We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging thanks to: The JLPT N1

I’ve got a reason for my daily blog lapse!
(don’t you always?)
But seriously! With the Japanese Language Placement Test N1 on my plate for Sunday, I couldn’t hardly focus on anything other than my own looming doom. I get some mercy for that, right?
(no!)

As Lauren drove me to ground zero, University of Washington’s Loew Hall, my hands already trembled uncontrollably. I knew when I signed up for the test in September that I wouldn’t be ready by December. This was a practice run, I reminded myself, it meant nothing. Still, as a person raised for test-taking perfection, the concept of deliberate overshooting and inevitable failure left a strange, coppery taste in my mouth. It’s just something that’s not done by normal people. Normal people only attempt tasks they’re confident of handling. And so, by the time I’d given my ID and test voucher to the proctor and sat in the ancient school desks, I already felt well and thoroughly nauseous.

As the test approached, I had ample time to crack jokes in Japanese, circle around the small room, and avoid thoughts of my last experience with Japanese at the University of Washington:

I was twenty, on academic probation due to a string of catastrophic failures in Physics and Computer Science, my chosen majors. On the basis of placement test scores, I entered second year Japanese. I should have entered first year instead. A quarter later, a 0.0 on my transcript. I spent the following community college years in denial of my Japanese failure. Only once I’d gotten to LSU, testing out of three semester of Japanese this time, did I face the language again. That teacher disliked me purely on the basis of my having tested out of 3 semesters of her class. I failed there too.

But no hack exile-to-Louisiana would turn me off of Japanese. That incident did the opposite of what she’d wished. It gave me a diamond spine.

I kept studying Japanese. I collected my Bachelor’s degree and studied Japanese. I returned to my parent’s farm in 2009, unemployed, and studied Japanese. I got a minimum-wage game testing job in 2010, and kept studying Japanese. I rose through the ranks and kept studying Japanese. I got laid off after that company lost its staffing contract, and kept studying Japanese. I got a job working at Wizards of the Coast, and kept studying Japanese. And this year, I sat in the JLPT N1 seat, ready for the test to do its worst.

It did its worst. By question 35 of 70 on the written portion, my eyes grew burn-y and bleary. I have this problem with English language tests; the demoniac combo of fluorescent light, crisp white paper and stark black print does this when I’m forced to focus for more than thirty minutes without eye-rest. In English, I could force on. In Japanese, I’d hear the phonetics of each kana and kanji drone in my head, but their meaning would escape me. Although I usually read and understand without translating back to English, now, desperate, I began brute-force translating each essay I read. My answer speed slowed. By the end of the test, I had to fill in questions 61-70 with guesses in an attempt to salvage points.

I’d overstudied for that part of the test. It was to be, for me, the easy part. During the twenty minute break, I chatted with my compatriots, almost all half a decade younger than me, and all unnervingly more confident. I couldn’t help being annoyed that all the conversations are in English. It takes thirty minutes for me to shift between languages fully, and they were interfering with it.

I returned to my seat, settled in, slouched. I sharpened the #2 pencils on my desk (mechanical pencils, for reasons inexplicable, are banned from the JLPT). And then I closed my eyes and tried to get them to stop aching before the audio onslaught (aunslaught?) began.

Let’s get a few things straight first. I watch my anime and read my manga largely in the raw. Once a week, I practice Japanese Conversation at the Seattle Japanese Language School. I’ve been exposed to a wide range of levels and variances, and I’ve never heard a person speak Japanese as quickly as on the tapes, barring legendary motor-mouth Kotono Mitsuishi‘s performance in Excel Saga. I kept up for the first five questions. Question 6,
(i wonder what i’ll have for dinner)
The errant thought overwrote a sentence pivotal to understanding the entire conversation. I kept control for questions 7-9. Question 10, zoned. Then it grew more frequent. The constant barrage of high-speed Japanese became nearly impossible to handle. I ended up guessing as often as not. The sectional pass-rate is 40%. I’d consider myself lucky to have gotten a 20% on Listening Comprehension.

I stumbled out at the end, turned my cell back on, texted Lauren to get me. My skull nursed headache-seeds that threatened to blossom if I didn’t immediately drown them in water. A water fountain’s deluge slew them. And then, as I thought about the N1 and its relation to me, a post-graduate from Tokyo struck up a conversation with me. After the N1 tapes, her fast-paced Tokyo-ben didn’t seem tough at all.

“What’s your major?” she asked in Japanese.

“It was Economics,” I replied in the same.

“Was? You graduated? Are you a company employee?”

“I contract at Microsoft.”

“Oh, that’s amazing.”

I think about my day job, smile briefly and say, “No, not really.” Not willing to let polite Japanese dictate that she insist that it was impressive, I continued with: “Right now, what are you studying?”

“Wine, out in Eastern Washington.”

“It’s very pretty there, but also dry. My father goes there on business trips sometimes…”

And so on. We swapped childhood stories, commiserated on the difficulties of foreign language acquisition, discussed wine, technology, and company life, and never once did I have to say “Yukkuri itte kudasai” or “Mou ichido onegai”. No, I had total control of the subjects we discussed.

After about a half hour, the conversation tapered off, and I politely excused myself.
(i forgot to ask her name)
I hate forgetting to properly introduce, in any language. Strange then, why it’s always such a problem for me.

Lauren greeted me as I got in the car. Through some complex alchemy, my mind had already transmuted my N1 failure into success:

I’d just spoken for a half-hour in Japanese on a wide range of topics, and listened just as effectively. I can read and write in the language never reaching for a kanji dictionary.

So what if I can’t pass the JLPT N!? Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dared set foot in Loew Hall for a Japanese exam at all. Today, I’d sat, and finished, the most grueling Japanese fluency test available. Next year, I could pass.

And passing’s not the point for me. I’m no JLPT N-Wannabe. I’d begun studying Japanese not with certification in mind, but with effective communication in mind.

I thought back to my performance in Japanese last year at this time, cringed, and then smiled. I’m still improving. And I’m not done yet.

————————————————————————————————

Gregory Blake is a freelance fiction, comedy, and opinion writer. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and of course, on the blog you’re reading right now.

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