My Long Summer at an Intensive Language Immersion School — 11 Comments

  1. Does anyone have experience with a language school like this in Japan? I feel like it would work a bit better.

  2. I did a language school program in Tokyo (ARC Academy). I personally found it a good experience. Here’s a brief overview of my background and my experience with it.

    I had studied for about 2 years half-heartedly in Houston, Texas, at the Japan America Society. It was 2 hours once a week with Genki Vol. 1 and 2, with no assigned homework.

    Luckily (unluckily?) I never had to study in college, so I never learned how to really study.

    In spring 2012 I took a trip to Tokyo for a week, and made it a point to check out ARC. I had e-mailed a few times and scheduled a time where I could meet with a current student and ask all the questions I wanted for about 30 – 45 mins one-on-one. Class environment, course materials, etc.

    I joined in October 2012. There was a placement test (written, but may have been speaking. Don’t remember) and was placed in a class with about 18 of us total. I was placed in level 2 (out of 10.. with 10 being the most advanced). Most of my classmates where Chinese. But some other classes had mostly Vietnamese. Depends on the time you join what majority will make up your classmates. And age was mostly 18 – 24ish. I was 28 or 29 at the time. I did see one student (not in my class) who was probably 40 – 50 though. Students at the school were from all over. Philipines, Taiwan, Croatia, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Russia, and so on.

    “Terms” are 3 months. Most of my classmates had joined today back in July. Teachers only used Japanese in the classroom. Classes were 1.5 hrs, 15 min break, 1.5 hrs. Then anywhere from 1 – 3 hours of homework a night.

    Weekly kanji tests, monthly (or thereabout) tests to see how well we knew the material covered (vocab, grammar, listening, etc.).

    I’d never taken JLPT, but I feel I started at probably a mid N5 level and when I finished I was a high N3. I did take N3 in July 2013 and passed, though several classmates took N2 and passed. N3 was my goal, so I was happy.

    The school was strict on attendance, which I was happy about, because students wandering in late can be a distraction.

    The school was not very strict on cheating though. A few times during tests a student was be spotted cheating and was simply told to stop, with no punishment.

    The school was expensive though. At the time tuition was around 700,000 yen. Textbooks and application fee excluded. The school does handle all the visa paperwork for you though. The school can help you find housing, but luckily I was able to stay with a Japanese friend’s family.

    The school probably isn’t for everyone, but I felt like I made a wonderful choice.

  3. Thanks for posting. I had read about that Middlebury program years ago and it sounded great. I didn’t have the opportunity to do it due to cost and felt like I missed out on my chance to be fluent. Sounds like there’s no secret key even at these expensive programs.

    • You definitely didn’t miss out! Self-studying has been much, much better for me. You just have to find what works for you. Some students of the program had been there before, so they at least liked it, but I don’t know what it really did for their Japanese skills.

  4. Thank you very much for this post, Adam. It’s always interesting to read about different Japanese schools, especially ones in the US. Those are often cheaper and more attainable for a good majority of us.

    I also did a language school program in Tokyo, Japan. The school was called International Christian University – or ICU for short. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s very well known in Japan since the royal family’s daughters both attended. It’s also difficult for Japanese students to get into, as they have to pass an English test.

    I was there from 2011 through 2012, just shy of 12 months.

    When you first arrive at ICU, you are given a placement test, including a listening section. You have 14 days to request a change if you feel you were misplaced; in my case, I tested low, and asked to be moved up. For me, it turned out to be a good move.

    Levels are 1-8 or so; the super advanced levels get a little fuzzy. I started in level 301 and finished on level 5 by the time I was done. Level 1 was absolute beginner and level 6-8 were rated fluent enough to take other classes in Japanese such as History, Literature, etc.

    ICU offers both a summer program and a year long program, so 4 terms total.
    The summer program is intensive only, and only focuses on Japanese classes.

    The year long program can either be normal or intensive classes, although I would call them “intensive” and “more intensive”. I took the “normal” level of classes, as I was also taking other classes for credits back home. If I had taken the intensive course, I would have ended at level 6.

    Normal Japanese classes have you completely memorize 20 Kanji and 30-40 vocabulary per week. Classes start at 8am and go until 3pm.

    Intensive simply means you do 2 levels in the time frame you normally would do 1. So, double the Kanji, double the vocabulary, double the grammar and homework. Each term goes through 1 entire textbook, so in intensive you go through 2 books. Classes end at 5pm.

