How I Passed the JLPT N5 and N4 Exams

The Japanese Language Proficiency exam (JLPT), or 「日本語能力試験」as it is called in Japanese, was something I had been aware of since my teens. I always wanted to take it, but growing up in Newfoundland meant I knew it was something I would have to spend a lot of money on—the nearest testing location was, and still is, in Toronto. Spending the money on flights, hotels, and everything else just to take a low-level exam that I may or may not pass was pretty much out of the question for me, so I shrugged it off as being pointless.

My conclusion of it being pointless probably affected my desire to learn Japanese in the first place. I always wanted to learn the language, and first dug in when I was around sixteen years old. At that age, unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing.

Sure, I picked up a few words here and there from anime and music, but when it came to grammar and kanji, I just couldn’t stick with it for more than a couple of weeks. Every couple of years I’d try again—maybe this would be the year I’d stick with it? Nope—each time I failed. My most serious attempt was in 2012 when I bit the bullet and shelled out for a private Japanese tutor as a New Year’s Resolution. I was working at the time and freelancing in the evenings, so even that became overwhelming very quickly and I quit after just a month. I was really starting to think I wasn’t cut out for language learning in general. I took French for ten years in school and couldn’t speak it, so why did I think Japanese would be any different?

Fast forward to 2015 when I moved to the UK. We were planning a trip to Japan in March of 2016 so I knew it was time to pick up the books again, even if it was to learn just a few basic survival phrases. Then I remembered that I lived just two hours by train away from London—the home of a JLPT testing centre. I signed up for the N5 exam in August and studied my butt off for three and a half months for the exam in December. I wasn’t sure if I was being crazy to take on that much in such little time, but the deadline really changed the way I thought about learning Japanese and pushed me to keep going.

I passed my N5 exam and it felt amazing. Maybe I could learn this after all. It’s now over a year later, and I’m pleased to say I’ve passed my N4 exam as well and slowly but surely pushing toward N3. I learned a lot not just about Japanese, but about my study methods and how to stay motivated. Hopefully some of these tips will help you, too.

Grammar

I already had two textbooks to choose from in my library—Genki I, An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, and Minna no Nihongo. Both books have their strengths and weaknesses, but in the end I decided to go with Genki as it was a little less intimidating for self-learners. The main Minna no Nihongo textbook is entirely in Japanese and requires the use of a second translated guide to follow along with. While this is great if you have a teacher, I didn’t want the extra complication of having to look up explanations, so I went with Genki. I also love the accompanying workbook and CDs which are essential in testing what you’ve learned. If you use Genki, these additional workbooks are a must, as is the answer key. They’re an expensive investment but absolutely worth the money if you’re serious about learning Japanese.

As a rule of thumb, for N5 you should finish all of Genki I, and for N4, you should finish all of Genki II plus a few additional grammar points. I’ve just started in on the Japan Times’ Intermediate Guide to Japanese, so I’m looking forward to seeing where that takes me for N3.

In addition, A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar published by The Japan Times has been absolutely essential in my learning. Occasionally, Genki does not do the greatest job at explaining a grammar point, so a copy of this book will do wonders for in-depth explanation and helping you connecting the dots. Highly, highly recommended.

For online resources, have a look through the very popular Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. Again, if there’s something you don’t understand in Genki, you can read through his explanations which often put things in a different perspective. He also does a great job at covering more casual, spoken forms of grammar that formal textbooks don’t focus on. The best part is, it’s free.

Vocabulary and Kanji

While it’s incredibly important to learn kanji for daily life in Japan, if you’re studying for the lower levels of the JLPT like N5 and N4, I would discourage you from spending all of your time trying to go above and beyond what’s recommended for these levels. One of the biggest mistakes I made in studying for the N5 exam was spending too much time on WaniKani, a website for learning kanji. It actually worked so well for me that I kept going and going—unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is that kanji is actually used quite sparingly on the actual exam itself. I wish I’d learned just the recommended kanji for each level and spent more time learning grammar and working on my reading and listening comprehension. As a result, while I completely rocked the kanji and vocabulary section on the actual exam, my reading speed was quite slow and I barely had time to mark the last answer on my sheet. 

