Monday, May 30, 2011

In Defense of the JLPT

"The JLPT is for snotty people who like to brag about their Japanese ability and look down on others."

"The JLPT doesn't accurately test one's Japanese ability."

"The JLPT is a waste of money."

"People who take the JLPT are poopy heads."

If you're living in Japan or studying/have studied Japanese, you may have heard something like this. I daresay the offending comment may have even left your lips. If so, hear me out. 

The JLPT, for those who may not know, is the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, and for years has been the leading (most recognized and taken) method of evaluation and certification of the Japanese ability for non-native speakers.

This may be another somewhat polarizing post topic, but it's something I've been wanting to talk about. In recent months, I've read a number of posts and comments in various places making negative statements about the JLPT and people who take it.  I'm not addressing any individuals with this post, but feel free to take offense if you think I'm talking to you. In for a penny, in for a pound!

I know many of you, my readers, don't speak any Japanese. For some of you, this is despite living in Japan. While I personally think it's kind of a waste and hassle to live in a country without attempting to learn the native language, that's your prerogative. Not everyone is interested in language study. But just as some people may not want to be judged for their decision not to study Japanese, I find it distasteful for them to negatively judge those who make a decision to better themselves in this way. I think many of you would agree.

There are also some who do study Japanese and deride the JLPT. I guess I can understand this - many people disagree on how to best study and evaluate language studies. But there's a difference between disagreeing and degrading. Japanese Level Up did a piece in April about why you shouldn't take the JLPT. Though I obviously disagree and believe some of his points are mistaken, at least he recognizes that the test can hold value for some people.

A response to Japanese Level Up:

"1.  It doesn’t test communication
From the JLPT website:  “The JLPT places importance . . . on . . . competence at using . . knowledge in practical communication.  The . . . test comprehensively measures Japanese communicative competence.”  Last time I checked communication involved speaking, which the test does not.
2.  It doesn’t accurately measure your proficiency level:  Do you think in the short period of test time and the limited number of questions, your real Japanese level is going to be measured?
3.  Your scores can be significantly raised without actually improving your Japanese:  Learning and mastering testing techniques are just as important as actually knowing the material on any test.  So really this test is also testing your proficiency at taking a Japanese proficiency test."

While I agree that the JLPT doesn't test all-around Japanese proficiency, it's really a trade off. In order to teach speaking ability, the test would need to administer some sort of interview. Logistically, I think it would be extremely difficult to do so given the amount of test-takers and the (lack of) available Japanese test administrators. The JLPT is administered in a number of countries, and not all proctors are speakers of Japanese. A writing section would also prolong not only the test but the amount of time required to grade and process the exam. I suppose in this case those responsible for the JLPT have to some extent chosen accessibility over comprehensiveness.

As for items 2 and 3, I would argue that most tests are designed in this way, for good or for bad. However most tests can also glean a certain amount of information from your performance. The difference between 50% and 60% may be difficult to gauge, but the difference between, say 50% and 80% can pretty accurately describe a discrepancy in ability level.

"4.  It can be discouraging:  Didn’t do as well as you thought you would?  Does this mean your Japanese is lackluster?"

I didn't do well on the MCAT - does that mean I'm too dumb be a doctor? I didn't do as well as I thought on the SAT. Does this mean I'm not smart? I asked my boss for a performance evaluation and didn't get that raise I was hoping for. Does that mean I'm not a hard worker?

Of course not. Your JLPT level/score is one metric pertaining to your Japanese ability. Failure and dashed expectations can be discouraging, in any context.

"5. For the native English speakers out there, go take the TOEIC exam.  What?  You only scored a 750/990?  Obviously you are not fluent in English."

The lingual challenges that native and non-native speakers face are usually very different. It's true that such tests don't always account for these differences. On the other hand, sometimes native speakers are deficient in their own language. 

"6.  It gives you false confidence:  Just passed the N1?  You’re done.  You’ve ended your Japanese journey.  Ha.  Watch as people quickly surpass you.  I would put N1 at around level 40~50."

I think this kind of argument is going to be anecdotal no matter which side you take. Personally I don't know anyone who thinks they're done and perfect at Japanese, regardless of JLPT level.

7.  You don’t need the JLPT on your resume to get a job using Japanese:  I have never seen a job offered in America that requested a JLPT level.  You will always see a required level of “business” or “fluent.”  When living in Japan, I also rarely saw a level requirement, and even if there was, it was easily overcome with speaking in Japanese with them.  Also since jobs require specialty Japanese in whatever field you are involved in, they will usually provide their own test based on what they need you to be able to do.

