Sunday, December 12, 2010

Make way for the S-O-V

You know, because Japanese is a subject-object-verb language?

I'm not quite out of the woods of my hectic December yet, but the worst of it is over so I have time for a quick post.

Sunday was the day of my Japanese exam (JLPT level N4, detail fans), taking place on a university campus in Sendai. Having paid 6 kiloyen for the privilege of taking the test, I was anxious not to be late. I set off bright and early, and paid a further 700 small ones to drive through rather than over Tohoku's mountainous spine. Consequently, I arrived with over an hour to spare, which I spent shooting the breeze with other Yamagata ALTs who were waiting in the winter sunshine.

When the time came we shuffled into the exam hall and took our assigned seats. Intimidating formality is something the Japanese have a real flair for; prior to the test starting we had to sit in tense silence broken only by the invigilator (who had a somewhat Gestapo-esque armband identifying him as such) repeatedly reminded us (in Japanese, naturally) to turn off our phones and have nothing on our desks other than pencils, erasers, and our ID voucher. There was a yellow / red card system to deal with breaches of this protocol - some poor chump got booked for prematurely opening his question paper. Needless to say, this oppressive atmosphere was doing nothing to help my focus.

First up was the vocab paper, a rapid-fire barrage of 35 multiple choice questions in 30 minutes. The first couple of sections were concerned with kanji (i.e. the hard writing system, with the semantic as opposed to phonetic characters). My kanji is pretty strong if I say so myself, so I breezed through them with minimal problems.

The latter half of the paper hit me like a breeze-block on the shinkansen line. It was testing recognition of words written phonetically, as they are in books aimed at young children (and, of course, in the entire English language). Japanese is a language with a very high degree of homophony - searching for the phonetic word kou yields 42 exact matches in my dictionary, ranging from the obvious 'high', to the moderate 'to love romantically', to the challenging 'stork' and the Call My Bluff-level obscure 'hundred nonillion (10^32)'. Searching my mental lexicon's many-to-many mapping between phonetics and meaning was something that I found very difficult to do quickly, which is why I still struggle with conversations. Also, since I was in the unusual situation of taking an exam for no reason other than my own satisfaction, I decided that there was no point in tactically studying specifically to pass the test. I think vocab is the place where this policy caused me most problems. I ended up making a lot of educated guesses, and quite a few uneducated ones.

Everyone else seemed to be surprised at the difficulty of the first paper, which made me feel a bit better. Thanks to my kanji performance I reckoned all was still to play for. Next up was grammar and reading, for which we had a more generous 60 minutes. Grammar went reasonably well; I was confident about most questions and on the rest I could typically at least narrow it down to a 50/50 shot. The reading went swimmingly. You know when you're playing Rock Band and you get into that almost mystical state when you're hitting all the notes but you don't quite understand how? It was like that. I found myself actually skimming through the passages, rather than having to laboriously decrypt every word.

The third and last part was listening. This is the one I was most worried about; you only get to hear each clip once, so mental focus is key. I downed a bottle of the slightly dangerous looking stimulant tincture you can buy in convenience stores, and headed in for the final round.

The first couple of sections were a lot easier than I expected, with only a couple of questions causing me any trouble at all. In those cases, I found it was best to just whack down a guess and forget about it, in order to devote one's full attention to the next question. For the last section, the question book was blank, as both the questions and potential answers were in the spoken medium. This was tough, and the wheels started to fall off my bid a little at this stage, but I figured I'd racked up enough marks by that point to pass anyway.

So, on the whole, I reckon it's in the bag. I'll find out in February.


  1. Refreshingly honest assessment, saying you think you passed.

    What does your title pun mean?

  2. It's what Lady Sovereign (my second-favourite 'Lady ~' pop act) says in the intro to most of her songs.

  3. Unlike Lohan, not a fan of ~ Blacksmith Mambazo then.

  4. Surely you mean ~smith Black Mambazo. They're alright, no Lady Sovereign though. I'm not big on Ladyhawke either, but I do quite like that "They only want you when you're seventeen" song by Ladytron.