How To Survive, Get Ahead, And Then Conquer Your Japanese Language Class

I’ve noticed something, recently. It’s quiet. Gone are the joyful screams of children. Gone is the pitter-patter of their little feet as they run past the office window. Gone is me yelling at them to get off the lawn, dangnabbit! All the kids are back in school, and that includes old kids going to college and university as well. What happens when school starts again? Well, for some of you that means you either start or go back to your school’s Japanese classes.

Taking Japanese in a classroom setting is a very unique beast. You’re required to study a certain way and answer certain questions. You’re also required to stay at a certain pace (aka whatever the pace the class is at). This can mean you slow way down and don’t learn as much. That being said, classrooms have their good points as well. In this article I want to go over ways you can take advantage of what your class has to offer while at the same time turning the negatives on their head. You’re about to learn how to have an absolutely great school year, at least where the Japanese language is concerned. Calculus? Well… you can always take summer classes, right?

The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Classroom Japanese

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There are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to learning in a class versus learning outside of a class. Some of them are:

Advantages To Classroom Learning

  • Ability to practice speaking with other (real) people. Your body pillow waifu won’t talk back to you no matter how much Japanese you use.
  • You can ask your teacher questions and get answers in real time (whereas if you email me I might just take forever).
  • There’s more structure, meaning that even when you’re not motivated you still do the things you have to do so you don’t fail. Not the greatest thing in the world, but helpful for those free spirits out there.

Disadvantages To Classroom Learning

  • You have to go at the pace of the classroom. In extreme cases you’ll have to go as slow as the slowest students, meaning you can’t learn as fast as you are able.
  • Your teacher might be terrible. Hey, it happens sometimes.
  • You have to study for the tests and quizzes, meaning your focus isn’t on actually learning… it’s on getting acceptable grades.

Of course, there’s probably plenty more examples on both sides of the spectrum. What I’m trying to illustrate here, though, is that it’s not all bad. In fact, there’s plenty you can get from a class that is hard to get elsewhere. We just want to know what’s what so that we can fix the problems and take advantage of the good. If you do that, you’ll be able to learn so much more in a shorter amount of time.

Hacking The Bare Minimum

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To start with, in order to be successful in your class you have to learn what the teacher wants you to learn so you can do well in your class. The thing is, when you’re in a class you have to do what the class tells you. No getting around that unless you want to fail (not necessarily a bad thing, but I think most of you want to avoid this). But, a lot of this classroom learning is going to get in the way of your real learning. The best thing you can do at this point is to just figure out ways to make what you have to learn in the classroom easier and take less time. There are several things you can do that will make your classroom Japanese class many, many times easier. If you do these things you’ll have a lot more time to get ahead of your classmates and possibly skip to a higher level.

Change How You Learn Kanji

Learning kanji in Japanese class is pretty painful. Most people spend fourish years in their Japanese class (whether in high school and college) and come out with the knowledge of around 300-500 kanji. This is pretty pitiful, but it’s not your fault. It comes down tohow you’re learning the kanji. I could go into this for a million more words but I won’t. It basically comes down to a few things:

  • You’re learning each stroke of the kanji individually instead of using radicals
  • You’re relying on repetition to learn the kanji when repetition alone isn’t actually that effective
  • You’re learning kanji to pass your tests, which means there’s very little reason to think about getting the kanji into your long term memory (only short term to pass the test)

My recommendation to you would be to just learn a ton more kanji than your class requires. It shouldn’t be hard. In the process you’ll also learn how to learn kanji, which will aid you greatly should your class require you to learn a kanji you don’t already know. For this, I’d recommend using resources like Heisig’s RTK, KanjiDamage, or our very own WaniKani (TextFugu does it too, but it’s less focused on kanji). These resources will also teach you how to learn kanji, as well as teach you kanji at a much faster rate than your class ever can or will. Remember, your class only moves at the speed of the students in it.

By doing this, you’ll be able to spend much less time on the kanji required for you to learn in class which will let you spend time on other things and get way ahead (not to mention you’ll be ahead on kanji as well).

Study Using An SRS

Learning using an SRS will help you greatly too. Most people study by looking at it, repeating it, and hoping for the best. An SRS will actually test you on your knowledge and do it at the right times (you’ll see questions you’re bad at more often and questions you’re good at less often). Also, the act of putting items (such as kanji or vocab) that you need to learn into the SRS will often times teach you the item right then and there. It may seem like a waste of time to put items into an SRS, but in the long run you’re saving yourself so much time. A good SRS program that’s free is Anki. Get used to using it a lot.

