Going to a Language School in Japan

In the summer of 2009 I attended a six week language program in Tokyo that changed the way I learned Japanese. Not only did the relatively short period in Tokyo improve my Japanese language skills and understanding of life in Japan, it also motivated me to work four times as hard when I got back.

Selections and Beginnings

Going To A Language School In Japan

The second year of my BA Japanese Studies had a lot of downs, and I never felt like I was improving much. So when my university offered a six-week summer school program in Tokyo for a limited number of third year students to be, I jumped at the chance to at least maintain my skills over the long summer holiday (and to visit Japan, of course). It almost seemed too good to be true, as the program was largely financed by our university (except for a relatively small fee due to the expensive yen, transport in Tokyo, food, and other expenses).

After a nerve-wracking selection procedure (not to mention finals), I was one of the lucky thirty to get into the program. We stayed in a Weekly Mansion near Ikebukuro, and our school was located in Shibuya, about a fifteen-minute (uphill) walk from the station. After the lovely people at the Japan-Netherlands Institute helped us getting our commuter passes, we were all set to start classes at the Naganuma School.

Every morning my two best friends and I would get up before 6:30 and leave for the station by 7. We took two trains to Shibuya and on the way to school stopped by a convenience store to get breakfast. We arrived at the school at 8:15, leaving us with enough time to review our kanji and eat our breakfast before class started at 9. By leaving as early as we did we were able to avoid the worst part of rush hour, except for the few times one of us overslept, in which case: yikes.

Even though we all successfully completed the second year language classes of our university, and theoretically our Japanese language skills were more or less the same, the school still divided us up into three classes according to level (we had to take a test and do a short interview upon arrival at the school). So when the bell chimed at 9 (yes, this bell), we all went our separate ways until 12:30, when classes were over.

The classes were varied and taught by four different teachers, but there was one thing we did every day: 5-minute kanji quizzes (reading and writing) and text classes. Every day the teacher would give us a number of kanji to study by the next day. Usually there were around ten to fifteen words we had to study and the teacher selected these kanji from whatever text we were reading at the moment. These texts varied from Murakami Haruki to manga to the rarely ever discussed (sarcasm) phenomena of konkatsu and shoushikoureika.

Our text classes would usually consist of repetition from the last day (students reading part of the text out loud as natural as possible, and explaining in Japanese what the excerpt was about), explanation of vocabulary and grammar of a new part of the text and practicing conversations using the grammar we were just taught. There was a lot of repetition. So especially when we were reading one of the less intellectually challenging texts (like a text about a boy who is absolutely DYING to see a particular kind of shrimp) we all felt a little… bored. However, when the difficulty level of the texts went up it was definitely nice to leave the classroom feeling like you really understood every single detail about a text.

Variety and Fun

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Standard classes were a part of our daily routine at school. However, it went far beyond that and provided various experiences that fully enriched our Japanese studies and time in Japan.

We had conversation classes, sometimes with other people from the school. Because the Naganuma school (like other Japanese language schools, I imagine) teaches people from all over the world, these classes were often the most interesting and challenging. People from other classes spoke Japanese with unfamiliar accents (either that or they were about a 100 levels above mine) and often Japanese was the only language we both knew.

We had special classes on how to write (polite) emails in Japanese, on Japanese tea ceremony and how to wear a yukata (summer kimono). We even had computer classes, where a software program would check our pronunciation. Do you have any idea how much fun it is when your skills in Japanese actually translate into a high score?

The school arranged for us to visit several Japanese companies, to see how they work and how they might differ from our expectations. We were thoroughly prepared for these visits by our teachers. We had to come up with questions we might like to ask, practiced asking those questions in keigo and were told how to dress and how to behave. The teachers held our hands through all of it.

