Is a Language Proficiency Test What You Need?

Here’s what I learned after taking 6 language exams

Mathias Barra
Jun 11, 2020 · 6 min read

If you’re serious about learning a language, then you’ve certainly thought of taking a language proficiency test. These exams test your ability to handle the language and evaluate how well you “know” the language.

They exist in every language and often have different levels. For example, the DEFL, or “Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française”, is the test for French and has a text for each level from A1 to C2 (levels set by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). The JLPT, or “Japanese Language Proficiency Test” has 5 levels (N5 to N1, N1 being the highest).

Such tests allow you to increase your skills by working through them one by one. There are many preparation books that exist for that exact purpose.

But do they really prove your level? Not always.

Results Aren’t Always Accurate

I took the JLPT N1 in December 2016 with one of my friends. The path that brought us to this level was extremely different.

He holds a Master’s Degree in the Japanese Language from a Belgian University. He also did a 1-year exchange program in Japan and, at the time, had been working in a completely Japanese company for close to two years. To give you an idea of how Japanese his company was, he was the only foreigner among the 3,000 employees. He had also gone out with a Japanese girl for a few years.

His Japanese was one of the most exquisite I heard around. Clean, precise, and flowing.

I took a different path. After 2 years studying in evening classes, I took one University semester of Japanese and had to stop to move to a new city. I was lucky enough to spend 4 months in an exchange program in Japan but most of my classes were in English. By the time we took the exam, I had been working at the French Embassy in Japan for 1.5 years. I used French for the majority of my daily life. Of course, I had kept on studying on my own throughout the years.

My Japanese was, and still is, easily understandable but full of small mistakes and often quite approximate.

On paper, the test’s results to expect were quite straight-forward. He’d pass and I’d fail. There was no denying it and I was well-aware I was in over my head. I wanted to take the exam as a preparation for the next summer’s edition. This was to be a paid mock test.

Yet, you guessed it, I passed and he failed. Everybody was shocked to hear the news but when looking back, it made sense: He was proficient in Japanese. I was proficient in tests.

By that time, I had taken the JLPT4 (the equivalent of the N5 back in 2009), the JLPT N2 twice, as well as the TOEIC, IELTS, and BEC Vantage (three tests for English). He had only taken the JLPT N2 once (and passed).

Back then, we were living in the same flat and often studying at the same time, sharing books and tips with each other. But what made the difference was our approach as the test got closer. He kept studying vocabulary and grammar. I dropped all study materials. I spent weeks practicing the test, looking for regular terms, formulations, and answers. I was getting my eyes and ears ready to pick up the most important information during the test.

Sure, his Japanese skills became even more impressive. But on paper, I was officially “better” than him. Not that it mattered since we already had jobs but this would have made a big difference if we had been looking for one.

Taking a test and being proficient in a language can be very different. Doing well or poorly doesn’t always hold as much meaning as we think. Passing a test only means we have the skills to pass it, nothing more.

Not All Tests are Equal

Each language will have its own proficiency test. Some languages even have many tests. For English, you could take the TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, BEC, CPE, or one of many others! Each has its own special twist. The IELTS has a speaking test. The TOEIC is more business-oriented. The BEC is for British English.

The JLPT only tests passive skills (it has three parts: reading, listening, and vocabulary/grammar). Yet, the TOPIK (for Korean) and HSK (for Chinese) both have a writing section after reaching a certain level. The DELF has 4 categories, one for each skill (reading, listening, speaking, and writing). Such tests are harder to pass but provide a better idea of our “real” level.

Should You Take a Proficiency Test?

Depending on your language goal, taking a proficiency test might not be in your best interest.

Are you learning a language and plan on using it for a job or moving to a different country? Then it will, without a doubt, be an asset never to be overlooked. Many jobs abroad ask for a certificate to prove your level.

In Japan, in most sectors, finding a job without passing the JLPT is impossible. Having the JLPT N2 helps a lot. Having passed the JLPT N1 opens even more doors. I have seen many people come and go because most jobs wouldn’t take them without a higher level in Japanese.

But if you are learning a language out of interest, for your personal pleasure and curiosity, taking a test could be a waste of your time. The higher level you study for, the more you’ll have to study words and grammar patterns you’d never use in “real life”. That’s time you could be spending exchanging with natives. That’s time you could spend becoming more at ease in topics you’ll actually use.

That being said, I believe there are three exceptions for taking an exam even if you’re not looking for a job:

  1. You’re a polyglot and like to have your languages ordered by “skill level”. Taking an exam makes explaining your level to other people much easier. It can also do wonders to keep yourself motivated with a clear study plan.
  2. You’re a beginner and want to push yourself. Proficiency tests become complicated at higher levels but the easier ones are similar. The two first levels in any language will force you to learn and master the terms and patterns you will need. You can study those without a test but it can help to get a solid base in the language.
  3. You’ve hit a plateau and can’t seem to get out of it. Maybe you’ve been studying for a few years and can’t seem to find your way out of the plateau. In such cases, studying for an exam will give you a new purpose and force some structure into your study. Exams testing your active skills will be the best because they’ll help you become an overall better language learner.

After years of struggle with my Korean, stagnating despite many efforts, I’ve recently decided to take on the TOPIK. Studying it has given more meaning to my daily learning routine. It has helped me encounter words I didn’t even know I wanted to learn, like 혜택 (“Benefit”), 황금 연유 (“Golden Week”) or 합리적 (“Logical”).

If you’re still wondering whether you should take an exam, the answer is easy: do what feels right.

Remember why you started in the first place. Compare your journey with the test. Do you want to take the test? Do you need to take it? Is there one that fits more your goals? Is working towards a certain level good enough? Too high? Ponder everything and make a decision.

And of course, keep it fun because if you don’t, then you definitely shouldn’t study for a proficiency test.

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Mathias Barra is a French polyglot, living in Japan, who speaks 6 languages and dabbled in numerous others.

The Language Learning Hub

A place to find better ways to learn languages

Mathias Barra

Written by

Polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping the world to learn languages and become more understanding of others. Say hi →

The Language Learning Hub

A place to find better ways to learn languages

Mathias Barra

Written by

Polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping the world to learn languages and become more understanding of others. Say hi →

The Language Learning Hub

A place to find better ways to learn languages

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