Am I fluent in Japanese? Yes! Sort of, maybe… not really.

Recently I updated the “Languages” section of my LinkedIn profile. And I encountered a problem. What exactly is my Japanese level?? “Native or bilingual proficiency”? Nope, definitely not. Is it a stretch to say that I have “Full working proficiency“? I settled on “Professional working proficiency.Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 3.41.06 PM.png

So… are you fluent in Japanese?

I get asked this question a lot. I’m not sure. It is hard to figure out just how much Japanese a non-native learner like myself can speak.


Fluidly speaking and using a language involves so many factors including:

  • knowledge of vocabulary
  • solid grasp of grammar (plus its nuances)
  • pronunciation
  • intonation
  • cultural understanding of HOW people actually speak
  • idioms/slang
  • cultural context and references
  • some bravery and willingness to try

Any of those factors is constantly shifting, some days better and some days worse. And that leads us to a major challenge of trying to figure out just how much Japanese I speak.

My Japanese level isn’t standing still!

It is constantly shifting, depending on how recently I traveled in Japan, how recently I studied, how well I slept last night, and even my mood that day.




The Common Measure of Japanese Fluency – JLPT

For the uninitiated, the JLPT (or Japanese-Language Proficiency Exam) is a standardized multiple choice exam designed to evaluate and certify Japanese language profiency for non-native speakers. There are 5 levels – the most difficult level is N1.

The JLPT is the standard measure of Japanese proficiency and is a requirement for many jobs that involve speaking Japanese. Like many multiple choice exams, it has all kinds of inherent challenges. It can test only a limited amount of knowledge and as a written test, it cannot evaluate speaking ability (which seems like a major short falling).

Also interestingly JLPT certifications never expire, which I find questionable given my own experience watching my  Japanese ability fade as I spend longer away from my textbooks. I mean – aside from bike riding – does any skill stay the same forever?


Better Measures of Fluency from Real Life

Okay so if the JLPT is not a very good marker of fluency, then what is? Let’s think about fluency as the ability to communicate easily, quickly, and smoothly across a variety of situations and with a variety of people. In real life, there are many ways to get an idea about that. Here are a few that I have noticed during my trips to Japan.


1. You laugh at jokes.

This is a major accomplishment. Jokes are often delivered quickly, so it requires good listening comprehension to catch all the content. Also jokes often rely on cultural nuances, so laughing at a good joke requires not only understanding the literal words spoken but also catching the cultural context of why it might be funny.


2. Making a phone call in Japanese doesn’t fill you with dread.

Phone calls are hard because you cannot rely on facial expressions and gestures to convey your meaning. Also, if the conversation is going poorly or you suddenly get lost, it is hard to gracefully exit. In my early days in Japan, I would just hang up the phone if I got too confused. And I would wait a day or so to call back, hoping that someone different would answer the phone.


3. Some of your friends only speak Japanese.

Someone once told me that if you can make friends in Japan using only Japanese, that is the best measure of fluency. Not sure if it is the best but making friends is definitely an important measure of your ability to communicate and connect with others. I do have some Japanese-speaking friends, but a lot of my friends are bilingual to an extent like myself. With some of my friends, they speak in Japanese and I speak in English. It might sound silly but it works.


4. You can eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers.

When you eavesdrop you usually pick up a conversation half way through. You don’t have any of the usual background information. You can just pick up what people are talking about by listening and figuring out the context. This is a fun milestone because it means that being out in public – at a cafe, on the train, walking down the street – becomes a chance to learn interesting tidbits about the lives of the people around you.


5. You can go to the doctor by yourself.

The terminology of medical offices is a language all by itself. Kosuke is on his way to India this week and he had to visit the doctor for vaccinations and travel medicine. I sent him with a list of weird unfamiliar terms of malaria medicines – Malarone, doxycyline, Larium. Visiting the doctor in Japan is an equally daunting task, one that I have not actually conquered yet. I have always gone with a bilingual friend, or I have gone to an English-speaking doctor. I am still worried that my Japanese is not quite strong enough to catch everything the doctor says, and that I will miss some very important information.


6. You can read and actually evaluate a legal document (like the lease for your apartment or your internet contract).

Again reading a legal document – like going to the doctor – typically involves understanding a lot of specialized vocabulary. Also legal documents tend to be written in a highly precise and formalized style that makes the document challenging to understand. You know, something along the lines of, “I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me.” (Credit: Evan Schaeffer.) Legal documents in Japanese are not much better. It requires a solid grasp of Japanese and a firm resolve to get through these kinds of documents.



7. You can go to a job interview and use only Japanese.

Being able to use a language in a stressful situation like  a job interview is a big accomplishment. Also while you can try to prepare for interview questions, there are always some surprises, so job interviews are also a good measure of your ability to use the language spontaneously and think on your feet. I have had a few of job interviews in Japanese. Some were conducted over Skype, which added a whole new layer of challenge. I would not say that I soared in those interviews, but I survived!


8. You catch yourself when you make mistakes.

Whenever I hear a non-native language (in any language), catch themselves and correct a mistake I am super duper impressed. This requires maintaining the flow of the conversation, while simultaneously monitoring your own speech, comparing it against your knowledge of proper grammar/vocabulary/usage, and dynamically fixing any mistakes. I think this is actually be the highest achievement for any language speaker. It is also a huge step towards continued improvement. At first, you have to rely on your teacher to correct you and make sure that you are properly using the language. But once you can correct yourself, then anytime you speak becomes an opportunity to hone your skill. This is the closest to native that a non-native can hope to get.


Thanks for reading! Are you learning Japanese or another language? What has been your experience? Would you call yourself “fluent”?


Please come visit again. ^_^


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