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Learn about the differences between the JLPT N5 and N4 levels and decide which test is right for you.

If you’ve ever considered learning the Japanese language or expanding your proficiency in it, you’ve likely come across the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) – a widely recognized benchmark for assessing one’s Japanese language skills. Both the N5 and N4 levels are for beginners, so how do you know which test is right for you? Should you take the N5 or the N4?

In this blog, we’ll delve into the intricacies of the JLPT N5 and N4, two of the foundational levels of the test. We’ll unravel the key distinctions between them, helping you understand which one might be the best starting point for your Japanese language journey.

Once you decide which test you’ll aim for, you could check out the JLPT preparation courses offered at TLS.

What is the JLPT?

To start with, let’s discuss what the JLPT actually is. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test, commonly referred to as the JLPT, is a globally recognized assessment designed to evaluate and certify an individual’s proficiency in the Japanese language. The test is divided into multiple levels, ranging from N5 (the most basic) to N1 (the most advanced), each targeting different levels of language proficiency. Whether you aim to study, work, or live in Japan, or you simply have a passion for the Japanese language and culture, the JLPT provides a structured way to gauge your language abilities and set clear goals for improvement.

The JLPT N5

N5 is the easiest level, and thus many people start with it. It tests some of the basics of Japanese, but certainly not all. If you can pass N5, you can have basic conversations, like talking about the weather, or shopping for groceries. But you cannot hold a perfect conversation about varied topics using correct grammar.

The N5 test requires you to know around 100 kanji and 800 vocabulary words, along with hiragana and katakana. It tests basic things like weather, common expressions, numbers and days of the week. You should also know the particles, such as “wa”, “ga”, “o”, “ni” and “de”, along with simple paste tense.

The N5 is divided into three sections:

1) Vocabulary (20 minutes)

2) Grammar and Reading (40 minutes)

3) Listening (30 minutes)

You need 80/180 to pass. You also must get 38/120 to pass the Vocabulary, Grammar and Reading sections, and 19/60 to pass the Listening.

Kanji-wise, you don’t need to know long compound words and sentences, the JLPT N5 tests simpler things, like 春 = haru (spring), or 私は食べています = watashi wa tabete imasu (I am eating).

The listening section is somewhat slower than real-life talking speed, so if you know the vocabulary you should be fine. The topics will be regular daily topics, like hobbies, work, school and the weather.

The JLPT N4

For the JLPT N4, you need to know around 300 kanji and 1,500 vocabulary words. In order to pass the N4, you’ll need to have spent a fair bit of time studying. While the exam is still considered beginner level, you cannot pass the N4 without putting in some study.

Some people have already studied some Japanese, but have never taken the JLPT. They may prefer to skip the N5 and go directly to the N4.

The N4 is divided into three sections:

1) Vocabulary (25 minutes)

2) Grammar and Reading (55 minutes)

3) Listening (35 minutes)

You need 90/180 to pass. You also must get 38/120 to pass the Vocabulary, Grammar and Reading sections, and 19/60 to pass the Listening.

By the N4 level you’ll also need to know verb conjugations and conjunctions, although not all of them.

What is verb conjugation?

If you are like me and never studied grammatical terms in school, here’s an explanation.

In Japanese, verb conjugation is a crucial aspect of the language, and it varies based on tense, politeness level, and other factors. Verbs in Japanese are categorized into three groups: Group 1 (u-verbs), Group 2 (ru-verbs), and irregular verbs. Here’s a basic overview of verb conjugation in Japanese:

For the verb “taberu” (to eat) (this is not an exhaustive list of all the forms):

Dictionary form: 食べる (taberu)

Polite: 食べます (tabemasu) – “I eat” or “I am eating” (polite)

Plain: 食べる (taberu) – “I eat” or “I am eating” (casual)

Polite: 食べません (tabemasen) – “I don’t eat” or “I am not eating” (polite)

Plain: 食べない (tabenai) – “I don’t eat” or “I am not eating” (casual)

Polite: 食べました (tabemashita) – “I ate” (polite)

Plain: 食べた (tabeta) – “I ate” (casual)

What are conjunctions?

In Japanese, a conjunction is a word or phrase used to connect words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence to show the relationship between them. Conjunctions play a vital role in structuring sentences and conveying meaning. There are several types of conjunctions in Japanese:

Coordinating Conjunctions (接続詞 – Setsuzokushi): These conjunctions connect words, phrases, or clauses of equal grammatical rank. Some common coordinating conjunctions include:

そして (soshite) – “and”

しかし (shikashi) – “however”

だけど (dakedo) or でも (demo) – “but”

Subordinating Conjunctions (接続助詞 – Setsuzoku joshi): These conjunctions introduce dependent clauses that rely on the main clause for their meaning. They indicate the relationship between the two clauses, such as cause-and-effect, time sequence, or condition. Some common subordinating conjunctions include:

から (kara) – “because” or “since”

ので (node) – “so” or “therefore”

と (to) – “if” or “when”

What are the differences between the N4 and the N5?

Nuances

The N4 is a little more advanced, so the test begins to use nuances. For example, what is the difference between the kanji for “person” and “to insert”? Or “when do you use atsui vs atatakai?”.

Kanji

How good are your kanji skills? If you’re struggling with the first 100 kanji, then you should stick to the N5, but if you are pretty solid with the first 300 or so, then you are ready for the N4. The N5 will test you more on hiragana and katakana than it will on kanji. For the N5, they will however test you on the simple reading and you’ll need to know both the Kunyomi (訓読み) and Onyomi (音読み) to get through the Language and Knowledge section.

For example: how is 新しい read?

A. あたらしい

B. あだらしい

C. あらだしい

D. しんしい

Reading

While the N5 will only require you to read words or short sentences, by the N4 level you will need to be able to read entire (basic) paragraphs about regular daily life topics. The N5 test contains furigana over the kanji, but by N4 you are expected to go without the furigana help.

How long have you studied?

While this obviously differs from person to person, the time one has studied may be an indicator for what they are ready for. The N5 is said to take 325-600 hours of study, while the N4 is said to take 575-1000 hours.

Try some sample questions

Did you know that you can try some practice questions on the official JLPT website in order to test your knowledge?

Try both levels and see which fits you best. If the N5 is too easy, go for the N4! If you can’t pass the N4 questions, start with N5.

For a more detailed analysis of your level, TLS offers free consultations and level checks.  

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