When I moved to Japan to start working as an English teacher, I quickly noticed an interesting pattern. Students were paying thousands of dollars to attend English conversation schools. They were taking lessons multiple times a week (sometimes multiple times a day), and pouring all their money into making sure they mastered English.
My English school included one free Japanese lesson a week. I had attempted to continue my studying from my one semester of Japanese in college, using the popular textbook Genki 2. But I craved Japanese learning unlike anything else. With a lack of online resources to guide me into self-studying, I was stuck. I wanted to study more. I wanted to be fluent now! Seeing my students right before my eyes studying all the time made me want to study all the time.
Their English was great. My Japanese (of 6 months) was nowhere near their level. They took nonstop lessons every week. I approached one of my veteran students.
Adam: How can I quickly get as good at Japanese as you got at English?
Student: Take more lessons!
The solution was obvious. Why hadn’t I taken action sooner?
I knew how much lessons cost. One of the unfortunate downsides of the school I worked at was being required to attend the weekly sales meetings. We discussed how much the school was making, how much students were “worth,” and how to meet target goals. All of this taught me how expensive learning a language was.
I had just graduated college. I had debt. The salary of an English teacher (monthly: 200,000 yen or $2,000) didn’t allow for many spending sprees.
I didn’t care. I’m going to take lessons.
I asked one of my co-workers for a recommendation on what to do. He told me of a tiny Japanese language school a few blocks away from where we worked. I walked over immediately on my lunch break that day to find out more details.
I was greeted by a bunch of friendly old ladies at the front reception area. They said they would be happy to have me enroll.
Friendly Receptionist: When do you want your lesson every week?
Adam: As many times as humanly possible.
Friendly Receptionist: Oh really? How about Tuesday and Thursday?
Adam: How about every day?
Friendly Receptionist: That’s a lot isn’t it? Let’s do 4 days a week. 5 is too much.
Adam: Okay fine… 4 days a week.
It wasn’t fine. I wanted lessons every single day. I would pay anything for Japanese fluency. But this was a start. 90 minute private lessons nearly every morning before going to work.
“That’ll be 48,000 Yen (~$500) for the month.”
It was worth it though. Money = lessons = Japanese fluency. As long as that formula held true, everything would turn out alright. I showed up immediately the next morning before work, filled with excitement. I soon learned that every daily lesson consisted of the same pattern.
1. Chat about anything for 10 minutes
2. Go over the homework the teacher gave me in the previous lesson
3. Read out loud from a textbook.
4. Read and answer questions from the textbook.
Sound boring? It should have been. But as a beginner, I had so much enthusiasm to learn the language that even just the thought of studying Japanese brought pleasure. I immediately had to brag to all my students that I was taking Japanese lessons, every single day. Top that.
This continued for a few months… And I was fluent!
That’s what I had envisioned. The reality?
I was exhausted. The 90 minutes before a full day of work and an hour and a half commute in each direction left me tired. I was getting bored with learning. The same class routine, day in day out. I was getting better…slightly. But it was such a small improvement that it was hard to notice. And the textbook progress was painfully slow.
As any good student should, I asked how I could study at home to increase my pace. The answer?
“Don’t do anything in addition to this. Japanese takes time. You’ll eventually learn everything.”
At a pace of 3 kanji a day, I would learn everything in 100 years.
I was beaten down and frustrated. My precious salary was disappearing into a void, and I was receiving nothing tangible in return. Maybe it was me? Maybe I was bad at learning Japanese. Maybe I wasn’t spending enough money? Maybe I should have taken 180 minutes of lessons daily instead of 90.
I was lost.
Watching my English students fast progress made me jealous. Where’s my reward?!
So I quit.
Here’s where I would love to say “I quit, found a new life-changing method, and was unstoppable!” But life doesn’t always work that way.
However, things got better.
Through quitting, my free time had returned. My money had returned. My stress levels had vanished. I felt revitalized, and I soon realized that taking classes had turned into a daily burden which was destroying me from the inside.
The good news was the experience didn’t completely kill my urge to learn Japanese. Instead, I did what every person disillusioned with classes does. I started studying on my own. I went to the giant international bookstore (Kinokuniya) in Tokyo and marveled at the dozens of rows of Japanese learner textbooks.
I had no idea where this would take me. But I was excited to try something new. I eagerly grabbed a few textbooks, sprinted to the register, and was ready to enter the next, more promising stage of my Japanese adventure…