A Tale of Two Japanese Tests: JLPT vs. ACTFL - Japanese

Updated: Jun 12


It's no secret that in Japan, certifications are everything. You can find any sort of subject, whether it be French, Quantum Mathematics, Agricultural Science, or even on your favorite person in history. If you can imagine it, there is probably a test for it in Japan. The Japanese are very test-oriented and for most of them, these certifications can help them stand out above all the rest when it comes to finding work or securing that elusive promotion.

Of course, for us gaijin, there is one Japanese test that reigns supreme. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験), better known as the JLPT. For the JLPT, getting that elusive N1 certification has been the end goal for a lot of gaijin living in Japan. Unlocking the N1 and the N2 will unlock most of the working world for you in Japan that doesn't involve teaching English. In the states, having an N3 (which is what I currently posses) will open a few doors with Japanese companies, though it is desirable to have at least an N2.

However, there is one thing that not many people realize once they take the JLPT, regardless of whether or not they pass it... but we will get to that in a minute.

On the other side of the coin, there is a little known test in America that is run by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, more simply known as the ACTFL Test. While not as well-known as its Japanese cousin in most Japanese language circles, it is a test that examines your Japanese in a more practical sense. But like any other test, it is not without it's own weaknesses too.

So let's jump right into it and take a look at both tests.

*Note that this is a work in progress, so check back soon for more updates*

First, let's start off with the JLPT.

The JLPT is a test that is sponsored by Japan Foundation and other various Japan related organizations around the world. It is used to measure a person's Japanese skills by testing them on their vocabulary, grammar, reading, and listening skills. Depending on the level of the test that you take, the difficulty of each test's grammar and vocabulary changes. For example, take the following two verbs, which have similar meaning, but their usages are different.

使う(つかう)- to use - Seen in the N5 (Introductory)

使用する(しようする)- to use - Seen in the N3 (Intermediate)

The key difference between the two is that while Tsukau (the top one) is used in daily conversation amongst your friends and family, you should use Shiyousuru (the bottom) in a more work environment and with your social superiors, though it is totally possible to use it in daily conversation as well.

One more example.

作る(つくる)- to make (Seen in the N5)

制作する(せいさくする)- to make (seen in the N2 (Business Level Japanese) - N3)

The key difference here is WHEN you use it. With Tsukuru (the top), you use it in daily conversation. However, Seisakusuru (the bottom) is something you would in the business realm, as it not only means "to make", but also "to create" (like a document, policy, etc), so it probably won't go over very well if you work in a Japanese company and you use Tsukuru with your executive level manager (though on the flip side, he/she could use Tsukuru with you because you are lower on the food chain).

Point aside, there is a lot of material you're going to need to cover in order to pass the level you sign up for.

There are 5 levels on the JLPT. Most people tend to start their JLPT journey on the N5, but it is not uncommon for people to start at a higher level. The five levels include...

- N1 (Native/Advanced/Fluent)

- N2 (Business Level)

- N3 (Intermediate/"Being Able to Survive in Japan for a Long Time" Japanese)

- N4 (Conversational/"Tourist Japanese")

- N5 (Introductory/"Weeaboo Killer Test")

Most people who take the N5 do not progress to the N4. This test usually weeds out the Weeaboos with the serious Japanese learners. As a matter of fact, below is the pass rates of the test. The section you guys need to look at is the bottom one, which is the average between the test takers in Japan and around the world.


One of the reasons why I call the N5 the "Weeaboo Killer" is that this really separates the anime/manga fans that are serious about Japan and Japanese from the filthy weeaboos. Most weeaboos do not go and live in Japan, but if they do, they have no choice but to assimilate into the culture, thus resulting in the nearly 65% pass rate for the test takers in Japan for the N5. For those outside Japan... the test isn't as forgiving.

Curiously enough though is the higher pass rates for the N2, N3, and N4. My theory is that students overseas take these tests in December (the JLPT is only offered in December outside of Japan, always on the first Sunday), right before their Japanese final exams, but this is just a guess and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Now let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the JLPT.

