Tips for Taking your Japanese to the Next Level

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The annual turnover from one year to the next offers a ceremonial chance to separate the old from the new and embark on a new path of self-improvement. Many wish to enhance their personal lives, whether it be through marriage, children or even just getting a date. Others have more professional ambitions, such as looking for better jobs, targeting a higher salary and perhaps finally making that leap from English teaching into something more stable and long term.

If you live in Japan, one thing sure to help you move forward in all aspects of your life is to study Japanese — not least of which is your career prospects.

Time to level up

Ultimately, employers here will look for a high-level of spoken and written Japanese (around JLPT N2 or above) in applicants. It’s one guarantee to help candidates stand out from the rest — and that level remains the ultimate goal for me.

In the general sphere of English teaching, many companies see N4 as a sufficient level for non-Japanese staff to partake in staff meetings and lesson planning sessions with their Japanese colleagues. This is especially important for those teachers who may wish to work in elementary or special needs schools, where your colleagues may have had little, if any, formal English training. There is a trend these days for some schools to offer incremental pay raises to those teachers who proactively seek to improve their language skills.

Taking Japanese classes

So, now that we have resolved to improve our Japanese — what’s the best way to go about it?

Signing up for formal Japanese classes is the best way. It’s also the most likely to yield swift results. However, be aware that if you’re going down this route, classes get restrictively more expensive as the number of lessons approach the necessary frequency.

Although it’s true that “every little bit helps,” I would advise against doing a course of only one lesson per week. Language acquisition isn’t the same as learning to play the guitar or taking a karate class. It needs prolonged, continuous study to really improve — and one or two hours per week just isn’t going to cut it.

As a ballpark figure of the time investment required, I’ve used two different tutors over the past four years here in Osaka. For a few months prior to passing the N5, I attended a language school in Tannimachi, Osaka where the cost for four, 90-minute lessons per week was about ¥30,000 per month. Later, I was able to hire a private tutor for about ¥3,000 per 90-minute lesson. Although I didn’t pass the N4 at the time, my conversational language skills improved a great deal thanks to the more communication-focused nature of our three lessons per week. Admittedly, ¥36,000 each month was a big investment but overall I think it was worthwhile for the time I was there.

Group vs private

One of the drawbacks of a classroom-based environment is leveling. In much the same way eikaiwa (English conversation) schools in Japan suffer from the often huge gulf in ability between different students.

Conversation schools, be they Japanese, English or any other language are, at the end of the day, money-making enterprises, and whilst a great deal of them do provide quality, target-focused lessons, especially as an adult learner, who will be placed in your class with you is very much a lottery..

If you have other students of a much higher ability level than you, it can make you feel inadequate and de-motivated.

Conversely, if you find yourself head and shoulders above the others in the class, lessons can become boring and complacency can set in. As I learned painfully at the last JLPT test, the one thing you can’t afford to be when it comes to language exams is complacent!

A private tutor will keep you motivated, and provided they are competent, it should be no trouble for them to adjust the difficulty level and type of classroom materials to your own ability levels and goals.

Of course there are those amongst you who are probably thinking “I don’t need any of that, I’m self-taught.” Well, good for you if that’s the case, but I can assure you, you are in the extreme minority.

Learning a language is not, I believe, something that the majority of people can do alone. At the end of the day, communication is a two way thing and you will need to use these newly acquired words, phrases and speech patterns regularly in order to retain them.

Be social

My final piece of advice is to think carefully about the social side of life.

Yes, going down to the pub for a few ales with all your foreign friends sounds like a good time, but perhaps that time would be better spent outside of the “foreigner bubble.” Or — you might even consider doing it Japanese style.

Why not get together with some Japanese friends and head to an izakaya, coffee shop or a quiet local bar? Here, you can immerse yourself in an exclusively Japanese environment. What you create is basically an ALT lesson in reverse. Whereas, in the classroom we seek to immerse the students in an English-only environment, by going to a local establishment with new found friends, away from the usual foreigner haunts, the tables are turned.
It may sound anti-social, but honestly, the less time you spend with other English teachers and the more time you spend getting to know your Japanese neighbours, the faster your Japanese will improve. It also goes a long way to offsetting the worst effects of the dreaded “culture shock,” something I covered in a previous post.

The path to mastering Japanese is a long one and how we navigate it will vary considerably from person to person. However you decide to learn Japanese this year — make sure it’s enjoyable. That will motivate you to keep going.

After all, it’s not the destination that matters; it’s how you ultimately reach it.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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