Should you take a language test?

Are language tests useful?

In the online polyglot community, you’ll often see people post their language exam results or share study techniques to prepare for an upcoming exam. We’re seeing more people with full-time jobs unrelated to languages are taking exams in their free time. 

On the one hand, language exams are useful if you’re looking for a very standard way to prove your level. This is generally when you’re applying for a job in another language, regardless of the field. Companies or schools require a certification to see if you can communicate in the language. That being said, I don’t believe language tests are true reflections of one’s level in a language.

Language tests are standardised expressions of your level but don’t take into account nuances and natural fluency.

I’ve met people who have passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) at level N2, the second highest level, yet struggle to form a coherent sentence when speaking. That’s because there is a difference between memorizing vocabulary and having great test-taking skills, and actually being able to communicate fluently in a language as a result of immersion and enough speaking practice. 

The same goes for Korean-based English education. Educators in Korea pressure students to take exams, memorise advanced words and essays. Classrooms are full of students racing to finish test papers and score high marks, and silent for the most part when it comes to conversational skills. Most Korean school students have an exceptional level of advanced English vocabulary, but struggle to speak because they don’t get adequate practice. It’s easy to memorize words and paragraphs by rote and in turn neglect natural speaking and listening practice. We should be careful not to fall into this trap when we prepare for language exams. 

Why I take level tests now

With the above in mind, I always thought it would waste my time and money to take a language exam. I took a DELF exam in French years ago but of course my level has fallen significantly without practice and the test probably expired since then. In that case, it was useless for me to take it – I just took it cause my school required it.

With the above in mind, I always thought it would waste my time and money to take a language exam. I took level B2 in the French DELF exam years ago as my school required it. This was to prove that I completed a course at the Alliance Francaise successfully. However, I haven’t touched French for a while and a quick online test showed me that my level dropped to B1. The certification has also since expired. In a case like this, taking the DELF exam really wasn’t any use to me. 

But this year, I’m taking the Korean and Japanese standardized exams (TOPIK and JLPT, respectively). This is for two reasons:

1. To test my own level
2. To be a motivator for me to study 

To test my own level: I can somewhat figure out what level I’m at roughly (beginner, intermediate, advanced) but specifically can’t say which CEFR or TOPIK level I’m at. Having a standardised framework like a language exam helps other people understand my level and manage expectations.

As for the second point, personally I need some kind of motivation to keep me going. My Korean level has been stagnant for the past few years – I’m at a level good enough to help myself in daily life but not advanced enough to understand politics, science or advanced news. This is called the intermediate plateau. By having something slightly intimidating like an exam loom in the distance, I feel pressure to study, learn new vocabulary and put time and effort in to actively improving my level.

Related video: How to get past the intermediate plateau

That being said, I am not planning on working in Korea or Japan for the next 2 or 3 years, so for now that’s not something the certificate will prove useful for. If you’re planning on working in a country of your target language, taking a level test will prove useful.

How do you know if you’re ready?

Let’s face it, we never feel fully ready for tests, right? I studied for JLPT N3 for 3-4 months and still freaked out a few days before the exam.(Don’t worry, I passed and there was a happy ending). Every school exam feels like that too – it’s just because it’s unknown and you don’t know what will show up in the exam. That’s OK and that’s normal! If you’re asking how do you know which level you’re ready for, you can take practice tests online to gague your level before you sign up for a specific level. 

Tracking your progress outside of tests

If you’re taking tests yearly, it’s a good way to see where you’ve improved or stayed stagnant. If you’re not taking any tests, you can track your progress by filming yourself or writing a diary and checking back on how much you’ve improved. My friend and online polyglot inspiration Steve Kaufmann said his talk at Polyglot Conference that he tracks his progress by asking himself: How much could I say before and how much can I say now? It almost sounds too simple, but that’s such a pure and personal way to track your own progress. I remember listening to songs I last heard a few years ago and saying “wow, I clearly understand a lot more of the song lyrics than I remember”. What a nice feeling!

Related post:

Whether you choose to take a language exam or not is up to you – but just remember, it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to make mistakes. An exam doesn’t reflect fluency very accurately and should just be taken as a guide. Enjoy the process and use it as a motivator to study. All the best, friends!

You can casually check on an app too!

