accountability

Should I Do a Language Certificate Exam?

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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?

person holding brush drawing kanji script
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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.
japanese lucky coin cat
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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.

Homework: Friend or Foe?

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Say the word homework to most people and they normally screw up their face into the same kind of expression. The same expression they have if you say “tax return” or “train strike” or in my case, “sugar-free”. Yuck! It’s the same when you type the word into Google and click on images. Up come a range of pictures, mostly of kids, with mountains of books and their little heads in their hands in utter despair. The only person looking happy is an owl with a hat on. And while I love Hedwig, we all know that owls are the ultimate nerds of the forest.

design desk display eyewear
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So, the question is, when it comes to learning a language, or anything else for that matter, is homework useful? Can anything that makes me feel so “oh go away” really be good for me? Well anyone involved in education or who has kids in school will know the debate on this is huge. A lot of research has been done into homework and the negative effect it can have. A lot of children are overloaded with work leading to anxiety and to them getting less involved in extra-curricular activities. Not good at all.

However, I’m not being graded and I’m not trying to get into university.  I don’t have parents breathing down my neck. I’m not learning multiple subjects. So, this post is more aimed at the adult learner like me. Someone who takes a regular language class and would like to see progress. As a teacher and a learner, I honestly think homework can be a good thing, and this is why:

Most of us need a push

Let’s be honest, very few of us have endless amounts of motivation. Whether it’s the gym or work or learning Japanese, motivation fluctuates. Over the years I have found that most of my clients respond well to being given homework. They often admit that given the choice of self-determined homework (choosing an activity to do themselves) and being given something specific by me, they are much more likely to complete it if it is “prescribed”. I know that feeling too. The slight shame when you have to tell your teacher that you haven’t done it. That can sometimes be enough to push people. It’s like having a buddy who you go to the gym with. You don’t want to let them down.

Environments

learning outside

Research into the way we learn has shown that learning information in different environments helps us retain information. We often associate information with a situation or place. For example, maybe you run into someone from work in the supermarket. You don’t know them that well but you know their name. But now you’re in a totally different environment and that person is out of context and you forget their name or maybe even where you know them from. According to Benedict Carey, author of “How we Learn”, research shows that “the more environments in which we rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes.” Doing homework takes you away from your language class situation. You could be at home, on the bus or sitting in a cafe. Every time you are being exposed to different outside influences and as a result your memory of that material becomes strengthened.

It needs to be relevant and manageable

Of course, not all homework is made the same. As a teacher it is important to set homework that is relevant and that the learner will be able to complete. There’s nothing worse than being given homework you simply don’t understand. Or even more frustrating, spending your precious time learning random vocabulary you will NEVER need. Following coursebooks can often cause this problem. You might think that in the early chapters of a beginners Japanese textbook we would be learning basic skills such as buying things or ordering food. I, on the other hand, found myself learning the special word for the little office at the train station in Japan that deals with lost and found items on the shinkansen (yes only the bullet trains, not the regional trains) so I could call and tell them I had lost my sweater on the train and that sweater had a picture of a horse on it! Because these things happen on a daily basis and my wardrobe is full of equestrian prints. I’ll say it again. Make. It. Relevant.

Accountability

To me, this is the most important factor. When it comes to learning, accountability is essential. Any serious (rather than, I can make you fluent through hypnosis in 24 hours) kind of teacher will tell you, the moment you take responsibility for your learning is the moment you really start to see improvement. A teacher is there to inform, guide and coach but they can’t do the work for you. Nobody can give you a language, you have to take it.

beach ocean sand sea
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Some of the most effective homework I have done for my Japanese learning was creating my own sentences. Looking at vocabulary and grammar structures we had covered and then making up my own sentences. Thinking of scenarios I might find myself in when in Tokyo and writing out dialogues. More white wine and karaoke, less horse sweaters! Of course, this takes real motivation and it won’t happen every week but combined with exercises given by your teacher or from a textbook, it can massively improve your skills.

So, what are your thoughts? Homework good, yes or no?

Feel free to add any comments below. And as always you can sign up to receive my posts straight to your email in the box on the right.