How good is your Japanese? Japan to Set Up New Standardized Index to Measure Foreigners’ Japanese Language Proficiency

The Cultural Affairs Agency, a special body of Japan’s Ministry of Education, has announced that it plans to establish a new standardized index to evaluate non-native speakers’ level of Japanese language proficiency. This is in line with the recent revision to the immigration law that will significantly increase the number of foreign workers who will be accepted into Japan starting this month.

Currently, no single standard to measure Japanese proficiency

Currently, there are a number of exams, including the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) and the Business Japanese Proficiency Test, which non-native speakers can take to certify their Japanese language level. However, there isn’t a single standard index to compare results from different tests, which is seen as a hindrance for companies and universities when they are evaluating applicants’ language level. At a recent meeting of government’s Cultural Council, the council made the decision to establish a common index to compare results from different exams.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

The government has decided to use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as the basis for creating a new standardized index for evaluating non-native speakers’ Japanese language proficiency.

The CEFR is an international language proficiency guideline widely used in Europe, and increasingly elsewhere, to assess non-native speakers’ proficiency for studying and working in another language. It is also used as a standard for teaching foreign languages and developing teaching materials.

It is divided into six levels from A1 (“beginner”) to C2 (“near native”) and has been established for English, as well as German, French and Spanish.

On a related note, for the common Japanese university entrance exams that will start in fiscal 2020, Japanese officials have created a comparison chart, based on CEFR standards,  in order to have a way to compare results from different English qualification tests.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)

In 2010, the Japan Foundation established the JF Standard, a six-level system based on the CEFR in order to rank non-native speakers’ Japanese language proficiency. The Japan Foundation also administers the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

Every year about 1 million people take various levels (N5 to N1) of the JLPT , which makes it the most widely taken Japanese proficiency test nationwide, but there are two main criticisms of the JLPT. First, it is said that the test is not congruent with CEFR standards. Second, the JLPT is designed to test reading and listening skills, not speaking, so it is sometimes faulted for not being a good measure of a non-native speaker’s verbal communication skills.

Japanese proficiency for living in Japan

Earlier this year, the Cultural Affairs Agency put forth a standardized curriculum for teaching Japanese to foreigners based on the concept of teaching practical language skills to help foreigners function as residents of Japan. For example, to communicate while shopping, going to the hospital, and in emergency situations.

This curriculum proposal was presented to various schools currently teaching Japanese to foreigners but it was criticized for not being compliant with CEFR standards. It was also unclear how the curriculum would be implemented in the classroom.

As the situation currently stands, there is criticism from some quarters that there is still no objective way for universities and employers to objectively evaluate potential students’ and workers’ Japanese level during the application process.

Next steps

Going forward, the Cultural Affairs Agency plans to establish a Japanese version of the CEFR standard in order to test proficiency in reading, listening, writing, and speaking. A curriculum will then be developed based on this new standardized index and presented to schools and universities to be used as a guideline for teaching Japanese to foreigners.

You may also be interested in: Should foreigners learn Japanese if they want to live in Japan?

Lead photo: Japanese bookstore, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Mainichi Shinbun, April 6, 2019