There are tons of different ways to learn Japanese in Japan. Maybe you’ve been gripped by the will-they-won’t-they saga of Mary and Takeshi in the Genki textbook series, or you’ve been discussing the merits of Ryan Gosling with the old ladies down at the community center, or perhaps you’ve been taking private lessons that are the last thing you want to do after a long day at work.
And still, you feel like you’re not getting anywhere.
In this case, the Kumon Japanese Language Program – offering personalized instruction built around your own schedule – could be worth a try.
What is Kumon?
A global phenomenon, the Kumon method started back in the 1950s when math teacher Toru Kumon began to create personal worksheets for his son who was struggling with calculations at school. His son completed the worksheets on his own and then corrected them with the help of his father. Through this, he was able to rapidly improve his academic ability. And the Kumon method was born.
The Kumon Japanese Language Program is centered on convenient self-learning facilitated by Japanese instructors. You can either study at home with the correspondence course or you can visit a Kumon language center in your local area.
By learning in small increments, on a step-by-step basis, you avoid repeating the same mistakes and are able to build a solid foundation from which to progress. Best of all, you can hit the books whenever you want but still easily track your progress – ideal for those too busy to attend a regular class.
How does it work?
Whichever you choose, learning follows the same fundamental procedure: you work through the worksheets at your level (determined by an initial 30-minute diagnostic test) while listening to and repeating after the CD, and answering the questions.
Then once you’re ready, you submit the worksheets to your instructor who’ll correct them. If you’re at a center, you’ll go through the worksheets together and read the main text aloud before having a short conversation.
After, the instructor will give you homework to complete for the next visit. The amount of work you’re expected to do at home is 10 short sheets per day. After completing a certain number of worksheets you take an achievement test which shows if you can move on to the next level or not.
Who is it for?
The levels of worksheet you study are decided by a system of letters and numbers in three sections: 1) characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and vocabulary, 2) grammar, and 3) reading comprehension.
The idea is to overcome your weaker areas before moving on to the next set of worksheets. Like this, you’re able to build sound Japanese proficiency – in the same way as a native speaker would learn from childhood.
So even if you can write complex kanji but you still can’t write some hiragana, you’ll start with hiragana. The emphasis is on mastering your weakest areas to ensure a solid foundation from which to advance.
Your instructor will assign the sheets for you as you progress. The levels of learning are equivalent to beginner JLPT up until N2.
The great thing about Kumon is that it caters to all of the varied abilities out there. Living in Japan, you might have great listening and conversation skills but you haven’t had much chance to practice writing. Or maybe you’re a whizz at katakana but can’t get your kanji strokes in the right order. This is why a lot of students who’ve unsuccessfully tried to learn Japanese before find that Kumon works well for them.
How much does it cost?
The cost of learning with the Kumon method at a center in Japan is pretty reasonable too. High school students and above pay the top fee of ¥8,640 per month based on two scheduled hours per week with the instructor at the center and working on the rest of the materials at home. The correspondence course is priced slightly higher at ¥9,720 to include postage fees. The instructors at the Yokohama center that I visited were friendly and informative, and the space itself was comfortable and quiet.
To enroll at a center, you have to fill out an application form before taking the diagnostic test (if you’ve had some experience of studying Japanese). There’s no enrollment fee so you can go and check it out without signing up to a course.