Why Native Level is a Misleading Standard

Japanese levels. Seemingly just for fun, yet so important at the same time. Everyone wants to know how good they were, how good they have become, and how much possible good that still awaits them. The level guide on this site has been a major pillar here since the site was first created. Remember the name of this site? But times change. Thoughts change. And so I have decided to make same major changes.

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All descriptions have been mostly rewritten, with numbers and percentages reworked. “Basic” was renamed “Newbie.” “Business” was renamed “Work Capable,” because the word Business is too misleading. However, the real difference comes from after 65.

The new thought process has been through the culmination of over a decade of Japanese language learning experience, dealing with other extremely high level Japanese learners, dealing with half-Japanese, half-other country, dealing with Japanese born in other countries, and dealing with Japanese born in Japan and raised in other countries.

Native level is gone

“Native level” doesn’t exist. Yup, I just said it. Am I retracting what I once said about reaching the level of a native? No. I am saying that the phrase “native level” has no meaning, and since it has no meaning it is not a concrete or attainable goal. This type of goal has no place on Jalup where achievable goals are so extremely important to success.

Let’s start with a look at some definitions.

Native Defined

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  • Belonging to a particular place by birth
  • A person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not.

Unless you were born in Japan, this isn’t you.

  • Of or relating to a language acquired by a person before or to the exclusion of any other language

This also isn’t you.

But of course this was never about saying Japanese was your native language, but about saying that your Japanese is native level, or the same level of a native.

The definition that Google picks up isn’t helpful.

Jalup Levels Reinvented

Let’s go to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language proficiency, used by the United States Foreign Service Institute. It doesn’t get any more official sounding than that.

  • Has a speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker

This only covers speaking, and is too vague and unfair by using the word “educated,” as though only educated (how educated is educated?) count.

  • Has complete fluency in the language, such that speech on all levels in fully accepted by educated native speakers in all of its features, including breadth of vocabulary and idiom, colloquialisms, and pertinent cultural references.

This just takes the already fluffy concept of fluency and expands it and requires “acceptance.”

What should native level mean?

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My original definition of Native Level in the level guide was someone that can read, write, listen, and speak Japanese just like a Japanese person, in a way that would be indistinguishable from a Japanese person.

In thinking my definition was more clever, I realize it was the vaguest of them all. Who is the Japanese person that is used as a model for being able to read, write, listen, and speak just like them?

Is it someone educated?
Is it someone eloquent?
Is it someone shy?
Is it someone talkative?
Is it someone who takes time to think carefully before they talk?
Is it someone who writes in sloppy Japanese, with spelling mistakes everywhere?
Is it someone who uses perfectly polished, beautiful Japanese?
Is it someone who has a thousand umms before every sentence they start?
Is it someone with a limited vocabulary?
Is it someone who reads at all for pleasure?
Is it someone who is a logical thinker?
Is it someone who writes as a hobby?

Things become more complicated when it comes trying to reach their “knowledge” level. What is the appropriate knowledge level for measuring what a native should know?

What about educated or uneducated people that forget kanji, proper grammar, spelling, and word use?
What about the people that performed poorly in specific subjects throughout their schooling and growing up (whether it be math, science, history, or even Japanese language)?
What about the people that ignore the topics they aren’t interested in, and stay away from politics, religion, technology, or sports?

And what age do you base the knowledge level of someone? Go too young and it’s meaningless because the education system is different. Go too old and you reach the point where “standard educational concepts” are replaced what you are interested in the world and life and your own personal experience.

Should native speaking be the standard?

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The way most people decide native level is how someone speaks, because it is the easiest outward way to judge. After all, it’s hard to know what is in someone’s mind and measure their reading and listening ability (tests don’t do a very good job with this). Writing ability is something that most people aren’t good at in their own language so that’s no help.

So speaking? Does he sound like a native speaker?

In what way? The pronunciation? The vocabulary usage? The grammar usage? The flowing nature of the language? The mistake frequency?

Give me 100 natives and I’ll give you a 100 variations on all of the above. Natives make mistakes and have problems (sometimes serious) in all of the above, all the time. Not even touching on dialects, which makes things infinitely more complex, but everyone talks differently, for better or worse.

