By Andrew Fischer
Nearly every ALT across Ehime ought to be familiar with the EIKEN, or Jitsuyō Eigo Ginō Kentei (Test in Practical English Proficiency).
The EIKEN is similar to the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The differences, besides the fact that the EIKEN tests English-language skills, not Japanese-language ones, are as follows: the EIKEN offers more levels (seven), is offered three times a year, can be taken at some schools, and includes writing and speaking sections.
The easiest levels are grades 5, 4, and 3, which are aimed at first-year, second-year, and third-year junior high school students, respectively. Grades Pre-2 and 2 are generally taken by senior high school students.
Grade 2 is considered to be the benchmark for Japanese high school graduates; it is said to be similar, in regards to difficulty, to the English section of Japanese university entrance exams. According to my research and personal experience, EIKEN Grade 2 is roughly equivalent to JLPT N2, which I passed recently.
Grade Pre-1 has been designated as the benchmark for Japanese Teachers of English by MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). I have heard of some ambitious senior high students in Ehime who have taken, and even passed, Grade Pre-1.
As a junior high school ALT, I have been charged with preparing students for grades 5, 4, 3, and Pre-2. If students pass the first stage of the test, they are permitted to advance to the second stage, the speaking test. This is the point at which most ALTs are asked to assist; ALTs are often asked to hold mock interviews for their students.
The speaking test is where some students really stumble; both pronunciation and stringing together coherent sentences can be very challenging for Japanese learners of English. To other ALTs, I would suggest this: encourage your students to ask the examiner to repeat themselves if needed, not give in to awkward silence, and smile. Getting caught up on pronouncing a tricky word should be avoided, too—time is limited.
As I mentioned previously, the lower levels of the EIKEN can be taken at schools; I have served as a proctor for Grade Pre-2 twice. Both times, I took the test using a spare test booklet and answer sheet while monitoring my one student, as a proctor ought to. My booklet and answer sheet are kept at the school to help future EIKEN-takers prepare for the test. Unlike with the JLPT, EIKEN test booklets can be taken home after the test.
Neither I nor anyone I know has ever heard of an ALT taking the EIKEN on an official basis. Nor have I ever met a Japanese individual possessing the coveted EIKEN Grade 1. From the perspective of a non-native speaker, EIKEN Grade 1 indubitably transcends the difficulty of JLPT N1.
On a whim and to satiate my love of unique experiences, I registered to take EIKEN Grade 1 in Matsuyama. I wanted to provide an answer to the question, “Would a native speaker of English pass the highest grade of the EIKEN?”
Very few take the Grade 1 test; the man sitting next to me during the exam had to be in his seventies or eighties. The Grade 1 test starts off with a challenging vocabulary section; you better know what “inculcate,” “fastidious,” and “magnanimous” mean. The readings varied from Chilean politics to gene editing. I missed one listening question when a lady behind me moaned loudly in response to a challenging question on medical technology. The essay topic was “Can renewable energy sources replace fossil fuels?” I left the first stage of the test knowing that I had passed, but also that I certainly had not earned a perfect score.
The second stage of the Grade 1 test is not offered in Ehime—or even Shikoku. The pass rate for the highest grade is around 10%, meaning that very few individuals in Ehime are even able to take the speaking test. I had to go to Hiroshima to finish my EIKEN experience, which I treated as a mini vacation. I purchased an omamori (amulet) for academic success at Hiroshima’s famous Itsukushima Shrine. I was given a little gray EIKEN baggie to place my smartphone in and wear around my neck. I am not quite sure what its purpose was, but it certainly did not feel good to have my massive smart phone dangling from my neck during the interview.
I viewed my results right as they became available. I passed; my score places me in the top 2% of takers of the Grade 1 test in Ehime. Sorry for breaking the curve, Japanese friends! That being said, I did not earn a perfect score. While I aced the multiple-choice sections, I received passing, but rather mediocre, marks in the writing and speaking sections. I suspect that knowing precisely what kind of answers the graders are looking for is conducive to earning top marks. These two sections are clearly graded quite subjectively, but that is to be expected. It got me thinking, “What would writing and speaking sections on the JLPT look like?”
After some reflection, I must say that passing the test is certainly not necessarily an indication of superior English-language skills. Studying for the test itself is paramount to success, perhaps highlighting the notion that the entire education system in this country revolves around acquiring the ability to pass examinations.
Given how expensive and, to a native speaker, pointless taking the EIKEN is, I cannot recommend that more ALTs sit for the exam. I do hope, however, that a greater understanding of the EIKEN will allow me to better sympathize with and understand my own students. It might even help me devise a strategy to pass the N1!
Andrew Fischer is from Michigan, USA and is a first-year JHS ALT in Misaki, Ikata (he is closer to Kyushu than to his own BoE). He is passionate about Japanese history, playing the tuba, and challenging himself. He proudly holds JLPT N2 and EIKEN Grade 1 certificates, but is most proud of his Misaki Relay Race Junior High School Boys Division medal (he substituted for one of his first-year JHS students and won his first athletic award at twenty-two years of age).