Oral Proficiency Interviews: What to Expect

Photo by AliciaV

Anyone who has taken Japanese has, at one point or another, been subject to a dreaded oral exam come test time. Oral exams can be one of the most stress-inducing parts of taking formalized Japanese study, regardless of how long you’ve been working on the language. However, one particular type of oral exam, the OPI, or Oral Proficiency Interview, is an verbal examination done entirely in Japanese that lasts anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. You should be prepared for this type of exam if you intend to keep learning Japanese past the initial four years of undergrad.

I first encountered OPIs in my last year of undergraduate Japanese study (my final exam, actually), but I have since been subject to them twice an academic year for two years of my Master’s degree. Although there are likely many situations in which an OPI of some kind is administered, in my experience, typically OPIs have been used as a means for the government to measure language proficiency before and after receiving financial support for developing language skills. In my case, I received multiple Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships to sponsor the continuation of modern Japanese both domestically and abroad. OPIs are an effective way for the government that provides these kinds of fellowships under Title VI to measure whether or not their financial support had fruitful results.

Who administers OPIs?

This is actually something about which I’m unsure- I believe there are official individuals associated with the FLAS organizers who typically administer the exam over the phone. These people are likely trained professionals or language professors who have passed a type of qualification training to be able to administer the exams. Because I am deaf in one ear and have difficulty performing phone interviews, I was able to be made an exception and have a local professor at Ohio State who obtained her qualifications in OPI testing administer my exam. But for others without disabilities or a local proctor, you should probably expect to take the interview by phone.

What is the structure of a typical OPI?

I can only speak to my own experience, of course, but the structure has been as follows:

Talking about one’s daily schedule/life/hobbies

This is standard in any oral exam, and is just a way to get you warmed up and check that you know the basics. Talking about daily experiences, telling the professor what day it is, describing your patterned schedule and the events therein- basic stuff from your first year or so of Japanese training. Remember that you can always elaborate on one point, add your opinion, and give it a little flair that shows you can carry on a conversation.

Discussing recent news/events

Before an OPI, it would be to your advantage to study recent news and related vocabulary. Both the American news and Japanese news may be brought up. I can’t remember all the topics that I had in previous exams, but I remember in one of them getting asked about the oil spill in the Gulf coast, a topic for which I did not know all the vocab! These were just some of the questions I recall that came up:

  • What do you think will happen with the oil disaster?
  • Some people say the company is to blame for what happened- do you agree with them?
  • Do you think that the company should be responsible for cleaning up the oil leak? Or do you think all the affected countries should participate?

Similar to the above, you can expect that several questions on the same topic will occur, so being prepared to give your opinion in detail is important.

Talking about the plot of a favorite book/movie

This is another point where preparation beforehand is key. You may know what your favorite movie or book is, but having the words to describe a plot cohesively? That takes a bit more thought. I got caught off guard with this once and found myself pulling the plot of season 2 of Heroes out of nowhere because I realized I only had the vocabulary to talk briefly about super powers and viruses. On a better day I described the setting of a pseudo-medieval Europe fantasy trilogy and once I described a children’s (?) novel by Clive Barker (The Thief of Always, a favorite of mine, FYI J ) because the plot is very straight-forward and the vocab easy enough that I could string together the events quite fluidly. Don’t struggle to use a bunch of vocab you don’t know unless that’s your style- the point of this exercise is to get you speaking cohesively on a continuous topic, not judge your vocabulary set harshly.*

* It’s worth noting, however, that part of the evaluation is whether or not you use a sufficient amount of compound words (kanji compounds) in your conversation, not just regular Japanese words.

Giving one’s opinion on a subject

In addition to giving your opinion about news topics, it’s very likely that you’ll be asked any number of other questions where you have to give your opinion. Some of them are pretty standard, and others could completely blow your mind with their randomness, depending on who is giving you the exam. Here are some examples (on two different subjects) of what I’ve been asked:

  • What do you find most challenging about doing a homestay? (Note: I was doing homestay at the time of my study in Japan)
  • What do you do when you don’t agree with your host mother about something?
  • What advice would you give to students who want to do homestay?
  • Do you think homestay is safe to do? (Note: I found my homestay without an affiliated institution)
  • I recently saw a news report about hitting your children. Do you think parents should hit their children?
  • The news piece said that if you don’t hit your children, you can’t teach them right from wrong. Do you agree?
  • Would you hit your children?
  • How would you teach your children right from wrong?

