I’ve talked previously about taking the JLPT but I felt like I was a bit vague when it came to beginners as there aren’t actually that many specific text books for the lower levels because there are plenty of others that cover the basics of Japanese.
So this guide is made using those and other online advice for complete beginners wanting to take the JLPT exams whether it be for masochistic fun, to push your language ability, or for school.
First of all it’s good to know what exactly you need to know to get you prepared for the test. The official JLPT official website describes N5 as:
- ・One is able to read and understand typical expressions and sentences written in hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji.
- ・One is able to listen and comprehend conversations about topics regularly encountered in daily life and classroom situations, and is able to pick up necessary information from short conversations spoken slowly.
Which to be honest is NOT very helpful if you want to know what you actually need to know. So first of all I’m going to explain, for those who don’t know, how the test is broken down and how it’s graded at the end. In the exam the questions are ALL multiple choice. There are NO speaking or writing sections. There are 3 papers, one that covers your knowledge of vocabulary (25mins), one that covers grammar and reading (50mins) and a listening exam (30mins). This is from the JLPT website again:
|Language Knowledge(Vocabulary) 〈25min〉
|Language Knowledge(Grammar)・Reading 〈50min〉
Vocabulary knowledge covers: kanji reading, vocabulary spelling, using the correct word in context, and paraphrases (they give you an example word and you select the word that means the same thing).
Grammar knowledge covers: grammar forms, sentence composition, text grammar.
Reading knowledge covers: comprehension/understanding of short and mid-length paragraphs, and retrieving information.
Listening covers: task based understanding, key point understanding, verbal expressions and quick responses.
You can see a full list of the breakdown in more detail here.
The Language Knowledge sections are marked between 0~120 points (for vocabulary, grammar and reading), of which you need a score of at least 38 to pass (so only 31%). And the Listening section is 0~60 with a pass mark of 19 (31%). You also need at least a total of 90 out of 180 (50%) to pass the entire exam. So even if you don’t feel confident about absolutely everything, it’s worth giving it a go as you might surprise yourself.
What you actually need to know
– Katakana and Hiragana – These are the basics of studying Japanese and the sooner you can get them under your belt the better. I have constructed 2 Memrise courses to help with these where instead of just drilling the symbols you actually use them by practicing them with vocabulary. So if you’re rusty on your kanas or a complete beginner I recommend giving them a go. Memrise Hiragana / Memrise Katakana
– 800 Vocabulary – This might seem like a lot, but as you work through them you find it’s not that bad as they break down into nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Nihongo Ichiban has a good list of what you need to know, and if you’re into Memrise J-Talk Online does have a Memrise course for JLPT N5 vocabulary and kanji which is divided into daily lessons for about 8 weeks and is designed for complete beginners.
If you would like a bit more of a challenge and learn more than what’s needed for the exam you can use JLPT Bootcamp’s vocab/kanji guide, or ngupatricklam. They’re each slightly different but both cover a lot more vocabulary and kanji, but this also means they’re harder to study for because of the complex kanji. So you need to find one what works best for you.
– 103 Kanji – You need to be able to understand the readings for kanji based words, they don’t test on the individual readings for a single kanji (although you can see a list of them here), so getting a list of the kanji and learning all the readings won’t help much (unless that’s how you enjoy studying).
I recommend learning the vocabulary so you know the meanings for words, and then learning the kanji that go with the necessary vocabulary. If you need a text book I recommend the Basic Kanji Book volume 1 which covers 250 kanji, vocabulary, readings and writing (which helps you memorise how to recognise them)
I have a post on methods for Learning Kanji from Beginner to Advance.
– Grammar – You need to know grammar forms for verbs, adjectives and particles. You can see a list/guide to the grammar on the wikipedia page for JLPT but I strongly recommend Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide where he doesn’t teach grammar by JLPT level, but in a logical way mixing verbs, adjectives and particles together so you’re not cramming the same kind of grammar into your brain. This helps as it also allows you to learn what you previously learnt when you learn something new.
Again, if you’re a Memrise fan someone’s putting together his guide on Memrise for people to practice: Japanese Grammar Guide – Memrise.
UPDATE: If you would like to get a book to study from for grammar I suggest the Try! Bunpou kara nobasu! series.
UPDATE: J-Talk Online now has a Beginners Japanese Grammar Memrise course which covers all the grammar needed for N5. I’ve made it so that you learn grammar the same way I learnt it at school, by drilling the same grammar points over and over using different verbs, rather than the grammar on it’s own and out of context.
– Reading – Reading will come last and be a good way to practice everything you’ve learnt. The best way to practice this is actually through past papers, which I’ve put some links to below. If you’re worried about this JLPT Bootcamp has a good walk through of the layout of this part of the test. And I wrote a post on Reading Practice for Beginners.
– Listening – Listening can be tough if you don’t expose yourself to Japanese audio or speaking. I suggest working with a teacher on Japanese, as well as find online resources for listening. I have more suggestions on Passing JLPT N5 N4 Listening.
How long will it take me to learn everything?
This really does depend on you. It apparently takes about 140 hours to learn all the materials for N5 but this can vary. If you only study Japanese 1 hour a week it will take you 140 weeks (which is 32 months aka 2.5 years). If you do 1 a day that’s only 140 days or about 5 months.
How do I study for the exam?
There are many different methods that vary depending on how you enjoy learning.
If you are not a highly motivated person who aims to study an hour a day but finds themselves not doing anything for several weeks I strongly recommend investing your money into at least 1 hour a week lessons with a private teacher. This will keep you working on your Japanese, and have a native person who can correct basic mistakes. Even if you aren’t a person who get’s distracted easily having someone once a week can really help in the long run.
When you’re studying at home on your own I recommend working through the vocabulary first along side the kanji. Alternating study helps to not bore your brain.
As I mentioned, the more you practice the faster you’ll learn and the more you will remember through regular use. Even if it’s just 20mins a day and then a few hours at the weekend, every little helps!
I find it helps to build your own schedule and goals. These might not always go to plan, but it’s not the end of the world and it’s worth trying the test even if you don’t feel very confident. Base the plan on how much time you have before the exam, break it down by what you need to study (giving yourself time to review), how you’re going to study them, and have realistic daily/weekly/monthly goals.
This article might be useful? Finding Your Daily Japanese Study Routine
Here’s an example 6 month schedule for a complete beginner:
Month 1: Learn hiragana and katakana – practice with some basic vocabulary (about 100)
Month 2: Learn 350 vocabulary; begin to study kanji (aim for 100 vocabulary a week, or 15 a day)
Month 3: Learn 350 vocabulary; learn kanji using previously covered vocabulary (aim for 100 vocabulary a week plus 10 kanji a week with their vocabulary); begin going through grammar
Month 4: Learn kanji using vocabulary (10 kanji a week with their vocabulary); learn one new grammar a day
Month 5: Review vocabulary and kanji from scratch (focus on ones you don’t know well); Practice reading
Month 6: Practice reading; review vocabulary/kanji/grammar; do one practice exam a week
About a month before you take the test try doing some practice exams! Even if you haven’t covered everything. JLPT Bootcamp has links to practice exams and JLPT website has some example questions (although they’re not as hard as the real exam).
That might seem daunting and intense, but when you break it down it could just be 20mins -1 hour a day which can really build up.
If you want a clearer guide on methods of studying I will always point people towards Master Japanese which is a great site that discusses different study methods, their pros and cons, motivating yourself etc.UPDATE: Master Japanese is not longer online.
GOOD LUCK GUYS!