Trying to Pay my Way to Japanese Success
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…
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I took Japanese 101 at the local city college as soon as I finished 8th grade. To me, an 8th grader with little experience with the language, the slow pacing of the class was perfect, and actually made me get out there and study (which I didn’t have the discipline to do on my own). Having a native speaker as a teacher who knew how to teach the language, and gave context to the things I was learning—that’s what really helped me grasp and solidify the fundamentals of the language.
While I’m aware that college classes aren’t the same as lessons with a tutor, I think lessons can be beneficial for those just starting with a language. As a complete beginner, you have 100% to gain and nothing to lose. If it weren’t for those beginning Japanese courses I took, I don’t think I could have done it on my own. While classes or lessons are definitely not for everyone, they got me started!
Personally, though, chancing upon Jalup was really revolutionary for my studies, and some of the intial trouble I was having with Japanese would have been quelled had I found it earlier.
This post definitely isn’t meant to imply not to take Japanese classes (I took one beginner class in my final semester of college and enjoyed it). Just my experience with expectations and one specific experience.
I agree, that there is no harm at all in trying one. And if it doesn’t work, you can adjust from there.
This was really interesting and enjoyable to read. I feel like there should be a continuation (hint hint) :D
Maybe I’ll continue the stories then…
I definitely hired a tutor early in my Japanese learning process. I thought it would help me towards fluency, yadda yadda.
Gosh, it was just mind numbingly boring and while not as expensive as yours was, still dug into my pocket a bit. I was actually less motivated to study the day before and day of the tutoring session. Apparently I don’t like being held to a schedule.
Maybe in the future I might hire one to be a conversation partner. But never to go through textbook exercises. Massive input (reading and J-J sentances) has done so much more for me, with way less money.
I know for people tutoring does work, I just hope it’s actually enjoyable and motivating. And maybe for people who want outside accountability, it’s awesome. But it was discouraging to hear them constantly correct mistakes that would have gone away on their own with lots of reading and listening.
I assume a lot of the experience depends on the tutor, how they help you, how they let you grow, and how they guide you.
It’s up to the student to make the best of a tutor or language informant, which means the student determines what, and often times how, to study.
The author compares his progress in Japanese with that of his students, but there is no substantive comparison of the methods each respective party was using; and there was no comparison of the lessons provided at his work with the lessons he actually paid for.
While it makes for an interesting story told from this perspective, it also takes on a tone of “classes are useles,” with no retroactive look at why the paid tutoring did not help the author progress towards his goals at a speed he determined. The author clearly let the class dictate his study patterns, whereas an efficiently utilized class or tutor can act as an excellent supplementary tool in Japanese learning, akin to having a strategy guide or a helpful NPC. As other commenters have pointed out, the accountability a scheduled class or tutor can provide may serve learners well when motivation runs low.
I hope for a more introspective article at the next installment.
I’m sorry you feel that way.
This post in no way is meant to say classes are useless. I’ve discussed the pros/cons and classes elsewhere (http://japaneselevelup.com/japanese-class-friend-or-foe/). And I enjoyed my experience in my college semester.
This is to provide a personal experience. One that others may be able to relate to (or not). I think it’s a bit judgmental to say that if classes (or a tutor) aren’t working for you, then you are the problem. This is often not the case. Some people learn better in classes. Others do not. And the teacher/tutor does shape the experience.
And as for comparisons to where I taught vs. where I learned being different, of course I shouldn’t have been comparing them at the time. A lot of this article is meant to show me making assumptions that turned out to be wrong.
I’m sorry you feel sorry! Let’s try to assuage those hard feelings.
1) As a later commentor mentions, if the learner does not take control of their study – by, say, looking at a class syllabus and confirming that the contents match with their study goals – then said learner is by all means at fault. You get what you choose to pay for; the solution to the problem of having an ineffective class or tutor is to find another one. Same is true for a boring book or TV show, etc.
2) Re: comparisons, comparisons should be done, however it should be primarily comparisons of the teaching methods to determine whether they are effective or not, and fit the learner’s goals and preferred learning style. The article does not go into depth about the teaching styles, but unless you (as a language teacher) were also directing your students to read through the textbook during class and not study English outside of class time, “classes in general just don’t work for me” is not a valid conclusion to make based on your respective progression rates.
The article is telling a story and prioritizing the perspective of the author at the time of study and not at the time of writing, and it is inspirational; however, it would better serve today’s learners with the reflections noted above included.
