Article written for EU fellows in Japan.
Jim McElwaine, Sapporo
Nearly all of us have studied Japanese for four months in Tokyo - most of us at Fortran. This can kindle a love of Japanese that never dies, or a hatred of those horrid little squiggly things that are a bad excuse for a writing system. Those in love can study in the privacy of their own homes, and while it may not put hairs on the palm of your hand or make you blind, solitary Japanese study is only for the truely dedicated. The rest of us take encouragement from the incompetence of our fellow classmates and part time classes beckon as waymarks towards the holy grail that is 一級 ikkyuu - first level) of the Japanese Proficency Test (日本語能力試験 Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken).
The Japanese Proficency Test was been run since 1984 for non-native speakers and can be taken in Japan or abroad once a year in December - the last entry date is August. The tests are multiple choice and have three sections: writing-vocabulary (100 points); listening (100 points); reading-grammar (200 points). There are four level and below are the official English descriptions. The pass mark is 60%.
Level 1: Writing-vocabulary 45 minutes; Listening 45 minutes; Reading-grammar 90 minutes. The examinee has mastered grammar at a high level, knows about 2,000 Kanji and 10,000 words, and has an integrated command of the language sufficient for life in Japanese society and providing a useful base for study at a Japanese university. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for about 900 hours.
Level 2: Writing-vocabulary 35 minutes; Listening 40 minutes; Reading-grammar 70 minutes. The examinee has mastered grammar at a relatively high level, knows about 1,000 Kanji and 6,000 words, and has the ability to converse, read, and write about matters of a general nature. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for about 600 hours and finishing an intermediate course.
Level 3: Writing-vocabulary 35 minutes; Listening 35 minutes; Reading-grammar 70 minutes. The examinee has mastered grammar to a limited level, knows about 300 Kanji and 1,500 words, and has the ability to take part in everyday conversation and to read and write simple sentences. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for about 300 hours and finishing an elementary course.
Level 4: Writing-vocabulary 25 minutes; Listening 25 minutes; Reading-grammar 50 minutes. The examinee has mastered the basic elements of grammar, knows about 100 Kanji and 800 words, and has the ability to engage in simple conversation and to read and write short, simple sentences. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for about 150 hours and finishing the first half of an elementary course.
Below are the results from EU fellows and some of my friends who have taken these exams. All study is in Japan except where otherwise stated
Everyone who took the level 3 passed easily after a 4 month (400 hour) Fortran language course and 6 months or so part time study. The exam description suggests 300 hours which seems only slightly optimistic.
The step up to 2-kyu is a long away. If the 300 reccomended hours for 3-kyu is a four month intensive course. The schedule suggests another 4 months full time study is required. One good student managed it after 'only' 6 months full time (600 hours) and six months part time study. However most of the EU fellows even after a couple of years in Japan and a lot of study. What this suggests is that part time study is a very slow way to improve your Japanese and if you can study full time for a few months it is much more effective than the same amount of time spread out over a year. Even so to reach 2-kyu in 600 hours seems very optimistic for even the best students. This means learning (and remembering) a new word every six minutes of study!
Everyone who has tried the 1-kyu says it is a long way from 2-kyu and unless you already know all the Kanji one and a half years full time study (2000 hours) seems nearer the mark.
If you want to study for one of the higher tests everyone said that choosing a good school is very important. In fact the school must not only be good but must have experience of training poeple for the tests. Asking to talk to some of the students who have passed the test your studying for is probably a good idea.
Most beginners seem very happy with Fortran but the school seems much less able to teach effectively more advanced students. Partly because they are all at different levels. Sending more advanced students to university Japanese courses or to a much bigger schools and mixing them with other advanced students might be much more effective.