I admittedly don't have very much experience with this one, but my impression is that this will depend on who's hiring. Even if a specific level isn't requited, the JLPT is something that you can put on your resume. I think it's fairly safe to say that a neutral organization's assessment of your Japanese level is somewhat more objective and trustworthy at a glance than your own. If you write "Japanese fluent" on your resume, I expect your level could fall anywhere within quite a large range, depending on your judgement of "fluent." Writing "JLPT N1," however, is pretty unambiguous. 

I'm sure a company could evaluate your Japanese by speaking to you, yes, but the purpose of a resume is to get you that opportunity to speak to someone. And I'd argue that a JLPT achievement is a stronger resume item.

"8.  The higher levels of the JLPT are riddled with seldom used, outdated, and archaic Japanese."

This is true, and depending on your goals you may not ever need to know these things. However there are also many examples of this in English.  I had a friend who would speak in Olde English when he wanted to make sure no one here would understand him. Bust out a "thou" here, a "swine" there, a "she doth protest too much," and it will throw off many people. But I would argue that those who want to be really proficient in a language will want to acquaint themselves with some of its older elements.

"9.  There is only one right answer to a question.  The real Japanese world is not like that.  There are many correct answers to the same question."

Again, this is just one unfortunate shortcoming of tests in general. I don't think anyone actually believes the language is so rigid just because the test asks you for one answer (out of several possibilities).  Consider the following:

The boy _______ on the couch.

(A) reclined
(B) declined
(C) proclined
(D) laid off

If you were a non-native English speaker and weren't familiar with choice (A), you may be considering (B) and (D) because "decline" can mean to go down and "lay off" looks similar to "lay down lie down," which would make sense here. So really there's more than once answer (as you know the meaning of "lie down") and this question is flawed. Not quite. This question is testing your specific knowledge of a certain level of word difficulty. While it's true that knowing "lay down" means you would be able to communicate your meaning in this situation, it still implies a different level of proficiency if you don't know the word "recline."

"10.  It is often money and time that could be spent on better things."

Purely objective subjective. Money can be a great motivator. 

Judge Not...

I sometimes hear that people who are concerned with the JLPT just want to compare with other people and have a sort of pissing contest. Again this is anecdotal, but to people who think this I'd say: is this unique to the JLPT? There are people who do all kinds of things and then gloat. In my experience this is by no means a characterizing attribute of or exclusive to JLPT takers.

Some people do want something to be proud of, and why not? Sometimes measuring one's ability at something is a way to gain motivation, and though comparisons are possible and sometimes a certain degree of smugness may accompany favorable test results, I say so what? Let people take pride in the fruit of their labor. If you don't study Japanese, why do you even care?

I will confess that I, too, am put off by people who flaunt their Japanese ability level. Fortunately I have't met very many such people. Most of the JLPT takers that I know don't really talk about it unless they've been directly asked or are requesting some advice. I'd go so far in that regard as to say the test is positive in that in can encourage people to support and encourage one another, as fellow athletes or musicians are wont to do (despite the latter being competitors in a much more real sense than JLPT takers).

What puts me off even more, however, are those who don't study Japanese or are very quiet (almost ashamed) of their studies but then very vocally judge and belittle those who do, as if the effort automatically makes them self-righteous jerks. I wonder if there's a degree of jealousy involved in this or if maybe these individuals once suffered an insult from some asshole who was studying Japanese (and perhaps flaunting their JLPT level?).

That's how I feel about it, and I invite you to tell me how you feel about it - about the JLPT, about studying or not studying Japanese, or about assholes who either flaunt their ability or hate on those who do take their studies seriously.


  1. Perfectly articulated argument!

    Seems like you everything spot on the nose there!
    Good effort!

  2. I didn't know that there were a lot of people out there who fall into the category of choosing not to study Japanese while simultaneously insulting those who do. I would be interested in hearing more about your experiences with this since it is unknown to me. I have not had anybody make any disparaging comments to me about studying Japanese. Although, I often get asked "Why." I suppose I could infer that those people think I am doing something pointless but I have never been directly told anything negative about it. None of those people have ever had any idea what the JLPT is however. I doubt most people who are unfamiliar with Japanese language learning have any idea what the JLPT is so I am surprised that you have run into so many people who choose not to study Japanese but who have strong negative opinions of the JLPT.

    I think you ignored some of the strongest arguments for not taking the JLPT, such as the nonutility of the lower levels. It seems you chose to couch the debate only in ways that would make your opinion appear the strongest. I have read a lot of people who say that taking a higher level in order to qualify for employment or get extra points towards a work visa in Japan is a reasonable reason to take the JLPT but that taking a lower level that only proves lack of Japanese proficiency is a waste. That argument is generally made by people who themselves do study Japanese. I really doubt that a lot of people who don't study Japanese have much opinion about the JLPT so I don't really get your whole post.