When I left the US in 2003 to join the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program in Tottori, Japan, I had very limited Japanese skills. Lucky for me, I was assigned to one of the most rural and least densely populated prefectures in the entire country. How rustic was it? Let’s just say I could not go to a McDonald’s and order a cheeseburger with a picture menu without having a basic grasp of the language. Within six months of living there, and studying daily between classes and after school, my comprehension gained traction and momentum. By the start of my fifth and final year of the JET Program, I decided I was finally prepared to sit for the exam which is almost a rite of passage for JETs and expats in Japan: the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
The Crow Castle of Okayama is not to be confused with Castle Black.
Time for me to level with my darling nerdlings. I do not test well. My SAT and ACT test scores were acceptable and I scraped by on the GRE. I only took two AP courses, and obtained passing scores for college credit. You give me an essay test and I will knock it out of the park. You ask me to pick between A, B, C, and D, and I shut down. The only multiple choice test I ever did well on was the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), and despite the recruiters encouraging me, I was too chicken to enter the military despite promises of officer rankings and potential secret clearance based on my awesome skill set. Yes, studying is essential for success, but how does one overcome the mental barriers and obstacles involved with test taking?
Attempt #1: Okayama University, Okayama Prefecture, Japan (2007)
I was told “that after five years on JET, taking any test less than Level 2 (Business Proficiency)” would be a waste of time. I would spend 2-3 hours after school studying on top of teaching my regular course load, and blocking off time on the weekends. I ran through the practice tests over and over, making thorough notes of each item I missed. The closest test was in the neighboring prefecture of Okayama (where several of my friends and colleagues went to school), so I made a little overnight getaway trip for the test. I explored the Crow Castle (not to be confused with Castle Black) and cleared my mind prior to the test.
When the test started, it felt like someone smashed the fast forward button. Time moved too fast. The recorded voices sounded like folks rattling off Spanish in South Florida in the heart of the 305. Every bad dream I had about test taking, aside from the showing up naked, felt like it was coming true at the same exact time. I had Jessie Spano from Saved by the Bell screeching in the back of the head “There’s never any TIME!!!” One of my mechanical pencils just fell apart when I tried to replace the lead. I dropped my eraser on the floor. I bubbled two answers on the same line and then couldn’t remember which one was the correct one. If I could have had vertigo and fallen out of my chair, I might as well have. When they called time at the end of each segment, I felt like someone sucker punched me.
Riding the train back to Tottori, I enjoyed my bento, iced tea, and a beer while chatting to a curious local elder. She gave me some sweets, and then offered to her grandson to me. I thanked her for the sweets, but politely declined the next-of-kin. I paced outside my small mailbox every day waiting for the results. One by one, my friends received their letters announcing their success on how they finally slayed Level Two (or the rare and highly coveted Level 1: Native Proficiency). I kept checking, but my results was late to arrive. Taking a deep breath, I opened the letter and held my breath.
I stared at my results in disbelief. The results glared back in cold, unfeeling writing.
If there was ever a word a hard working, Type A personality, overachiever loathes to hear let alone see in print “failure” would be most certainly one of them. How many hours had I spent laboring over stroke order, vocabulary, grammar, listening and reading comprehension? How many colleagues at work helped me study and praised all my hard work? How would I explain to them that I let them down? The following day felt like a walk of shame for me.
2% was all that stood between me and victory.
Attempt #2: Lehman College (CUNY), NYC, New York (2009)
When I prepared to take the test a second time, I was living in White Plains and working at a private Japanese boarding school. I lived on campus with the students in the dormitories as a Floor Supervisor (akin to a cross between a Resident Assistant and Floor Parent as these students were high school aged). The structure of the job allowed for me to continue using my skills on a daily basis with students and colleagues as the majority of the residents were Japanese nationals, students raised in a bilingual Japanese-English household, or professionals like myself who lived and worked in Japan. With working nights and weekends with daytime hours off, I managed studying here and there. It is worth noting that constantly trying to operate in two languages can be tiring.
I left really early the morning of the test and headed into Manhattan. I navigated the subway system and hiked all the way to Lehman College. I sat for the test, and felt better about it the second time around because I was more familiar with the timing and progression of the test. At the break times, I had to blast soothing music because other test takers were engaging in not-so-humble bragging and breaking down the difficult questions on the test. By the time I left the test site, I had my sunglasses on, so no one could see me cry all the way back to Metro North.
Strike 2 was less devastating, but hurt none the less.1
Sure enough, when the results came the second time, I improved, but not enough to obtain a passing score. I went to my apartment, had a good cry, and thankfully had the night off, so I could go off campus and clear my head.
1% was all I needed.
Attempt #3: Florida International University, Miami, Florida (2016)?
Since I previously took the JLPT, the Japan Foundation and Japanese Educational Exchanges and Services have revamped the test which leads me to my current conundrum. Should I attempt a third shot at the New Level 2, or build my confidence with the New Level 3. In the original design of the JLPT, there was a HUGE jump in testing requirements between levels two and three, but in the newer scheme there is a shift from four tests to five with N3 being potentially a more realistic goal.
Without utilizing my Japanese skills on a daily basis, my brain has started dumping content quickly. Hemorrhaging information is a terrible feeling, especially knowing how hard I had worked to achieve the level I previously held. Although I did work as a bilingual flight attendant, I only employed my language skill set for one exhausting year in Hawaii before I packed it in and moved back to the east coast. Lately, as I have been unpacking and organizing the Lil House of the Nerdy, I am coming across all my Japanese language study materials. It not only invokes a deep sense of nostalgia for the best half of my twenties, but the nudges at my pride as a lover of language.
The registration window opens August 29 and closes promptly on October 3. I was dreading planning a trip to Atlanta purely for taking this test, and then I saw that Florida International University had been FINALLY added a testing site. As I interviewed at the Japanese Consulate in Miami back in February 2003, and completely changed my destiny, I am surprised that it has taken this long to add it as a testing site. It would make a nice weekend trip as the test is usually held from noon to five on a Saturday, meaning I could easily drive back after. If it is anything like when I had my JET interview, then I’ll just cry from exhaustion the entire way back up the Turnpike.
I know that some may view my potentially opting to take the “easier” test as a cop out, but since I stopped working at the boarding school, my Japanese proficiency has been on a steep decline. Even if I were to start studying my brains out between now and December, I don’t think enough of it would realistically return to me in time. Is it strange that I am looking at the N3 test as a potential ego and confidence booster which could determine my future study plans? I miss working with the language, and if I am going to justify investing in more books and films in Japanese, I would like to get back to the casual reliance of subtitles and electronic dictionaries instead of my current state of dependency.
I have time to make up my mind, but I would love to take a weekend jaunt to south Florida. I still have dear friends who live down there, and I would love to make the rounds of my favorite Japanese fixes: the Morikami Museum and Gardens, Koume Japanese Restaurant, and the new-news-to-me Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ!
Answer Me, These Questions Three:
- How do you cope when something doesn’t go your way?
- Have you ever needed to re-evaluate how you go about attempting something you really want, but cannot seem to achieve?
- What test prep/study methods do you find most effective?
- At time of publication, I could not find my original test results report from the first attempt, but it looked pretty much the same. I’m currently in the process of decluttering my life, so as each box is emptied and critical items are archived, I am hoping that I can find the first one. Should I ever pass the higher levels, I am getting those letters framed!