Journey to JLPT N1 : An interview with Caitlyn
Q: Why did you decide to start learning the Japanese language?
A: This is pretty embarrassing, but probably true for many who started off in secondary school like I did. In primary school, my classmates introduced me to anime, and I was hooked. (Any One Piece fans out there? :b) This sparked my interest in the language, and when I received the opportunity to pick up a Third Language in secondary school, I was thrilled. I envisioned being able to understand my favourite shows without subtitles, and was really excited to expand my vocabulary beyond the typical “arigato”, “kawaii” or “baka”. I took up the language in Secondary 1, and studied for 6 years up till the A levels. It started off with just wanting to understand Japanese shows, but it’s more of a hobby that I enjoy now! It’s so much fun to study Japanese with like-minded people, and there’s always something new to learn!
Q: What are some of the challenges you faced?
A: I think the first and biggest hurdle was learning Hiragana. I remember struggling with reading in the first few months when Hiragana was new and foreign – they just looked like random squiggles to me! I had to refer to the Hiragana chart for every single character just to be able to read it, before trying to figure out what it meant. (Let’s not even talk about the nightmare of memorising Katakana..) But don’t worry! It gets easier once you’ve familiarised yourself with the Japanese alphabets.
There are other things I had difficulty with – remembering Kanji, counters, and the list goes on. Even now, I still don’t remember the dates of the month well! (Don’t be like me haha.) But I guess one thing that still boggles my mind is how formal or informal to be under different circumstances. It’s important to use Keigo, the honorific form, when it comes to speaking with people of authority (your bosses, teachers etc) and in the business setting. But when it comes to grey areas, I find it difficult to know how polite or casual to be.
For instance, with friends, the casual form is usually used. But when you first meet, it seems a little too presumptuous or rude to start using that form immediately. At the same time, it doesn’t leave a good impression and you may come off as snobbish or distant if you keep using the polite form! And when is it socially acceptable to start addressing someone by their first name instead of their last? This is my struggle when I speak to the Japanese. But I’m still learning, figuring it out along the way! Share some tips if you know of any! 🙂
Q: In spite of all these difficulties, what is it that keeps you going?
A: There were times when I thought of quitting because of all the extra work involved – in Junior College, I had to go for Japanese class twice a week, in the evening, while everyone else would be comfortably home by the early afternoon. Japanese was an extra commitment and to be honest, it did get really tiring sometimes. But since I’ve already started learning the language, I wanted to at least complete my O levels and later on, A levels as well. I guess it was a good thing that I studied Japanese in school – with my grades on the line, I had to press on even when I got tired or busy! I don’t know how you guys do it – coming down to Bunka even after work for night classes!
Other than that, what kept me going and sustained me through the 6 years was really my passion and interest for Japan’s vibrant and unique culture. It never felt like just another subject I had to study for, and revision didn’t feel as dull when I’m learning what I want to, instead of what I have to. Every lesson was an adventure and a challenge to learn the language proper, instead of just picking up random words commonly used in the shows I watched.
There’s also that great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I found myself able to express myself and converse in a whole new language! I could recognise words and read Japanese signboards, or even the small print on Japanese products! It’s a really great feeling, and never fails to motivate me to study harder! I’m also thankful for all the friends I’ve met along the way, who share the same passion as I do. We went for exchanges and cultural events together, and even studying can be fun when you have someone going through it with you!
Q: What is your greatest takeaway?
A: My greatest takeaway was learning about a whole new country – not just their language, but Japan as a whole – its history, traditions, pop culture, social problems and so on. In JC, the syllabus focused more on Japan’s current issues, rather than the language itself. In class, we read articles, had group discussions and prepared presentations on various topics like gender equality, aging population, unemployment, nuclear energy and so on. It was kind of like GP (General Paper), except in the Japanese language, and from a Japanese perspective. It’s interesting that I started off learning Japanese just as a language, but later it seemed more like a Humanities subject!
