Monday, November 03, 2008

Five Steps to JLPT Success

5 Things you can do right now to improve your JLPT score.


Only one month out from the Japanese Language Proficiency Test now, and if you're not feeling a little apprehensive about then you should be. A lot has changed, even since last year, and a lot will change in the future, but one thing never does, the commitment required to succeed.

I should know, I failed once, last year at the level one test. There were other things going on in my life, like losing my job, preparing for the birth of my daughter, and making a move with the family back to Australia after 5 years. It retrospect though, it all boils down to one thing, I lacked the singular focus required to do well in my study.

Even so, I reckon I had a pretty good system for balancing the different types of study that you need to do to pass the test. In 2005 and 2006 I passed levels 3 and 2 comfortably. From 2005 to 2006 my overall score didn't drop, and in some areas it actually improved.

My approach was something I borrowed from my days cycling competitively at university; train your weaknesses - race your strengths. In this post I hope to set out 5 things you can do, between now and the first Sunday in December, to improve your confidence and hopefully your score.

1 - Know yourself.

Sun-Tzu, a Chinese general in the 4th Century B.C. wrote "If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt". The JLPT is a battle within yourself that is won long before the test starts.

When I first decided I was going to do the JLPT, I didn't know which level would suit me best. So I took a pragmatic approach, and did a practice test at level 4, passing easily.

When I did the practice test for level 3, I didn't pass the first time, but I was certain it was the right level of challenge for me. I didn't stop doing practice tests there. They formed part of my diagnostic testing in the lead up to all three tests I attempted.

Unfortunately, it is much harder to find practice tests online these days and even harder to find answers. If you haven't done so yet I strongly suggest buying a copy of Bojinsha's series (in Japanese), and doing one ASAP.

2 - Know the terrain.

Did you know the second part of the listening test, has two question types? Each type is marked differently on the answer sheet. Don't let this be a surprise to you. The practice test booklets have answer sheets in the back, photocopy them and use them.

Use a stopwatch and time yourself when doing the practice tests. There is a rhythm you need to get into, especially in the third part of the test where there is barely enough time to finish let alone review. Put a 'do not disturb' sign on the door and free yourself from distraction.

You'll be able to anticipate questions on the final exam, if you've done similar questions in practice week in, week out. Anticipation is key, if you don't want to be drawing blanks on test Sunday.

3- Train your weaknesses.

The JLPT is broken down in to three parts, as you should already know. Within those three parts, it is broken down into further sections. The past tests allow you to really drill down into those areas where you lose the most marks.

You know where your weaknesses are right? They are the bits you hate to study, the ones you put off doing for other things that are more enjoyable. You need to get on intimate terms with them. After each practice test, review the ones you got wrong. Write them up, study them again, and think of ways you can address your weaknesses.

Spend most of your time in the areas that give you the most trouble. Small gains here will open up larger gains in other areas. It's called leverage, and once you understand this principle you'll wonder why you ever shirked doing the hard yards.

4- Race your strengths.

If you have something you are good at it's hard to find a reason to stop doing it. If you love flipping through your kanji cards, to confirm your extensive knowledge of yojijukugo then good for you, but it's not going to help your grammar.

Your strengths are the things you love to do, the things that help you gain confidence when you mark your practice tests. Use them to get started when you don't feel like studying. They'll defeat the inertia you feel when you first sit down with your books each night. Most importantly though, don't overdo it. You can't get more than 100% in the areas that you are good at, big efforts here don't mean much, It's the law of diminishing returns at work.

5 - Stay fresh.

Your mind is an organ that relies almost entirely on blood sugar and oxygen for stamina. The only way to ensure that the levels of both of these things don't drop during study, or worse still, during the exam, is to maintain good health and fitness.

Stay away from sugary foods, and go for foods that are low on the glycaemic index. This will ensure that you have sustained levels of energy throughout the day, and no sleep inducing sugar spikes and insulin rebounds.

Sleep is good too. Not too much not too little. The guys over at supermemo swear by free running sleep. I don't know how possible this is for you, given your other commitments but it's worth trying. Basically you sleep when you are tired and wake up when you are ready; no alarm clocks, no coffee, no alcohol. Sounds tough, but how badly do you want this test, right?

What ever you do, you need to have that singular focus, and the mental image of confidence when you rock up to your testing centre. Being fresh is all about be prepared and positive that your performance is up to the task.

Wrapping up.

It's only a test, and some would argue that it barely represents proficiency, there are some glaring omissions and the best score in the world won't make you a good communicator in Japanese. It is something to aim for however.

So go for it, there's still time if you launch into your study now. Let me know in the comments if this was helpful and share some of your tips if you can.

Update: Early in December 2009 the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) released further detail about the New Japanese Language Proficiency Test for 2010.

I go into more detail about test taking strategies in the online video seminar 5 Steps To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level on eduFire. Subscribers to the Rainbowhill Language Lab newsletter get great study tips throughout the year. If you need some good tips on preparing for the JLPT, please read on.

5 Steps To  Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level 5 Steps To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level is a Free Online Seminar at eduFire