Given that there has been discussion by the Japanese government to use the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) as one of the measures by which permanent residences or citizenship might be granted, how good of a measure of it of actual real world Japanese skill? Does passing the level N1 test mean that you are on par with a native speaker or does it just show that you have advanced knowledge of the language?
True fluency is rare, and involves more than passing a standardized test. I will refer you to an answer I gave in EL&U.SE which I quoted from my treasured copy of Jack Seward's Japanese in Action. He is talking about Japanese, but I removed all the specific-language references because it's a good measure for fluency in any language. EDIT: I've just added them back, since I found my copy of the book after cleaning out my office for the New Year. (^_^) The passage is now given as written, with only slight adjustments.
To be accurately judged fluent in Japanese, I believe a foreigner should have the following qualifications:
He should be able to conduct all his daily affairs (business, visits to the doctor, TV-ing, bar-hopping, lovemaking, etc.) completely in Japanese without strain.
His accent may not be perfect, but it should occasion no confusion or merriment among his listeners.
He should be able to read Japanese (newspapers, weekly magazines, and letters in the semi-cursive 行書 style), with only an occasional reference to a dictionary.
He goes on to propose that a test for fluency in the language should require the test taker to:
Translate a newspaper article
Speak in Japanese on the telephone, as a test of accent.
Write a letter in Japanese.
Interpret a taped conversation between two Japanese.
Comprehend a newscast.
Identify five major dialects.
Read a letter written in 行書.
Take a dictation test involving the writing of fifty 漢字 (kanji) from among the 当用漢字 (daily-use kanji) and give the principal readings of each.
Give the meanings of one hundred technical words or phrases (twenty each from the fields of medicine, law, economy, science, and the arts), to be selected by the testing committee as being understood by the average Japanese college graduate.
Walk down the street and read the first twenty signs to be sighted.
Give a ten-minute, impromptu talk about an everyday topic of conversation (sports, politics, travel, traffic, etc.), the topic to be selected by lottery.
BTW, much of the book is dated now, but is still a great source for understanding Japanese culture and language, and it's also very funny.
First and foremost the JLPT does not have a speaking component. This means you may be able to recognise and understand grammar when reading or listening, but you may be unable to actually speak the language with any proficiency. This is my case exactly, I can understand far more than what I can express.
Secondly, the entire test is multiple choice. Multiple choice makes things a bit easier for the student and if you can eliminate the two "obviously false answers" you're left with a 50/50 shot of getting it right - I've seen people fake their way through exams with minimal knowledge of the content, but great "test taking skills".
It's very hard to gauge proficiency in language. However, the JLPT is definitely a good way of guiding your study. I've mainly been using the JLPT tests not for the piece of paper I receive for doing it, but as a study guide on where I should be focusing my study. It's a good guide to get you from beginner to advanced in terms of which kanji/grammar points you should know.
However, I guess if you're able to pass the JLPT N1 test, you're more than on your way to being "fluent".
I can tell you that N1 is not meaning on par with a native speaker. Actually many japanese could not pass N1 with an high score without studying. That's because of many questions about grammar and kanji usage. Still the test doesn't measure your active skill (speak and write) but only your passive ones. I know people who passed N1 but are not really fluent in everyday japanese.
There is some useful information on this on the official website http://www.jlpt.jp/:
- a summary of what organizers consider required for passing N1, and
- a self evaluation of what successful candidates think they can do.
Summary of linguistic competence required for N1
The ability to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances.
・ One is able to read writings with logical complexity and/or abstract writings on a variety of topics, such as newspaper editorials and critiques, and comprehend both their structures and contents.
・ One is also able to read written materials with profound contents on various topics and follow their narratives as well as understand the intent of the writers comprehensively.
・ One is able to comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations, news reports, and lectures, spoken at natural speed in a broad variety of settings, and is able to follow their ideas and comprehend their contents comprehensively. One is also able to understand the details of the presented materials such as the relationships among the people involved, the logical structures, and the essential points.
Can-Do self evaluation
The following is an excerpt of what candidates who barely pass N1 think they can do in Japanese:
- Less than one in four of those who barely pass N1 think they can understand the main points of TV news about politics, economics and similar topics.
- Less than one in four think they can understand the general content when joining a conversation on a current topic currently covered by the media.
- Between one and two in four think they can understand the general content of speeches in formal situations such as welcome parties.
- Two to three in four think they can follow discussions when participating in school or work meetings.
- More than three in four think they can understand the general content of small talk.
- One to two in four believe they can express their opinion in a logical manner when joining discussions on topics they care about.
- Two to three in four believe they can give a brief summary of the plot of a movie they have seen or a book they have read recently.
- More than three in four believe they can give walking directions and directions for public transportation to locations they know well.
- One to two in four believe they can understand the main points in newspaper articles about politics or economics.
- Two to three in four believe they can understand the main ideas in scientific and technical texts on topics they care about.
- More than three in four believe they can understand the definitions given in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary.
I think this list makes it clear that passing N1 is far from being at native equivalent levels. The Japanese language school I attended considers N1 to be roughly comparable to B2 of the CEFR.
Well i don't know if you will find this info useful, but here goes:
Daniel Levitin claims:
The emerging scientific picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.
So if it only takes around 900 hours to pass JLPT 1, then we have not even reached 10% of the 10,000 hours requirement to mastery....
My opinion: No. Speaking is not tested and the Japanese you're tested on is not stuff you'll encounter in business or in daily conversation.
I've passed JLPT 1級 and received J1 on the Business Japanese Test (http://www.kanken.or.jp/bjt/). Studying for the latter was much more useful to me professionally and felt like a better gauge of working Japanese.
Background: I've worked in Japan for five consecutive years now. Three years in Japanese companies in a management position. Two years as a host in clubs in both Kabukicho and Minami while attending college here.