But more than just gaining knowledge about the country, it is the connection with Japan that I developed over the years that means the most to me. I’m not sure how to explain this, but you may have experienced it before – getting really excited when you pass by Japanese tourists on the streets and realising you can understand them (and maybe you start to eavesdrop as well), anything on the news, magazines, Facebook, or even ads that mentions Japan just catches your attention immediately, and you have the most interesting conversations when you realise that the other person likes Japan as well. And when you finally get to visit the country, there’s this great sense of belonging (even though you don’t live there) and you feel like you have to start planning your next trip there already! Anyone feels the same way? :b
Q: What is one memorable incident in your journey of learning the language?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is really silly – it still makes me laugh when I think about it! In Secondary 2, my friend (she speaks Japanese too) and I were at Orchard Road and we were really bored, so we decided to do this: we stood in front of a huge Christmas tree and pretended to be Japanese tourists. We asked random people on the street to help take a photo of us in Japanese and broken English, and it was really amusing to see their reactions! (I’m sorry, I really have no idea why we did that.)
Q: How long did it take for you to achieve JLPT N1?
A: I started studying Japanese in Secondary 1 and took the JLPT N1 exam when I graduated from JC. So that’s 6 years in total! But it really differs from person to person. I have a friend who took the exam after 4 years, but she does a lot of self-studying and is really into Japanese music. She is also the top student of my cohort, so she may not be a good reference point for everyone. :b I took the exam after 6 years of studying – and even then, the N1 exam was really tough. Most of the words tested in the vocabulary were completely foreign to me; I probably got by because of the additional advantage of knowing Chinese and being able to recognise the Kanji. It also depends on the lessons you are taking – how intensive they are, and whether they are specifically for students to prepare for the JLPT exam.
Q: How was your experience taking the JLPT exam?
A: The JLPT exam is pretty important, especially if you are looking to study in Japan or work in a Japanese company. This certification is recognised internationally, and most companies would require at least JLPT N2 if they are looking for an employee who is proficient in the language. The exam is held every year in July and December and you can register for the exam with JCS. (I always did the registration with my friends so that we could sit together during the exam. :b)
I took the N4 exam at the end of Secondary 2, N3 in Secondary 3, N2 in Secondary 4 (bad idea – I barely passed, haha) and finally N1 at the end of JC. Most schools don’t follow the JLPT syllabus, but as you learn more of the language, there should be no problem taking the exam as most of the syllabus will overlap. Nevertheless, it’s important to try out the trial questions on the JLPT website to check if the level is suitable for you. There are also websites you can visit (I used this one: http://www.tanos.co.uk/jlpt/) to get a list of vocabulary and grammar that will be covered in for each level. It’s really useful – I had the list on my phone so I could study on the go. For the higher levels, it would be good to get some practice by buying or borrowing JLPT assessment books. Some libraries should have them; otherwise, I bought mine from Kinokuniya.
Q: Do you have some tips for studying Japanese?
A: Even though I’m really not a model student in anyway (my teachers probably hated me haha), I think being consistent in class is really important. This would definitely build up your foundation in the language and ensure that you remember what was taught. I never imagined in Sec 1 that I would continue studying Japanese all the way for 6 years, or even take the A levels and N1 exam. But it’s the consistent work you put in each time, bit by bit, that adds up to a whole lot of progress – sooner or later, as you look back, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come!
Other than that, I think the best way to improve in the language is to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture. (#wherelanguagemeetsculture hahaha) Whether it is looking up the lyrics of your favourite Japanese song, watching dramas or speaking Japanese with your friends, grab every opportunity to apply and practise what you have learnt! If possible, go for things like cultural events, immersion programmes, matsuris and so on. There are also volunteer programmes (you even get paid for some of them!) for you to act as tour guides for Japanese high school students who visit Singapore. Otherwise, you can make Japanese friends through social media too.
By the way, Bunka holds cultural events every 7 weeks, so do look out for them and go together with your classmates! It’s a really fun and affordable way to experience the Japanese culture, and get to know your classmates better too! The tickets run out really quickly because there are limited slots, so make sure to get your tickets early!
Also, I find this website (http://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/easy/) really useful! You can read news articles in simple Japanese here, with furigana too! For words that are more difficult, little textbooks explaining them appear when you mouse over them. It’s a good way to practise reading in Japanese, as well as pick up commonly used words, all while catching up on the news. If there are words you don’t understand, you can also look them up on online dictionaries like weblio (http://ejje.weblio.jp/), or even apps like imiwa (http://www.imiwaapp.com/) for iPhone users.
All in all, I think it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. It could be to understand your favourite shows, communicate with the locals while you’re in Japan, or have an edge in a Japanese company – whichever it is, find something that keeps you going! I like this quote from Stefan Michalak – “Your why is far more than just your core reason that drives you, it’s the foundation you need to build upon, the thing you’ll need to reflect on when things get hard and you feel like giving up.”