I like to study vocabulary and kanji hand-in-hand to reinforce my memory. One thing to note is that the Genki textbooks alone aren’t enough to cover all the vocabulary required for the N5 and N4 exams. I rounded out my knowledge with vocabulary courses on Memrise. There are plenty of good vocabulary sets to study, but I mostly used the sets created by JTalkOnline: JLPT N5 and JLPT N4.

Memrise also has good kanji courses such as this one from JLPT Bootcamp. What I really like about these courses is that it teaches the vocabulary word in kana, and then reinforces that knowledge with the kanji. Learning kanji by memorizing the readings isn’t the most practical method of learning, in my opinion, and I feel that it’s always better to learn kanji through vocabulary to help those meanings sink in.

For those who do like to memorize readings, StickyStudy for iOS is a great app and contains both vocabulary and kanji lists for a variety of exams.

Listening & speaking

Although there is no speaking component to the JLPT exams at any level, it’s an essential part of learning practical Japanese and it will help you build your listening skill at the same time.

First, please don’t rely on learning spoken Japanese from anime. It’s not going to help you pass any exams, and if you spoke this way in Japan, you’d be sure to get a few looks. Dramas and films are better choices, but even then I’d recommend starting out with resources that match your target exam level before getting into bad habits.

Personally, I love:

  • Hirogaru Nihongo, which has a variety of interesting articles to follow along with. 
  • Japanese Pod 101, which has more realistic practical conversation
  • NHK News Easy, which provides simpler versions of daily news stories. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t understand them—I would peg them being closer to upper N4-N3 level in difficulty.

One of the most essential resources I use as a self-learner is a website called italki. Here I practice speaking with a certified Japanese teacher, although you can also find conversation partners who are happy to help you speak Japanese as long as you help them learn English or whichever language you may speak. My teacher is a native speaker originally from Kyoto. We chat over Skype, which helps me get some speaking practice when I normally have no opportunity to speak Japanese in my daily life. 

I have also been using the shadowing method of repeating text to improve my pronunciation and ability to speak without thinking. I’m currently working my way through a book called Shadowing: Let's Speak Japanese! and my improvement is already noticeable.

Other resources

I’m definitely the kind of person who retains more information by writing out what I’ve learned. For that reason, I’m a huge fan of flashcards. I use them to write out everything, from kanji to new vocabulary to verb conjugations that I have trouble with. My favourite are the most basic ring-bound flashcards from MUJI, but you can make your own or order some online.

I also adore the series of graded readers available on White Rabbit Japan. Each volume contains six small books and an audio CD full of stories suited to a particular level from 0-4. You are encouraged to read the book without the help of a dictionary—even if you don’t know a word, the accompanying illustration can help you learn new words and figure out the meaning without having to look it up. I’ve found them to be very rewarding indeed, and I’m looking forward to buying the next level.

White Rabbit Japan has further books and resources that are helpful. Here are more of my favourites:

The last book is particularly helpful because you’re going to want to make sure you take practice tests before the actual exam day. Knowing what to expect and what type of questions will appear on the exam is half the trouble—you’ll feel a lot more relaxed when you open that exam paper if you’ve already practiced to a clock.

Above all, my most important tip is to study every day. Not for three hours in one session per week and then forget about it until the next week, but every single day. Study doesn’t have to be in the traditional sense—it can be anything—listening practice, reviewing vocabulary, or even just writing and chatting with Japanese friends. As long as you keep using the information you’ve learned, the easier it will be for you to remember it. Remember—learning a language, especially one such as Japanese, is a tough road and it's going to take a long time and a lot of work before you feel improvement. Sticking with it is key, no matter how hard it gets.

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