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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…