Check out Lingodeer – you can test out levels to gauge what your current level is. This is not an official certification but can give you a rough idea of whether you’re beginner or advanced. Use my code Lindie15 to get 15% discount on any subscription type for the app. Just register online at lingodeer.com!

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My JLPT N3 Results

So, turns out I forgot my password to access my JLPT results, and I had to email the Japanese embassy, to my embarrassment, to ask for my password. After a few excruciating hours of waiting, I was finally able to access my results.

I passed! 

However, I was expecting better results than I got, because the test felt easier than I expected at the time, but seems like I got quite a few questions wrong! I received an A for Grammar and a B for Vocabulary. Sounds about right, as Kanji was a tough one! I did expect a better mark in listening though, since it felt super easy! My 29/60 for Language Knowledge is laughable but super accurate. I really need to improve my vocabulary!

For a few weeks of cramming, I think this is a decent result. I could have done better if I worked harder from the start of the year, though. Whoops!

I won’t redo the N3, as apparently a score of 121/180 is pretty good according to international averages. According to Lindie’s average, that’s not fabulous though. Nevertheless, I am happy I passed, and I will aim for the N2 in about 2 years’ time. I’m going to see if I can do the HSK (Chinese exam) this year instead of the JLPT.

How did you guys do?

Here are my results:

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How I take notes (cram) for JLPT N3

So it’s only a few days before the big test, everyone! I made a video yesterday about how I take notes and pretty much cram for the test. I’m not focusing on listening as in all my practice tests, listening is the best aspect, but I really do need to work on vocabulary and Kanji. As I’ve mentioned many times before, just making lists of words won’t help, but learning the vocabulary word or Kanji in context of its meaning is very useful.

For that reason, I’ve made a color coding system for my notebook and it helps me easily distinguish between the words, their meanings, and example sentences.

Notebooks
1. Kakao Friends Neo Garden ring bound notebook (vocabulary)
2. Thin Muji A5 brown notebook (from a pack of 5 with different colored spines)

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The Nihongo 500-mon book, and my Kakao Friends notebook for vocab

Stationery & Color coding system
Black pens (Muji 0.35, 0.5 and Daiso pens) = Kanji and kana
Blue pens (Muji 0.35 and 0.5) = Word meanings
Pink pen (Muji Sarasara click pen) = Example sentences
Yellow marker = Highlighting words I still need to memorize after reviewing once

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Process
1. Do the example test in the 日本語500問 book
2. Turn the page and see if I did it right
3. Check if there are any new words, especially if I got the question wrong
4. Highlight or underline the word in the book
5. If there are grammar explanations, write the grammar in a separate notebook
6. If there are new vocab words, write them using the system above into a larger vocabulary notebook
7. Review regularly and highlight using yellow if I still need to get the word in my long-term memory

Other notes
I mark the pages in my test practice book with sticky notes. One note is for where I need to summarize from (meaning put new words or grammar explanations into my notebooks), and the other note means I still need to highlight words to be put into the book later.

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That’s about it for now, because I should probably get back to studying.
Good luck to all of you taking the exam this Sunday! 🙂

How I’m studying for JLPT N3

こんにちは!
I’m taking the JLPT N3 this December. I’ve never taken a JLPT test before, and I’m not sure if my level is near N3, but I have enough time until then to formulate and stick to a good study plan.

☆ Reading practice

The Japanese novels I have are limited, but I’m going to make use of the few I have in conjunction with online sources.

offline
The first book I’m using is Read Real Japanese (Essays). There is also a version with stories, but I prefer nonfiction. The Japanese page is on one side and the English translation of that page is on the other side. At the back of the book is a dictionary with the words that appear in the book. This book isn’t specifically aimed at any JLPT level, but I appreciate the detail that the notes go into and I love learning words from a variety of sources.

I am also using official JLPT N3 practice books and do the reading tests from them. Reading is challenging to me just because of how much content there is to get through in a limited amount of time. Here’s an example of what an official reading test looks like. I’m a very hands-on learner and like to write, so after I’ve read the piece, I like to write it down.