We received the same thorough preparation and seemingly overconcerned guidance when students from Waseda University came to talk to us, when we visited Tokyo University, and when the summer was almost over and it was time for us to hold our final presentations. At first this way of teaching might seem strange to Western students, who are generally left to their own devices whenever they have to do something outside of the usual curriculum. But after a while I thought the support was nice. It worked really well for me personally. I am a deadline person. I work best when I have  a strict deadline coming up soon. With all the tiny little deadlines we had for the different projects there were zero sleepless nights. Sounds nice, right?

It wasn’t all work and no play though. Most of our afternoons, evenings, and weekends were ours to spend as we liked. Sometimes this was going to the Laundromat in our building or watching Japanese TV, but a lot of the times it was us exploring the rest of Tokyo. For us girls, Harajuku and Ikebukuro were particularly fun places to spend our time. We also attended a concert at the Tokyo Dome, and visited some other places such as Odaiba and Yokohama, both of which can easily be reached from central Tokyo. Some people from our group even took the Umi no Hi weekend to visit Kyoto, make a short trip to Nikko National Park, or to climb Mount Fuji.

When our time at the school was up, there was a graduation ceremony where we exchanged gifts with the teachers and said our tearful goodbyes (which was probably quite an interesting sight). After that, we had a few days in Tokyo left. My friends and I decided it would be a waste to spend a substantial amount of that time sleeping, so we pulled two all-nighters at the nearby karaoke and sang all the KAT-TUN songs ever. (We also secretly hoped this would guarantee us some shuteye on the plane, but alas, no such luck.)

All in all, spending my summer at school was definitely one of the best decisions I ever made.

Making The Decision

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Attending a Japanese language school in Tokyo was an amazing experience for me. I realize that my situation (with university funding) was pretty exceptional, so I want to discuss why attending a Japanese language might, or might not, be a good idea for other people.

First off, spending your precious vacation days attending a language school, instead of lounging on a tropical beach somewhere, is not as boring as it seems. Not only are you studying something you are passionate about, but you have plenty of free time. What’s more, you have free time in Tokyo! (or wherever you decide to attend a language school.) It’s an excellent opportunity to get to know a city and live life in a way you wouldn’t if you were just passing through as a tourist.

There is of course a downside to this as well: aside from weekends, you are pretty much stuck in your city of choice. If you’re planning to see a lot of different places during your stay in Japan, a language school might not be the best way to go for you. However, there’s more than enough to do and see in places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. And you can always consider taking an extra week at the end of your language school to do some travelling, or who knows, maybe even attend multiple language schools!

Worried language schools are expensive? They are if you view them purely as a fun way to spend your vacation. If you look at them as part of your education, as an investment in your Japanese skills, it becomes a whole different story. Compare Japanese languages schools’ tuition to the tuition for Japanese classes at your local university. Still expensive? Probably not.

And why exactly would a language school be such a good investment? What’s so superior about them compared to independent study? Good question, and one that Adshap himself has already answered here.

Compared to both independent study and my classes at university, you speak a lot more Japanese in language schools. Most people I’ve met who are studying a foreign language say that speaking the language is the most difficult part. Studying Japanese in Japan was a bigger boost for my speaking skills than any of my conversation classes back in Holland combined, and don’t even get me started on independent study.

Sure it’s possible to practice speaking with real Japanese people through websites like livemocha for example, but time zone differences are a big obstacle, and the people you meet aren’t necessarily people you get along well with (sometimes resulting in some awkward conversations). At language schools, you make friends the way you would back home; you naturally gravitate towards the people you can hold a decent (and fun, we’re here to have fun!) conversation with.

Aside from the making friends aspect (you might not even be the type of person who likes making a lot of new friends at once), you speak more Japanese at school. In Holland, the only classes where speaking Japanese was compulsory were conversation classes. In our other language classes, we usually discussed correct translations and cultural differences in Dutch. At my Japanese language school however,  every class was Japanese only. We didn’t translate to demonstrate our understanding of the material, we discussed it in our own words, and our own culture was a particularly favourite topic for conversation classes. (Now try explaining that most Dutch people have never worn wooden shoes in keigo!)

