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
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
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
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
– 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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