- Strengths -

Perhaps one of the biggest pluses of the JLPT is that it is a standardized test. Simply put, there is a lot of material out there to use to study for the test. Most college textbooks for Japanese, inc. Genki, Nakama, and Minna no Nihongo will at least prepare you up to the N4 level, which could be theoretically attained after one year of study at a university (assuming if you enroll in an accelerate course. Normal time frame for the N4 would be around 2 years of college instruction).

In addition, the test is recognized by most major Japanese companies and the Japanese government as a way to recognize fluency. However, this also leads to a very big weakness for the JLPT, which we discuss in a minute.

Another strength is that some Japanese programs in America could be used as proof to place a student in a higher level Japanese class and can even get credit for lower level classes, but you probably will need at least an N3 for that.

Speaking of the N3, if you decide to major in Japanese (which I HIGHLY discourage), passing the N3 essentially legitimizes your degree, which is probably one reason why a lot of people that have majored in Japanese go to Japan almost immediately after graduating.

- Weaknesses -

Perhaps the biggest glaring weakness of the JLPT is the lack of an oral exam and a written portion. At Simple Gaijin, one of the biggest things that I preach to my students is that "Being able to produce ALWAYS trumps passing a test". As stated earlier, the JLPT is a standardized test, which only produces results for people who can use Japanese.... to pass a test. This is a terrible way to learn Japanese. You learn Japanese to communicate and be able to understand the Japanese, not for taking a test.

Next, the test is only offered once or twice a year, depending where you live. If you live in Japan, you can take the test twice a year, once in July, and once in December. If you are outside Japan, you only get one shot in December. If you fail, not only is it demoralizing, but you have to waste a whole year studying, and for a lot of people, they lose faith and quit.

But the worst problem for the JLPT has is the ambiguously broad range of interpretation of the score. If that is difficult to understand, take a look at this graph.


So to simply put it, each test is out of 180 possible points. In order for you to pass the JLPT N2 test, you need to score at least a 50% on it (in addition to getting the minimum points required to pass each section). To me, being able to pass a test at 50% is a terrible way to show proficiency.

If you are still not following what I am saying, then consider this...

I have met plenty of guys and girls that have a JLPT N1, and they are unable to have a conversation with Japanese people or not be able to write kanji without consulting a dictionary every 3 minutes. On the flip side, I've also met plenty of people that have NEVER taken the JLPT, but are married to Japanese spouses, speak Japanese entirely at home with the kids, able to do their taxes in Japanese, and are able to talk to the cops if there is a calamity with absolute calmness.

Let that sink in for a minute...

Now we turn the ACTFL - Japanese tests. Unlike it's Japanese cousin, the ACTFL (American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages) is only offered in the United States, and is the "ugly stepchild" of all the main Japanese tests (JLPT, Kanji Kentei, JBT (Japanese Business Test)). But don't let it's status as the ugly stepchild fool you. This test is actually more eye opening about your Japanese abilities than you may think.

The ACTFL was founded in 1967 as a way for foreign language teachers in America to gauge their student's levels in their respective learned language. Not only does this test cover Japanese, but you can take almost any other language on Earth through the ACTFL, even the famous Xhosa language (aka, the "clicking language"). In addition, this test is also sponsored by the US government for federal jobs that require language proficiency (though they tend to prefer the DLPT - Defense Language Proficiency Test - or International Language Roundtable (ILR) over the ACTFL, but scores can be easily transferred between tests).

I actually learned about this test when I was applying for a Japanese teacher job in Dallas shortly after my arrival home in 2015. Unfortunately for me, I was too late for the position because I didn't have this license. Still, I decided to take the test (and actually, I am still in progress for getting my Texas Educator's license, but I have been lazy on it since I moved operations to Ohio).

In short, the ACTFL test tests the main two things that the JLPT does not cover, your speaking and writing proficiencies. This is what makes the ACTFL a much more accurate look at your communicative skills in Japanese. You are essentially "graded" by what you produce, and even then, the word "grade" is not even a proper term for it.

Instead, you are given a score, all the way from "Novice Low" all the way up to "Distinguished". As I am sure you know what "Novice Low" means, "Distinguished", at least in my definition, would to be able to talk about an extremely abstract concept (for example, talking about doing brain surgery in the middle of Africa with nothing but a tool box and how you would be able to remove the corpus cavernosa) and be able to consistently do this.