Questions you’ll want to ask yourself in deciding to go

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– Does the idea of structured classes and (light) homework appeal to me?
– Do I even want to go to Japan?
– Do I get homesick easily? (If so, you might have to convince a friend to join you, or only go for a short period of time)
– Do I have the time?
– Do I have the money, or can I make enough money?

These are just some of the many factors to consider, but I want to hear your thoughts on this subject as well. Please leave your questions and comments in the section below, and I’ll try to offer additional personalized advice.

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Living the Language School Life. Not stopping till success.


Going to a Language School in Japan — 30 Comments

  1. 羨ましいです!That’s really awesome! I’ve been craving an abroad study in Japan, but it’s not really possible for me at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading more about your experience and thoughts on different kinds of language classes.

      • I’d like to go to one in Fukushima, where my husband’s family is in Japan. Two years from now, I’ll graduate from college and we’ll move to Japan. Perhaps then I’ll be able to go to one.

        • Well if your move to Japan is permanent I’m sure your Japanese will grow to be absolutely amazing, regardless of if you’re going to attend a language school.
          Personally I would still really like to go to Sendai; I’ve heard such great things about it.

          • I would like to go to a 専門学校 (like a tech school) in Japan for childcare so that I can get my license. I would also like to do some translating. So, a Japanese school would be useful to prepare my Japanese for academic purposes.

            Right now, I’m just craving going to Japan. I just have to be patient.

            Sendai is really close to Fukushima (^_^). My Japanese teacher is from there, and my husband has lots of friends from Sendai. I would love to go to a Japanese school there too.

            • Oh that sounds like an awesome challenge! I hope you’ll get there.

              I feel kind of homesick/nostaligic about Japan sometimes (which is ridiculous because I’ve only ever been there a total of 8 weeks) and then I really go crazy. I look up flight prices and hostels and everything XDDD

              But you’re right, we have to be patient ;-)

  2. This sounds like a priceless experience. I really like the fact your classroom was able to visit companies and other universities. That’s a great cultural experience. I spent my summer of 2007 at KCP international and it was amazing. I had the same experience you did where you were in a classroom full of folks who spoke different languages and the only way to communicate with then was through Japanese. I say that was a definite plus in a classroom setting. Looking Forward to part 3

  3. It really was an amazing opportunity. What kind of class did you take at KCP (what level, how long?) and did you go by yourself or with a friend? Were there things you didn’t like? For example at Naganuma there were a lot of students from other East Asian countries who would kind of form cliques. That would have gotten a little annoying if I’d been there by myself.

  4. I took an intensive summer course for about 2 months. I was at the very beginner stage, so we did a day or so of hiragana/katakana, but quickly moved on because the pace was so fast. I was there by myself but was sent through a study abroad opportunity at my college. The experience was absolutely amazing. There are no negatives I can really think of except the fact that it was an obstacle for the post office to cash my western union check (all because they didn’t see me sign the back of the check). But the school was very supportive and helped me out in that ordeal. The teachers were absolutely wonderful human beings, and being at a school where Englsih speakers were a very small percent really forced me to interact with other students. Although I did notice a clique form amongst most Chinese students, the Korean students were very interested in getting to know me and inviting me out for drinks and dinner ^^ Oh and I represented my class in a speech contest and won!

    • Sounds really wonderful. Especially when you’re still at a beginner stage doing a summer like that must be amazing, because you’re constantly learning new things and every day you understand so much more than you did the day before. :D

  5. Great article, I enjoyed this series! I was wondering, at approximately what level (in regards to the JALUP method) were you when you first enrolled in the Japanese language school? You mentioned that the classes were fully in Japanese, so perhaps beginners would have a hard time adjusting without getting the basics down first?