Do you realize that the text is making the same point you that are making? (You can skip to the “Skip here”)
>It’s up to the student to make the best of a tutor or language informant, which means the student determines what, and often times how, to study.
That IS the whole point of the article. See below.
>The author …. paid for.
That’s the main point too. Yeah, in hindsight, the author should have done this BEFORE taking classes. In the end he realizes that he should have looked more into the study habits and methods of his students before blindly taking the advice “Take Lessons”. So yeah, he did not compare the study methods, nor did he compare the lessons and institution. That WAS his mistake. It is the same point that you are making.
>It also takes on a tone of “classes are useles[s],” with no retroactive look at why the paid tutoring did not help the author progress towards his goals at a speed he determined.
What are you talking about? There is plenty of retroactive look!
a. “Their English was great.” “Take more lessons”. Near the beginning of the article, Adam makes is clear that English classes were working for his students. Their English was great. The whole article follows him on his journey to emulate that success. Classes did not work for HIM. By the way, he never implies that English and Japanese are different languages to learn and should be learned in different ways.
b. [My teacher said] “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.” – The author trusted his teacher at that point in time, but looking back, the author found flaws in the teacher’s logic. This supports your previous statements.
c. “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 author was financially burdened, stressed, and not in the ideal environment for studying. Leaving classes gave him free time.
This implies that if he had NOT let his teachers dictate his classes, had more free time and money, he would have found classes to be beneficial. However, the author’s PERSONAL experience was a bad one, and he makes it clear that not ALL classes are similar to the one he joined.
>The author clearly let the class dictate his study patterns, whereas an efficiently utilized class or tutor can act as an excellent supplementary tool in Japanese learning, akin to having a strategy guide or a helpful NPC.
I hope for a more introspective article at the next installment.
Your comment summarizes the article pretty well.
LOL you are reading things that are not in the article; there is no explicit retrospective analysis, and it sure is not saying the same things I wrote in the comment above. The article (and you as well) treats classes as a singular entity that either works for an individual or doesn’t, completely ignoring the question of different methodologies actually being a factor in student progress.
Take a look at the conclusion, he is disillusioned with classes after only having tried one
(and… will write about moving on to superior self-study methods in article #2. Stay tuned!)
BTW, you should also take a shot at replying to Hanson86!
Well I completely understand your frustration. Those feelings of no progress at all and wasted money. But, after 3 years of learning Japanese (after 1.5 year I started anki deck) and a lot of irritation, I must say that, that for me, there are 3 main factors for great Japanese lesson experience:
1) Teacher – Must be a native, open for new ideas, communicative, likes this work, you must get along with this person and so on.
2) Method – Student must provide his own method to a teacher. In other words you need to KNOW how you want to learn. With every passing lesson you can make it a little bit better.
3) Private lessons, only tutor and student. No classmates.
If you want to take lessons, you MUST customize / create your own learning method for classes. For me it was only possible, because I had very bad experience with teachers. I knew what didn’t worked for me.
My current lessons looks like this.
1) Once per week for 2h.
2) Native teacher. Very open person, really friendly and communicative. Propably I could talk about any topic with her.
3) Lessons are 99.99% in Japanese. Polish (my native) or English only for some words. Sometimes its not worth the time to define word in J-J during lesson.
4) My main goal from these lessons is speaking. That’s why about 1.5 – 2h it’s just conversation about any topic. Anime, drama, books, work, everyday life and so on.
5) During 0-30min there are explained new grammar points (from native point of view), short kanji test, listening and reading exercies. Sometimes there is nothing from this list, because lesson became purely converatsion class.
6) Grammar exercises are prohibited. In fact, this is the worst think ever created for normal classes. But that’s just my opinion :)
To make it clear. At first, speaking time took max 10-15min. I wasn’t able to hold conversation for any longer. In fact, my speaking level was so bad that I had to improvise using gestures or drawings. But I was able to share my thoughts, and that made me fulfilled.
Good tips for trying to make the most out of a Japanese lesson/class experience. Thanks for adding your experience!
If you want to spend money to improve Japanese, one idea is to go the indirect way: spend money to free up time, and use that time to study.
For example I hired a cleaner so now I don’t do any housework and use the extra time to study!
That’s a great idea. Giving yourself more time to actually study is definitely worth the money.
Classes are a gamble, if you can find one that works for you great, but I’d rather just learn on my own.
Btw, I love personal stories like these.
Agreed. They are a gamble, requiring a little skill, some luck, and good timing.