There are short passages and mid-size passages so time yourself. Here’s the recommended time management I found online for the actual exam.

Normally, I read the questions first before reading the passage so I know what am I looking for and I’ll underline the things I think it’s relevant so that it’s easier for me to pinpoint where are the answers.

Listening

I totally gave up on studying for this section. I mean, how can you study for it? The only think I can do is to train my ear to recognize Japanese words from the get-go rather than having to consciously mentally translating them. The books I borrowed supposedly came with CDs, except I don’t have the CD.

If you’re worried though, some online resources come with MP3 downloads that give you rough idea what’s the speech speed is. For me, the speed is just nice for me, given the amount of time I’ve spent watching anime…

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, if I pass it’s because I studied. It doesn’t mean that I’m good in Japanese and that I can start handling conversations with ease. But I’ll be on the right track and that it confirms my understanding of Japanese is correct. It certainly requires me to take more effort to be truly fluent in reading, speaking and listening the language.

How many of you are learning Japanese right now? How do you learn? Are you planning to sit for the JLPT exam?

Note: Bring a calculator if you’re bad at maths! You’re not allowed to use your phone and there may be questions that requires you to count…

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16 thoughts on “How I Prepare For My JLPT Exam

  1. I’ve been learning Japanese as a foreign language requirement for about a year now at uni.

    Though I’ve had two different professors in that year, I think their teaching methods were for the most part similar – which mostly consists of drills, lol. So yeah, you’re right in that a whole lot of practice comes with trying to learn Japanese. I guess my advice would be to invest in a good book. We use “GenkI” for most of our lessons. It’s very streamlined and relatively friendly enough to the non-native speaker.

    For vocabs, you can try to infer the meaning of a word based on the context of the whole passage. For grammar, yeah, most of what I learned from proper particle usage I got from the book, but you can also try this http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar (note most of the examples are casual in structure ie, /mita/ instead of /mimashita/). For reading, familiarizing yourself with patterns (subject – object – verb) helps in piecing apart sentences. For listening, familiarizing yourself with how words are said (like say, the words – /kiite/, /kite/, and /kitte/ which sound very similar, and differ only in certain stress points)

    I plan to sit for the JLPTs probably next year. I still have about two semesters of Japanese, so I might as well make the most of it by preparing for the test at the same time (plus, I’m terribly bad at Japanese counting, so I’m gonna need the practice xD)

    • Yes, yes! I’m terribly bad at counting too. I’m so used to the English way of saying the numbers like ten thousand for example. So when I try to mentally translate to Japanese, I kinda get stuck sometimes. Chinese counting is more accurate though. Probably that’s why some of my friends said those who are good in Mandarin will find it easier to learn Japanese.

      Thank you so much for all the tips you’ve shared here, Leap250. Sometimes I find myself so lost in trying to understand the language, especially since sentence structure is a bit different. I hope a few years down the road, I’m able to read the Kanji in Japanese rather than trying to guess the meaning by reading them in Mandarin. As for listening, sometimes they talk so fast it’s hard to catch the stress points. Is there any method to catch those points?

      When you take your exam next year, which JLPT level are you aiming for? I hope one day I can actually confidently say I’ll sit for N1, lol.

      • Yeah. Past the ten-thousands point I’m more or less a goner xD
        Translating numbers is a bit easier, but I get stuck really fast when it’s the other way around.

        You’re welcome 😀 I’m pretty much the same really. It just so happens that some structures in Japanese are a bit similar to Filipino, which made some things a bit easier to grasp. I tried the Heisig method for Kanji last summer. lol, it kinda works, but only for less complex characters. As for the stress points, it helps trying to say the words yourself to get an idea on how they sound vocally. Otherwise, watching anime/drama and trying to follow the dialogue is good enough practice.

        I might go for N3 or N4 (most likely N3, depending on what topics my last two semesters of Japanese cover). N5 looks doable based on the sample test link you gave, so I decided that I would skip ahead. I hope I can get to that point too 😀

        • Thanks once again for the tips and advices. I’m starting to watch more Japanese live action movies and series these days. It’s really different from watching anime and the choice of words they use are quite different. Heck, they sounded different.

          My friend passed N3 and I’m so jealous, lol. A lot of people skipped N5 and head straight to N4. The other day I picked up a pre-loved N1 and N2 past year test textbook at a local exhibition. As a motivation, of course. Let’s hope we pass N1 some day! =)

  2. Impressive!!!
    Starting to learn Japanese is not that uncommon among anime fans, but somewhat rare.
    I can’t read a single Hiragana & Katakana I have no relationship to these signs. But after years of anime I’m a little good at hearing common words like kaze, hoshi some verbs and the likes, with more effort I could probably gain something.