    • It’s hard for me to look back and judge what level I was at then, but I’m going to go with 40. Maybe a little less. That summer was the first time I watched a drama without subtitles (Natsu no Koi wa Nijiiro ni Kagayaku was airing then, and I’m a sucker for Matsujun’s fail), and it was pretty challenging, even though the story was quite simple.
      The thing with language schools is that the teachers are really good at adapting to the students’ level. Some of our classes were taught by guest teachers, and they didn’t know our level, so they used the most mind-numbingly simple Japanese you can imagine; it was all short sentences and JLPT 5 vocabulary. So no, I don’t think it would be that hard to adjust. In fact, if you’re at a lower level the progress you’ll make will probably be so overwhelming you won’t know what happened, so I’d actually recommend it ;-)
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Sounds like a great experience! I just finished watching 日本人の知らない日本語 (which is actually the first drama I watched every episode of RAW without ever having seen the subtitles, and I just got to level 40, so similar to you back then), which is about students in a language school. It’s over exaggerated (like a lot of Japanese dramas), but it does make me want to do one. For the sake of growing together with my classmates (^_^), seems special.

    The last Japanese class offered in Japanese at my college (Japanese 302) was the only class I took there to be completely in Japanese. There was only four students, a new teacher, and one of the students had previously lived in Japan for 7 years and spoke Japanese on a regular basis with his wife, so we were an advanced class. But if my old teacher had taught us, she would’ve continued switching back and forth between English. I took a conversation class elsewhere, and that was all in Japanese, but the subject material was boring and I felt my classmates were above my level at the time, so I dropped it. It’s hard to find a beginning or intermediate level class that is conducted completely in Japanese, but as someone who has taught English as a Foreign Language, those classes are always taught completely in English, unless you happen to have all students of one race and you know their language (which happened to a set of elderly Chinese who had Chinese teachers). So I feel like although teachers are giving us a handicap by teaching in English.

    • Ohh I’m kind of watching that drama too (on and off, it’s not really the kind of drama that grabs me and doesn’t let go). A word of caution: don’t look to this drama for realism ;-) there is none.

      I didn’t really feel the whole “growing together” aspect that much. In fact it was only when I got back that I noticed how much I’d improved. What exactly are thinking of when you say “growing together with my classmates”?

      • At first, I didn’t think I was going to like the episode. It took me awhile to get past the first half of the first episode. But I love teaching dramas, and felt it was sentimental when the students thanked the teacher each time. It reminded me of when I was thanked by my teachers. So sweet. I also like how each student had their own thing, such as manga or cooking. I know it’s unrealistic. But so is Gokusen.

        In my experience, whether it is my Japanese camp back in high school, or the Japan studies courses I am taking in college now, there’s a different relationship with your classmates than in a class about any other subject, because we’re all going after the same goal. It’s special to me, and we have a lot of fun together. I still talk to a lot of the friends I have met in these experiences. But I suppose this wasn’t your experience? Another reason I dropped my conversation class was because unlike my first semester there, where I made friends and became good friends with a Japanese student assigned as my conversation partner, the second time I went (which was years after), I didn’t feel the same connection. It felt like a waste of time to just feel left out.

        • Hahaha, no Gokusen isn’t realistic either, and neither is Mizuki Nr. 1 for that matter. Have you ever seen Taisetsu na Koto wa Subete Kimi ga Oshiete Kureta? I thought that was a pretty realistic drama, as far as teaching dramas go.

          I do feel that in general I connect better with my Japanese Studies classmates than for example the people in classes I took in the Sinology department; it feels like people who study Japanese are all different in the same way or something ;-) But I didn’t feel like the language school was more special in that regard than my classes in university. Though it’s probably because I already had my best friends there with me, in different classes.

          If I’d ever do it again (and I would, in a heartbeat, if I ever got the chance), I’d do it alone. But I’d make sure to keep my expectations… well not necessarily low I guess, but I’d try to keep an open mind :) and I wouldn’t let the success of my second language school experience depend on other people too much.

          • No, I haven’t! Thanks for the recommendation! My two favorite teaching dramas are Dragon Zakura and Watashitachi no Kyokasho.