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reading before bed
I like to read for an hour or so before I sleep. Usually I read books in English. I have quite a few novels and nonfiction books from Japan, so I think now is the perfect time to push myself to read them. I’ll read with a highlighter and highlight the words I don’t know, and look them up in the morning. Currently, I’m reading 考え方のコツ

online
JapaneseTest4You has lots of JLPT activities catered for different levels. I’ll be making use of their N3 Reading practice tests to make sure my level is on par with the standard. I’ve noticed I read rather slowly out loud (much faster in my head), but I’m concerned about my reading speed for the test. It’s important to read fast but retain information so that you’re able to answer the comprehension questions about the section. I need to learn to read faster and more accurately!


☆ Kanji and vocabulary

online & offline
Every time I encounter a word I don’t know, I’ll write it down and make sure I know the correct stroke order. I’ll transfer it into my N3 vocabulary book and review it often. I don’t like flashcards, so I’ll stick to vocab lists on paper. It’s key to remember not to memorize single words. The best way to get Kanji in your memory is to learn it in the context of a sentence. For that reason, I prefer writing longer sentences down than single words when I’m learning new Kanji.

For me, the best way to learn Kanji is to learn it in the context of words and sentences rather than single characters. For this, I like to use jisho.org to look up a character and then see the example words for it. You can see how I use Jisho to practice Kanji in this video:

Then since I love example sentences, after learning the Kanji I will go on either tangorin or weblio and look for sentences that are at my level and one or two above my level. While doing that I’ll often encounter a new vocab word or kanji and then kind of do the same process for that word.

online
One of the best websites I’ve found for Kanji is renshuu.org. I need to make a conscious effort to use it more, though! Renshuu has quizzes, games and goals you can set for your Kanji learning. You can select which level (JLPT or Kanji Kentei) you want to review.

textbook
I am using the textbook called Kanji Isn’t That Hard! which I checked out at the library at my local Japanese Embassy. I can see the book is for beginners as it uses pictures to illustrate how the Kanji is built up, but what I like about it is that it explains the build of the Kanji in both Japanese and English. So just by reading the explanation of the character, I also learn new words. In my Kanji notebook, I write down the character, it’s stroke order, and the kun/on-yomi. I practice writing the character over and over until I don’t have to think about which stroke comes first or last. It should be a natural hand movement without too much thinking. Sometimes this means writing it 5 times, sometimes 50. I make sure to say the pronunciation of the Kanji while I’m writing it.

For other vocabulary acquisition, and since I like to learn through conversations and context, I’m using Japanese For Busy People III. It’s not specifically catered to JLPT N3, and it’s actually a bit easier than N3 would be, I think, but it’s great for a holistic approach to Japanese learning. Each chapter has a main conversation, and then it goes over grammar points with lots of practice exercises. At the end of each chapter is a Kanji section.

☆ Practice and immersion

1. I’ll be using the app Goodnight to practice Japanese, although it’s mainly used by Taiwanese people. Some Taiwanese people on the app speak Japanese too. I found a good friend who lives in Japan and though he’s Taiwanese, he’s on N1 level. We speak Japanese together. Talking to someone on N1 level is great because they’ll use different vocabulary than someone on my own level would.

2. I might also use the app Saito-san to broadcast in Japanese. You can have a little broadcast room and viewers can join while you speak about various topics. I did this a few years ago and you can see my video of it here.

4. Changing my phone, apps and laptop settings
I changed Spotify, Facebook and Instagram to be in Japanese, and I also set my phone language to Japanese. I have a separate Twitter account for tweeting in Japanese and following Japanese accounts too. Finally, I’ve gone as far as labelling all the folders on my laptop in Japanese. This won’t guarantee me passing JLPT N3 of course, but just seeing Japanese and seeing Kanji every day helps remind me what my goals are.

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I’ve labelled my laptop folders in Japanese!

5. My daily planner and shopping lists
My planner notes are all in Japanese, and I often write my shopping lists in Japanese too. This helps me use Kanji I wouldn’t normally write out, and also helps me learn new words when I need to explain something in Japanese.

☆ I don’t have a daily plan

Because I have a fulltime job, and I tutor languages after work, I don’t have enough energy or time to dedicate a specific amount of time to JLPT study each day. In fact, if I tell myself to learn 10 words a day and finish one lesson from a book a week, I’m going to stress myself out a lot more. I prefer a more haphazard approach, studying when I feel up for it, and then giving it my all. Of course, consistency is key, so it’s important that I do something in Japanese each day (like listening to a podcast at work) instead of ignoring the language until I feel like it.

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