As you can see, the questions could truly be anything, and you may find yourself talking about something for which you’re entirely unprepared. Gotta say I wasn’t expecting to talk about the moral issues of corporal punishment and how I’d teach my kids right from wrong. But everything is fair game!

Role play

The role play section of the exam can be one of the most stressful, in my opinion. Whereas you have the freedom to direct the conversation about the news, your interests, and your opinion, here you’re expected to work with a situation that uses a particular vocabulary set and it’s completely on the fly. The examiner will choose a situation from a set of cards and tell you what the situation is (in English, I believe- I was handed the card with the situation in English on it, but I’m not sure how the phone interviews work). You have a moment to read the card, think on it, and then the role playing begins. Here are some examples of situations I have had to play out during my graduate career:

  • You are a businessman/woman and you’re working overtime at the company. You go out to get a snack, but forget your ID card and need to convince the security man to let you back in the building.
  • You have witnessed a car accident at an intersection. Make a phone call to the police and report the incident.
  • You have just won first place in a speech contest. Make your acceptance speech. (And then there was a follow up where I had to go home and tell my 7 year old son about winning the contest)

As you can see, the situations are varied and you have to think on your feet. Your teacher will be playing the other role and prompting you (I had a particularly stubborn security guard). Obviously there are key words to use in these situations, as well as keigo (polite speech) needed to sound as natural as possible. I have to say, I’m still shaky on exactly what one says in these situations, but it was certainly an experience. No matter how many OPI exams I take, they still get me nervous and I still fret about having no idea how to do things like call the police. (Do you use keigo? Or just use informal speech and freak out a lot to sound more natural? 😉 )


The image below is a scan of my OPI role play evaluation in undergrad. Please keep in mind that this was not an OFFICIAL interview, but a sort of preview/practice interview so we could get accustomed to what a real OPI formats are like. Therefore, the following evaluation is a rough estimate of what the real thing could possibly be based on:

(Now you can all see how good I was in fourth year Japanese! 😉 )

The actual, official post-OPI evaluation labels your skills on a 10 level scale as follows:

–          Beginner – Low
–          Beginner – Mid
–          Beginner – High
–          Intermediate – Low
–          Intermediate – Mid
–          Intermediate – High
–          Advanced – Low
–          Advanced – Mid
–          Advanced – High
–          Native speaker

Of course it’s the government’s hope that you’ll go up at least a level to prove that they didn’t give you money for nothing. But also keep in mind that these grades have absolutely no impact on your classroom grades at all- it’s just a way for the government to keep track of your language progress and decide whether or not their money is actually helping you progress.

As I said, I’ve only encountered OPI exams in the context of FLAS fellowship awards. But I imagine they are used for all kinds of evaluations, scholarship related and otherwise. Hopefully this has been a decent introduction to the OPI testing process to help you prepare for the exam and put forth your best efforts to speak fluent Japanese. Ganbatte ne!

– Paula

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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6 Responses to Oral Proficiency Interviews: What to Expect

  1. Malia says:

    Thanks Paura for this post. It is helpful for me as I used to administer OPI’s to my former French students and was looking for some sample role-plays to give to my English students. Good luck with your graduate studies.

  2. Etsuko Abe says:

    Hi, I am so glad that I found this page! I am a native Japanese speaker but I need to take the OPI test as part of the court interpreter certification process. Will the test be conducted in English, or all in Japanese?

    • Paura says:

      The OPI should be conducted entirely in whatever language you’re being tested on. But different places may do it differently, so it’s best to ask whomever is running it. Best of luck!

  3. Danielle says:

    I keep scoring Intermediate-Mid and I need to score Intermediate-High or above to pass it for my degree. Do you have any suggestions to help me pass? I’ve failed it 4 times already and keep receiving the same score over and over.

    • Paula says:

      The best thing you can do in these situations is practice. Get a partner and work on having in-depth conversations on a single topic, so that you know you can respond to questions on a given subject but also elaborate and articulate your opinions about it using proper grammar and good vocabulary. Good luck! 🙂

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