    Learning Japanese is no magic with enough practise and a strong desire to learn it one could bring his skills into shape. Still I wonder how to decipher these foreign sings 😄

    I once started learning with a learning CD Rom, but I stopped somehow. I feel like starting again recently. I watched Hitsugi no Chaika some weeks ago and the heroine as cute as she is, appears a bit retarded, she speaks very fragmented with only three or five words per sentence, you can clearly point out the words she is saying and learn them.

    Good luck with your Exam 😉

    • Thanks, Wieselhead. For me, it’s just out of curiosity and my love for learning languages. I attempted to learn other languages few years back, but always stopped half way. This is the first time I’ve gone this far. It’s exciting, really.

      Haha, I think I also owe it to years of watching anime to be able to pick up a few vocabs and improve my listening. “Baka” is probably the first word I catch, lol.

      You do play games right? Sometimes I see you tweeted some VNs that you’re playing and I think Kancolle too? Aren’t those in Japanese? Or there’s an English version of them?

      Yes, you’re right about practicing and actually having the desire to learn them. Otherwise, I don’t think anyone can go far with foreign languages. Unless, that person is pure genius. I’ve read about people trying to learn foreign languages, not necessarily Japanese, in three months. It’s impressive, I think.

      • Oh I left an reply unanswered…
        Haha I love these simple words 😄

        Yeah I play japanese games, but only translated ones.I once tried a vn without it, even though I had looots of fun with it, manually translating is hard work and don’t often makes sense ^^
        Kancolle is easy to understand with wiki help, the ship names are written in kanji, I memorized the shapes of the sings of a few ships I like the most, but I don’t know the meaning.

        I always doubt people who state to speak many languages fluently 😄
        I guess it’s possible, but only if you can use these skills regularly.

        So when is the exam?

        • I see, I see. I suppose there are tricks and tips to playing foreign language games. I tried playing 3rd Birthday in Japanese once I gave up very early. I just didn’t know how to proceed.

          The exam was early December and has already passed. Results will be out in next year >.<

  3. I don’t think there are any JLPT exams here in Brunei, or at least I don’t heard any, as of yet. But if there are, I think I will be interested too.

    Most of the Japanese I picked up are from watching anime. Baka’s definitely the most familiar word, lol. I tried learning from playing visual novels too and while I can piece together meaning from voiced dialogue and fragmented phrases I’m familiar with, pure reading is impossible for me, lol. So I guess I’m not reading a raw light novel anytime soon.

    • I did a quick search and it turns out Brunei conducts the December session. Here’s the link for venue and contact: http://www.jlpt.jp/e/application/overseas_list.html.

      I suppose most of the Japanese we picked up are from anime. After all, it is the medium that introduced us to the language. Haha, I remember a friend told me that when we learn a new language, we should always start with all the bad words. Baka! Aho! It’s so short and simple to catch, lol.

      So I take that the VNs that you played so often are in Japanese? I salute you for that. I shun Japanese PS games like it’s a bad thing. Without dubbing or subbing, I don’t think I know how to proceed with the game play. I tried that before and got stuck because I simply don’t understand the instructions!

      • Ahh there is? Now I’m kinda embarrassed. Looking at the location though, it seems like it’s all the way in the city, gonna be a bit hard to go from here, lol. I’ll see by next year.

        Yea, oddly enough those words are pretty easy to learn since a lot of anime characters kept saying them, lol. Baka! Aho! Kisama! And to some more less bad words like kawaii or something.

        Actually, nowadays I only have time to play translated visual novels, just getting one done takes a lot of time. I used to play a few Japanese ones, but I needed to pick pretty carefully too. Since I can barely read them, it’s preferable to play something simple like a slice-of-life one. I once tried a supernatural/action one, which I think, had as much depth as F/SN, and I couldn’t understand 95% of it, lol. There’s also the fact that it’s just obviously much more enjoyable to play a visual novel in a language you’re most familiar with.

        • Playing games should be a stress relief and not stress inducing, lol. Perhaps when I’ve understood enough Japanese with all my revisions and readings, I’ll be a little bit more adventurous and play with Japanese games. Actually, a few weeks ago I was contemplating about PS Vita. I almost bought it. Almost!

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