    Classes are from Monday through Friday. You have an hour lunch break. There are classes dedicated to listening/speaking, reading, writing, Kanji/Vocabulary and Grammar. You get a LOT of homework. Despite this, you are expected to study beyond what the homework gives. The homework merely reinforces what you learned; it does not help you get ahead.

    Often, we were expected to know the material before actually studying it. For example, our reading teacher would have us read word lists that we had never seen before, or read excerpts from the textbook that we had never gone over. Since this was done out loud in the classroom (and was embarrassing), some of us started studying the next week’s chapter before we even finished the current one.

    If you want to have time to spend with your friends, explore Japan or take other classes besides JLP, then I would HIGHLY recommend the normal level classes.

    Obviously, every teacher is different, but at level 301, they do not hold back from using Japanese. Think rapid fire instructions and explanations. Typically most of us didn’t catch everything that was said, so there was a lot of collaboration between students to piece it all together.

    They also graded very strictly. Kanji must be perfect – no missed or wrong strokes. Vocabulary must be perfect. Grammar must be perfect. It was easy to get points deducted.

    ICU uses textbooks and audio files created by the Japanese teachers. So, they are not available online or from any bookstores. There is a bookstore on campus where they are sold.

    Aside from the Japanese classes, you can also take extra classes. Typically these started at 3pm and went until 5pm or so. Some are in the evening. For levels 5 and below, these are conducted in English and are a mix of Japanese and international students. These classes are ridiculously easy. Most had no homework, only the occasional paper essay, quizzes and tests. Straight up memorization for quizzes and tests.

    I believe that they are made easy on purpose for 2 reasons:

    1. Japanese students are likely to have problems accomplishing their homework with limited English knowledge.
    2. International students are often so bogged down with Japanese lessons they have little time to devote to these classes.

    These classes are part of the Japanese Cultural Program offered at ICU, so they revolve around Japanese history, literature, culture, etc. If you pass all of these classes plus your JLP classes, you receive an offical certification for passing.

    There is a huge mix of international students. Most of them came from English speaking countries such as America, England, Australia, etc. We had a few from China and Taiwan as well.

    Due to the stress and the fact that everyone is constantly in the same classes as you, you become best buddies with your fellow classmates. Rarely did we hang out with people in higher levels, mostly because they were so busy.

    Another reason for this is most of the students are houses in the international dorm. I, however, was placed in a Japanese dorm. So I had a Japanese roommate and dormmates while most of my friends had international roommates.

    I obviously spent most of my time studying on the weekdays and hanging around campus. On the weekends we would take trips into the heart of the city to explore. I did not participate in any clubs, as the Japanese workload (to me) was too much. Others did join clubs though.

    Much like Adam experienced in his post above, the level of stress was absolutely real. The amount of homework was incredible; missing 1 assignment put you back quite a bit. There were quizzes in at least one class per day, tests every chapter and exams (written and oral) every 1/2 term and full term.

    Because of this, many people dropped out of the JLP program. When we moved from level 301 to 401, maybe 5 people dropped out from our class of 20. When we went from 401 to 501, we were reduced to about 10. Some people failed to pass, and had to retake the lower level or some failed and simply dropped out.

    For me, failure was never an option. I had to pass all of my classes in order to graduate college upon my return. I also decided that no matter how stressful I was, I came to Japan for a reason – to learn Japanese. My regret would have been enormous if I had dropped out.

    Dropping out does not mean you were forced to go home early. You could still stay and take the other classes available during your time.

    Some people would think that being in a college in Japan would mean instant immersion. I’m here to say this was not true, at least in ICU. The other Japanese students and staff knew enough basic English pretty well, and would default to it most of the time.

    Because of this, ICU is a bubble of English in the middle of Japanese Tokyo. It literally is a different world once you cross the campus border. To truly get immersion, you have to leave campus. Also, when you hang out with your international friends you always revert back to English no matter how hard you try.

    Overall, while it was an extremely stressful stay, I think there is no experience quite like it. I was able to get all my credits needed for graduation, explore Japan and most of all, my Japanese level grew by leaps and bounds.

    I felt my mind had “clicked” into Japanese by the end of my year; I have no doubt that if I had stayed for another year, I would probably have been WELL onto my way for fluency. My mind had started instinctively grasping the grammar, my listening skill had grown so much.

    It was really hard for me to calculate these changes, but when I went back to my college in America and took the most advanced class they had, I literally SLEPT through the Tobira book. It was that easy. And when I had left for Japan, Tobira seemed insurmountable.