Why native level is a bad standard

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For everyone fluent going for “native level,” you are facing a goal that you are yourself making unreachable.  The higher the level you get, the more perfectionist you get. You start to think that your level will only be native when you have perfect pronunciation, perfect grammar, a perfect wide range of knowledge, and perfect everything. By this standard, most natives haven’t even accomplished your vision of native level.

You’ll never reach this magic ideal state, because you just end up setting the bar higher and higher, and you cherry-pick the best of the best as to what should be native level.

The Jalup level guide was originally created for me (selfish aren’t I?), and the way it was set up made it become pretty worthless to me. I always talk about the extreme value of creating new and reasonable goals, and yet I set some goal that doesn’t exist for myself. I’ve come as far as I have because of the continual goal setting and desire to achieve more, and if I’m trying to climb a mountain that grows larger as I climb upwards, it’s just not going to work.

I want a level guide that makes sense, from beginning to end, and allows you to not only continually yearn for more, but to eventually get that more.

The replacements

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Check out the updated guide. The new levels (with rough estimated time frames) are now:

01: Newbie (~1 week)
05: Beginner (~1.5 months)
10: Elementary (~4 months)
20: Intermediate (~8 months)
30: Proficient (~1.5 years)
40: Advanced (~2 years)
50: Work Capable (~3 years)
65: Fluent (~4 years)
75: Knowledgeable (7-10 years)
80: Sophisticated (10-15 years)
90: Master (15-20 years)
99: Legendary (20+ years)

The descriptions for 75 and up are written in abstract terms, because the specifics were always meant to just be silly and fun (Japanese spy anyone?). Also the specifics were inaccurate, because you could learn any of those ultra advanced skills at any stage of your journey.

I may make some further adjustments as things go on, but I like it like this.

How does this affect you?

It depends. This is a big change, but one that I just think makes sense and will benefit you. You can ignore it, and think I’m crazy, and still go for “native level.” That’s fine. It’s all about what mindset works best for you. And this new mindset is what works best for me now.

I don’t plan on rewriting the level tests, or XPNavi, but their accuracy shouldn’t be affected up to fluent level.

And that’s all I have to say about leveling for today. Until next time!

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Why Native Level is a Misleading Standard — 15 Comments

  1. I completely agree with the thinking behind this. Native speaker doesn’t really mean that much. My niece and nephew are native speakers, and although I’m sure they have things to teach me, as there are loads of words that all kids know and adults rarely use that I haven’t been exposed to, I definitely do not want to sound like them when I talk! There are also a lot of native speakers whose Japanese you definitely should not aspire to (unless you want to sound like a complete idiot!)

    • Exactly. Gotta focus on what you want to achieve and what is important to you.

      “Child Japanese” is definitely an interesting topic of its own.

  2. You must have read my comment about native level elsewhere ;)

    Obviously I think this change makes a lot of sense, and it preserves the same level scale we are all used to.

  3. I agree with the changes :-) The differences in language abilities and proficiencies between native speakers are too varied.

  4. I like it, but if I’m not mistaken, level 20 used to suggest 2042 kanji. Now only 1000, but one should be close to 2000 before attempting the intermediate deck right? Or did I just level up again!

    • You probably did level up again. レベルアップおめでとうございます~

      I lowered it to 1000 (pushed the 2000 kanji back to level 30) because I felt that it was being too strict. Not everyone uses RTK, and even for those who do not everyone uses it straight from the beginning. So I wanted to create some leeway for people not to feel the need to master all the kanji before hitting 20.

  5. I sometimes use “native” to describe someone’s first language, but there’s another problem with it: it seems to imply that you are born knowing your first language, that you somehow acquired it without frustration, hours upon hours of correction, years struggling to read and write, being corrected, reading for fun or for work, and on and on (to differing extents, and in different areas, depending on the person) until you can write extremely long sentences that seem like they will never stop—until they do!

    • Haha exactly.

      There is also an exaggerated assumption that all natives are good at their own language.

  6. To be honest, there is a kid that just came from France 3 months ago and his english is better than some ‘native speakers’ in my school. He is in honors english and has the 3rd highest average. The only problem with him is the very occasional awkward phrasing which he is able to correct himself and his pronounciation is very lackluster. This gives me reassurance that I can hit ‘fluent’ and even better with Japanese. I think J-J really helps you get there because then you start to exclude the english translation part in your mind aka quicker and more natural response.

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