This is my own personal experience with the ACTFL exam.

First, you normally have the oral proficiency interview, or OPI. From here, you usually get on a telephone with your proctor (for the ACTFL, you need to have a test proctor at either a university, school, or something similar) and they will call the designated number for the OPI exam. From there, you are essentially given a 30-45 minute conversation with the representative from ACTFL.

The conversation will start to change depending on your output of Japanese. If you are able to talk more abstractly, then the interviewer will start to move on to more abstract questions or talk about more complex subjects. However, fortunately for you, you can dictate the flow and content of these questions. So tailor them to your advantage. For me, at that time, I talked a lot about historical figures in Japan from 1500 - 1600 (like Oda Nobunaga), but instead of doing Nobunaga, I talked about Chiba's tragic samurai hero/villain (depending on who you ask), Yoshiaki Ashikaga (not to be confused with the Shogun Yoshiaki, whom Nobunaga deposed of in 1573. I'll probably do a post over Yoshiaki Ashikaga-Chiba later on).

From there, you will be forced into a role play. Depending on your level, the situation can vary tremendously. For me, I was placed back into the Sengoku Jidai, where I was to report to "Lord Yoshiaki" that the Hojo-Clan was crossing the river and heading to Konnodai Castle". This... was actually rather hard for me because when I do play Nobunaga's Ambition in Japanese, it is in Classical Japanese. Putting it into modern Japanese was a challenge, and in hindsight, I probably wouldn't do this twice.

Instead, I would probably use my terminology with manufacturing technology and automatics that I have picked up through my time at my current company. At least there, I would be able to score higher.

Next, the writing test. It's just like the speaking test, but you are given 5 prompts. You pick three, and you write about them. I don't really remember the prompts that I was given, but all together, I scored an Intermediate-High on the ACTFL, which is on par with a JLPT N2. Had I picked a better topic for my oral exam, I probably could have gotten Advanced Low or Advanced Medium, but for my first try, I was rather proud of myself.

Now lets talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the ACTFL.

- Strengths -

Probably strongest point of the ACTFL is that you are being produced based on your linguistic output of the test. With the written and oral exams, you have no opportunity to "circle the right answer" and are forced to rely on what sort of language ability to have to produce. For many employers, the ability to produce language far outweighs the any sort of ability to do well on standardized tests.

In addition, it will scale your skills where they really are. Unlike the JLPT, which has a wide range of score interpretation.

Second, the test can be taken at ANY time throughout the year. There is no reason for you to wait every December and/or July for you to take the test. The test can even be taken at night as well.

Third, this test is widely recognized throughout all American colleges and universities, not just in the Japanese departments, but in all languages.

Fourth, if you insist on testing your reading skills, there is a reading aptitude exam as well. I've never taken it, but I might give it a go in the near future.

- Weakness -

To be honest, there is no glaring weaknesses about the test content.

However, there are two weaknesses for the ACTFL.

The first major weakness of the test is the cost. Each test can range as low as $100 to $150, depending on how many tests you take.

The second weakness is its obscurity in the business world. Most Japanese companies are not familiar with it, but when they learn that it is a test that is based on output, most warm up to it as well as the JLPT.

Verdict

After doing both of these tests, Simple Gaijin fully advocates the ACTFL exam for the following reasons...

- First is the fact that US Government and most major US universities sponsor and recommend doing these tests to gauge your language level.

- Second is the frequency of when the test if offered. You can take it every 6 weeks, which is plenty of time for you to prepare for the next one and polish up on the skills you want to improve on and not wait a whole year going through loads of crap that might not even be on the JLPT test.

- Third, this test will truly show how well you know the language. Sure it's easy to circle the right answer because you see it right in front of you. But are you able to produce it off the top of your head when the time really comes for you to use it?

So what do you guys think? Is the ACTFL test best for testing Japanese language output? Or is the JLPT still the supreme Japanese test out there? Let me know and send me an email at mike@simplegaijin.com !


#JLPT #ACTFL #JapaneseLanguage #JapaneseLanguageTests

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