    So for me, this made it all worth it.

    My biggest regret is forgetting most of what I have learned over the course of that year. But when you go from an environment dedicated to learning Japanese every single day, to your home where you need to write thesis papers in English, I think you are going to lose something no matter what you do.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your own language school experience!

      But I actually didn’t write this. It was our awesome guest writer NekoNeko :)

  5. I went to Middlebury Summer Intensive program over 30 years ago, and have a family member currently attending. When I went, it was amazing. The teaching method was completely different, but very very effective.
    Unfortunately Middlebury has succumbed to the ‘naturalistic’ and ‘experiential’ method of teaching foreign language. No longer do you sit with headphones and practice rapid fire drills (of common phrases, words, and declensions) and memorize pages of important common words, instead it’s about ‘culture’ and doing power points. And if you want to be a tourist and go sushi eating in Japan and have a pile of cash to drop, then this is your program. For anyone who wants some fluency fast, nope. It won’t get you there. It’s an insipid, feel good program now. For sure, it’s more intense than just about anything, if you can’t self motivate, but honestly, not worth the 10k. Do Rosetta Stone, Anki, and park yourself at airbnbs in Japan with that money, you’ll be better off.

  6. I don’t want to invalidate your experience and views, as I did the Italian program 20 years ago, so it’s not apples to apples (I had the impression that the Italian school was among the best run programs and its 20 years ago) and in any event people can have different perspectives, but I had thought it it bar none the best way to learn a. Language and I learned far more there than in a year in Italy. It never left me and I’m fluent today.

    A few points. Yes you are speaking with people above and below your level, but it’s a full immersion experience. If you’re going to find a way to go to the target country and somehow not spend half your time speaking English, then you have a pointt that that could be more immersive. But as an English speaker, I feel like that’s incredibly hard to find. And the most important point is to be straining to speak and understand the target language all your waking hours; less important is whether the person you’re speaking to is above or below your level. And if you’re the personwho decides to break the language pledge, then, sure, it’s not full immersion and you harm yourself. In my experience yeah the cool kids did speak some English in private on weekend nights, but the school gave them a talking to so that it didn’t become widespread, which is the only thing I think you can reasonably expect the school to do.

  7. As a three-time attendee of 2 Middlebury language schools over the past 20 years, I can’t stress how much the Language Pledge to only use the target language will make or break your experience. Forming those relationships in English? You missed out. Pushing past all of that while remaining in your target language is the way to go. I remember a level 2 conversation one summer between 3 girls, one of whom was considering hooking up with a married guy (who had removed his ring for the summer) and the other girls advising her about various benefits or pitfalls to doing so. In the target language. It’s living the language, and all of the emotions and frustrations that accompany it, that imprints the learning. And it’s not just about contact hours – frequent “breaks” in English shatters the depth of that immersion.

  8. This was a really insightful article to read. I am planning on attending the Chinese School this coming summer and it was good to see an article that is actually critically of the experience so I know what to expect. For me personally, I am concerned about the homework. Even in Middlebury College’s regular academic year a major complaint I saw when looking at reviews was just how much homework they assigned. I have a friend who attends Middlebury as an undergrad and he attested to this in regards to his beginning French class. For me personally, I think I will still go through with the program despite this article.

    My main reasoning attests to a few things, 1) the current state of China makes it difficult for me to study abroad there this summer 2) while there are people who break the pledge, I plan on sticking to it the best I can because I really feel I need an immersive experience to actually improve (I’m taking intermediate Chinese at my college and have felt my improvement stagnating for a while now) 3) I find it very difficult to self-motivate so self-study isn’t very effective for me 4) In immersion programs abroad you do get the opportunity to speak with native speakers on a daily basis and be surrounded by the language but equally I feel a lot of (admittedly somewhat irrational) apprehension towards speaking a target language with a native speaker who is not in a teaching role. Simply put I get really self conscious that I am inconveniencing other people by speaking crappy Chinese and barely getting an intelligible point across. Heck, I have Chinese native as a roommate and I have not spoke to in Chinese once because of this. I don’t believe I would be able to really benefit from an immersion program abroad, at least not at my current level, because I get the feeling I would be too nervous to actually strike up conversation with people and take advantage of the situation. It sounds stupid I know, but something psychologically makes it easier for me to speak with other learners or teachers than someone I just randomly meet. I’m not positive I am making the right decision, but for all it’s worth my Chinese professor (who wrote my letter of recommendation for the application) supported my decision and I am trusting her insight as well.

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