Proficiency Tests

Today I took a break from moving preparations and goodbye meals to take the TOPIK exam.

The Test of Proficiency in Korean, Intermediate Level.  Three hours of vocab, writing, listening and reading.  Fun stuff, right?  A great way to spend an Easter Sunday…

To be perfectly honest though, I love tests.  That’s probably because I am a pretty good tester.  You name it I’ve taken it… or not really, but I’ve definitely done my fair share of language tests.

It all started in my year abroad when I first learned there were such things as language proficiency exams.  Take a test and get a pretty certificate if you pass?  Where do I sign up?  So as soon as I got home I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 2 (which at the time was the second highest of four tests).  And passed.

Then, when I arrived in Japan two years later, I signed up for level 1, and passed that too.  Then heard about the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT), which at the time was run by JETRO, but is now run by the same people as the “Kanken” (Kanji Aptitude Test), and so I took that too.  And passed (but skipped the optional interview because while I thrive in written tests, interviews make me really nervous).

Then I got into Korean, and found that they have tests too (!!), so I took the TOPIK beginner level two years ago, and the intermediate test last year.

Then I decided I might want to go to Korea and that would mean looking for new jobs.  And when looking for new jobs what better thing to have on your resume than multilingualism (with more proficiency tests for proof)?  So, since it had been ten years since I first passed JLPT level one, and the test had since undergone a major overhaul, I decided to take N1 (now the highest level of five), and throw in the Nihongo Kentei (日本語検定) for good measure.  The Nihongo Kentei is actually a test theoretically designed for Japanese people, and tests knowledge of things like keigo, vocab, proper usage, etc.  In some ways it is similar to the English part of the SATs.

Almost took the BJT again, but I accidentally slept through it… or rather completely forgot I was signed up until the day after…

And of course one more intermediate TOPIK test (because the first time around I only passed level three and I want four).

There are a lot of people out there who like to devalue proficiency tests.  More so for JLPT than TOPIK (probably because JLPT has been around longer).

I personally think that you just have to understand the tests, and what they are and are not.

I cannot guarantee that having a level one JLPT has ever gotten me a job, but I can say that when we were looking for my replacement at work, we definitely filtered candidates based partially on language proficiency (as that is essential for my old job), and JLPT scores were one of the scales we used. (Of course we interviewed everyone who passed that first filter, and did language checks of our own as well.) If you don’t like proficiency tests, you are going to have to find some other way to demonstrate your proficiency in an easily understandable way.

I can also say that a JLPT score exempts one from the language test required by one of the master’s programs I have applied to, so being able to demonstrate that proficiency in the application stage has got to be some advantage (as it is a requirement of the program.)

If used correctly, proficiency tests are great for your resume.

Of course they have to be used correctly.

For example, in looking for my replacement we fairly quickly discounted anyone who wrote level 3 or below. For some it was an old result, so it is theoretically possible that they are much better now, but without any more recent indication of higher proficiency it wasn’t really worth our time. For some positions it is possible that even level 2 (N2), might have been cut, so you have to really understand the demands of the job. If it’s an old result that doesn’t really reflect your current level it might be better to leave it off.

On the other hand, proficiency tests are not necessarily great indications of your actual proficiency.

As the people evaluating the candidates, it was necessary for us to do checks of our own.

As someone taking the tests, you have to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, in my case…

I studied Japanese for seven years before I’d even heard of language proficiency exams. I took formal classes, I studied abroad, and I did a lot of conversation practice. By the time I took my first test, I was functionally quite proficient (the only reason I didn’t go straight for the highest level was some insecurity about kanji and reading). As a result, the exam result was just confirmation of what I already new myself, and was a fairly accurate representation of what I actually knew and could control. I never really studied FOR the exam (other than familiarizing myself with the format.)

With Korean it was (and is) a whole different story. I knew about the existence of the tests almost from the very beginning, and took my first test after only six months of study. I was taking formal classes, but conversation practice was limited. I very much studied FOR that first test, and every test thereafter.

As a result, the scores may open some doors, but conversationally speaking I am still an infant. My comprehension is not terrible, so that’s something, but the test results are a very poor representation of my language production skills.

Anti-testing people largely cite cases like mine as reasons the tests are “worthless,” but I think you just need to be realistic about how much value to place on them.

As a learner, I am very happy with my pretty little certificates, and grateful for every door they have opened, but I also am aware of my own limitations, and that passing the highest level does not necessarily eliminate the need to progress.

And as someone looking at the tests to evaluate others, I realize that they do have limitations, and that it is fine to use them just as one clue to the bigger picture, but dangerous to assume they tell the whole truth.

Journey Back

In May I’ll be leaving Japan for Korea.

As part of the preparation for my next journey I needed to go back to the university where I spent my year abroad to get my transcript from that time.

I spent my year abroad at International Christian University in Mitaka, Tokyo.  It wasn’t my first time in Japan, but it was an important step in bringing me to where I am.

The main school building at ICU
The main school building at ICU

Choosing a place to study abroad can be a difficult decision, especially if your university is like mine and has multiple places to choose from.  At the time there were 5 or 6 choices just in Japan.

Waseda and Keio were definitely the most famous of the bunch, but I decided against attending them.  For me the primary reason was that Keio and Waseda had special programs for exchange students.  There were special English based classes about Japan in subjects like literature, history or economics that only exchange students could take, and of course special classes to teach Japanese.  I’m sure students with a very high level of Japanese would be able to participate in regular classes with Japanese students, but I wasn’t that confident in my Japanese level.

At ICU it was a different environment.  Foreign students entered as OYRs, or One Year Regular students.  The key point being that we were “regular” students.  ICU’s selling point is the quality of their English education, and as part of that, even Japanese students have to take a certain number of regular courses (not EFL) in English.  That meant there was a wide variety of classes offered in English, and they were not necessarily populated entirely by foreigners.  In addition, there are so-called JE or EJ classes that are offered in a variety of Japanese and English, so lectures might be in Japanese with English textbooks, or vice versa.  As foreigners, we could take any class offered as long as we felt up to the language requirements.

I went to summer school before the regular year started, and ended up finishing the Japanese language program in the second of the three trimesters.  For my third term I was able to take a couple of JE classes that were relevant to my major back at my home university.  It was a good opportunity to test my language abilities and get to know the regular Japanese students.

The other good thing about being a “regular” student was that there was no barrier between the foreign students and the Japanese students, and we were free to participate in any club or student activities we wanted to.  That was where I made most of my friends – friends who are still among my closest friends in Japan today.

Everyone has a different idea of what they want to get out of their time abroad.  Everyone goes into the experience with different levels of Japanese, and different academic interests, so different programs will appeal to people for different reasons.  But don’t overlook the importance of the social aspects and integration into the school and the country.  The most common complaint I heard from people in other programs was that they wished they had had more interaction with the regular students.

Whether you go to a school that makes it easier to integrate, or to a school that keeps you a little more removed, making an effort to get to know people in the country you are visiting is an integral part of the experience, and worth all the effort it takes!

The entryway to ICU with cherry trees... in February
The entryway to ICU with cherry trees… in February

**This was 13 years ago, so programs at all of the schools mentioned above may have changed.  If you are planning to study abroad, take sometime to really look into the kind of program it is, and get advice from people who have been there before if you can.