            Ah, I see! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. I wish I could go to a language school in Tokyo. 6 weeks sounds like a dream. Do you think it would be of any benefit for a dork like me? You’re obviously way above my level, and the school sounds really “professional”

    • Hi Coco, if you’re interested you should definitely shop around a bit, check out the different schools in Tokyo. There’s something for everyone, especially if the idea of structured classes appeals to you. I said this in the comments on part 3 already, but I think especially in the earlier stages of your study, spending some time at a language school can be very useful. It will give your Japanese a serious boost, a very noticeable one. I think something like that can be a really good motivator to keep going.

      In fact, it gave me enough confidence to take a course reading academic texts in Japanese, and to sign up for a conversation class for especially advanced students when I got back. This from a person who only barely managed to pass her language exams before the summer.

  8. Great article on Japanese language schools!!

    I’m thinking of going to Japan soon and attend one of those language schools in Tokyo. Just wondering, I know that many language schools in Japan have a high percentage of Chinese and Korean students, did that affect your education quality? Would you think attending to a school that has more European students be better? I read that some European students felt that being in a class that was mainly Asians made them feel lonely, and the pace was too quick for them since they had difference backgrounds on kanji. On the other hand, I know that Asians tend to cling together after class and speak their own language instead of Japanese, whereas Europeans engage in more Japanese speaking since that’s really the only common language they have. I’m Chinese-Canadian, so I have both Asian and Western cultural background and I don’t think blending in with either groups would be a huge problem for me. I’m debating because I would like to be in a fast pace environment, but I would also want to speak as much Japanese as possible. My main concerns are how my classmates will affect my learning experience. Please let me know if you ever had any experiences with this! :)

    Thanks!! -Sylvia

    • Hi Sylvia, sorry for taking so long to get back to you! For me personally the other students’ nationality didn’t matter much, because we were divided up into classes with people from our (Dutch) university only. One of my friends, who didn’t get into the program but still wanted to attend the language school, did spend four weeks getting very annoyed at the Taiwanese students in her class. They excluded her by communicating only in Chinese outside of classes, so if she hadn’t been at the same language school as us, she might have gotten lonely, yes.
      I think if you have a good language school, the pace of a class mostly consisting of people with an asian background won’t be too quick because a teacher should always pay attention to the pace of the slowest student (to the point where this might even be a disadvantage if you’re a quick learner).
      Unfortunately, you can never really be sure if you’re going to be speaking Japanese outside of the classroom, no matter where your classmates are from. My advice would be is to make sure you pick a reasonably advanced course. You could also see if you can find something about the average age of students at a language school, somewhat older students may be more inclined to make the most of their experience while younger students might want to play around a bit.
      At the end of the day you’re the one who is going to have to make the most of it though. If your classmates don’t feel like speaking Japanese to you, you’ll have to go out there to make some Japanese friends to hang out with after classes.
      Don’t forget to wind down every once in a while too, doing everything all at once might be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re away from home! ;-)
      I hope this helps, and thank you for commenting.


  9. Hello,
    I’m thinking of attending this school. Is it very far from shibuya station? The school is about 15 minutes by walk from the station, but looking at the map I have a feeling that it takes longer. Also, do you have any tip in terms of short-term housing options? I’ve looked quite a bit into different guesthouses, but was wondering if you know any better place to recommend. thanks!

    • Hi mini,

      It’s wonderful to hear you’re considering attending this school!

      Fifteen minutes sounds about right actually, 10 minutes if you’re in good shape and are a fast walker (a lot of it is uphill). There is also a subway line that stops closer to the school but I have no idea which subway line that is.

      I think the school itself offers some kind of dorm? It’s probably a lot more expensive than your average guesthouse though. If I ever go back to Tokyo for a couple of months I think I’d go for a share house with Sakura House. I have no idea if they’re as nice as they seem, but the prices seem alright, and they appear to be pretty well organized. It all really depends on how long you’re planning on going, which area of Tokyo you’d like to be in (I’d always recommend staying near a Yamanote line station), and what your budget is :)

      I hope this answers your questions :D


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