A question I often hear from my clients. Considering that most of my clients are German and the Germans love having certificates, not a big surprise. But also, not an easy question to answer.
Of course, sometimes there is a necessity for a certificate. Universities often require a TOEFL certificate from foreign students. But for the average language learner like me who doesn’t need a certificate for higher education, is it worth the time and effort?
On a cold, rainy Sunday back in December I got up early to take a train to Stuttgart to spend my day taking the Japanese JLPT N5 exam. JLPT certificates are the gold standard when it comes to learning Japanese. They test vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening skills and can be taken on just two specific dates (in July and December) every year. Unfortunately for me, they didn’t test my sushi-eating or karaoke-singing skills but despite that, I still managed to pass and am now the proud owner of an N5 certificate. The question here is, was it worth it? The travel costs, exam costs, stress, the sleepless nights (the night before the exam I dreamt that once I arrived in Stuttgart, I was actually a contestant on Takeshi’s Castle, wearing a strange outfit, a pink helmet and being introduced to General Lee. Ganbarimasu!!) However, I can honestly say, for me personally (Takeshi’s Castle nightmares aside) it was definitely worth it. And here’s why:
- Let’s face it, when it comes to reaching tough targets, we all need a bit of a push. A fixed deadline and a clear objective combined with a dose of personal pride (nobody wants to fail) can be very motivating.
- Exams often force you out of your comfort zone to tackle tricky material and skills that you might normally avoid, which in my case are my Japanese listening skills. However, listening comprehension was 30% of this exam so I was forced to practice it and stop avoiding it.
- Revising for exams can help you reassess your learning methods in general and may open up new methods or bring you back to ones you had forgotten about. When I first started Japanese, I often used Quizlet to learn my vocabulary and phrases. After a while, I got bored of it but then rediscovered it during my exam preparation. Revising also helps you see how much you have actually learnt so far. Learning a language often feels like a huge, unmanageable, never-ending task but looking back over what you have done and focussing on what you already know rather than what you don’t yet know, is a nice feeling.
- Everybody loves a benchmark. When it comes to any kind of skill, we all like to know where we are in the big picture. Although most people have no idea what JLPT N5 means, I can see where I am and where my next target should be.
- Finally, I have to say I was AMAZED at the number of fellow Japanese learners (strugglers) willing to sacrifice their Sunday and battle their way (without outfits or helmets or General Lee) through this exam. I was expecting to be in a dingy room with a handful of other language nerds like me, plus the usual gamers and cosplay girls. Not so! There were literally hundreds of people there. It’s nice to know, I am not alone.
Of course, there can be a downside. So, before you rush out and register for that exam, consider the following points:
- Cost. The costs can soon add up: registration, travel costs, materials, extra lessons etc.
- How’s your exam attitude? Bit nervous about such things? Totally normal, most people are. So nervous you want to vomit and run out of the exam room faster than your Takeshi’s Castle contestant legs can carry you? Give it a miss. There’s no point putting yourself through that much stress.
- Are there plenty of preparation materials? Mock papers and workbooks help you prepare not just for the content, but also the layout and structure of the exam. People often fail exams simply because the paper didn’t look the way they expected it would or the question format was unclear. Make sure you know exactly what a typical paper looks like, what you will have to do and how much time you will have to do it.
- But most importantly, the main question should always be, is the exam relevant? Will you be learning things you really need? Of course, there is always some random vocabulary on the essential learning list. For example, I had to learn the the verb sasu, which translates as to put up one’s umbrella or to wear a sword in one’s belt. What??? Look carefully at the vocabulary you will be required to learn. TOEFL is often the first English certificate people think of but there might be a more useful exam for you e.g. something with more of a business focus like TOEIC or BEC. Ask your teachers, do your research and think carefully before you commit.
Personally, having a clear target, a bit of pressure and now feeling proud to have passed my exam, I am glad I did N5 and I’m planning to take N4 in December. Ganbarimasu!
Have you ever taken a language exam or are you planning to do so in the near future? As always, feel free to add your comments below.