Relearn The Grammar With Different Resources

Sometimes teachers aren’t that great. Or, maybe you just don’t understand what you’re being told. Either way, it’s a great idea to learn the same grammar in multiple ways. Because grammar is so loosey goosey there are multiple ways to explain everything. This means that if you learn the same grammar point from multiple sources you’re going to fill in the gaps that the other resources left out, giving you a much clearer picture. One of the things people get stuck on is not knowing the grammar and knowing it well. Go study every grammar point you get in school using other things, such as TextFugu, Tae Kim’s Guide To Japanese, or some other grammar book (this one is good). Although it may seem like you’re wasting time by doing the same thing twice, this solidification of your knowledge will save you a lot of time in the long run, especially as grammar gets more and more difficult.

Gathering Building Blocks

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Now that you’ve learned how to demolish the stuff class wants you to learn, let’s take a look at the things you can do outside of class to get ahead. The first point has already been made: learn kanji, and learn it as much as you can. Kanji is the main thing that holds people back from learning Japanese because, well, if you don’t know it you’re kind of illiterate. So, study kanji like your life depends on it, because it will get you ahead of everyone and make literally everything to do with Japanese much, much easier.

The second thing is to learn vocab. The thing about classrooms is they tell you how to put together blocks and use them. The main weakpoint of most classes is they don’t give you enough blocks to work with. By focusing a lot on learning vocabulary (use SRS… kanji knowledge will also help) you’ll have more blocks to put together, meaning you can take advantage of the blueprints you are gifted. For this, I’d recommend starting one of the Core 2000 lists downloadable through Anki. We will also cover around 5,000 vocab that you learn via the kanji on WaniKani.

As you can see, both of my suggestions has to do with creating pieces that can be put together. It’s easy to study and learn these. It’s quite straight forward. They also assist in making the abstractish grammar more useful (and easier to learn). When it comes to communicating in Japanese, you can know as much grammar as you want… but if you don’t know vocab or kanji you have nothing to work with and you’re just as bad at Japanese as you were before you started. Study these things like mad and you’ll be skipping years of Japanese programs very quickly.

Taking Advantage Of Class Time

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I’ve been a bit hard on classes, so let’s take a look at the benefits. First, you are able to talk to someone. If you’re lucky, that someone is a native Japanese speaker. You get to practice your Japanese speaking, ask about pronunciation, and hear Japanese whenever you’re in class. Take advantage of these times. Focus on using your teacher to help you to understand why something works the way it does. Then, use all those blocks you have and put them together into something fancy based off what they say.

Also, bring questions into class.  The more you study outside of the class, the more questions you’ll surely have. It will also be nice to get less questions in my own email inbox (hint hint, jk jk). As the Chinese proverb goes: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

My last bit of advice, and this is a tricky one, is to help your fellow students. You’re going to be ahead of your classmates (don’t be a sesame grinder or a braggart about it, though) so you can help them out if they need it. The act of teaching and explaining concepts actually makes them more solid in your own head. Not only do you have to understand why something works, but you have to recall the information as well (great for memory). Teaching is great, just don’t make everyone else think you think you’re better than them.

Making It To Summer Again

If you keep up your studies, collect lots and lots of “blocks” to work with, and ask your teacher questions galore, you’re going to know a lot by the time summer hits… but what happens when it does hit? How do you study without all this structure and a teacher to ask questions? Well, that’s going to depend on you. You could take a look at this ancient Tofugu post about that particular subject, but perhaps it’s about time I updated it and wrote another article. That won’t be until summer, though, so you should concentrate on the task at hand: dominating your Japanese class and squeezing every bit of knowledge out of this ripe fruit that you can.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Very interesting post!
    I’ve never really experienced learning Japanese in a classroom. I took a few lessons when I was in university, but really just a few times and it was a very long time ago.

    I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in Japanese, but I speak Japanese every single day. And not just a little. Japanese is the language I use the most every day, followed by English … last comes my actual native language which is German.

    I’m self-taught. I guess studying in a classroom can be more fun and offer the necessary motivation and discipline that people who try to study on their own struggle with.

    Looking back I think for studying grammar properly I would have been better off with “classroom Japanese”, but apart from that I believe that – as long as you TRULY want to study Japanese – it doesn’t matter how and where you do it as long as you stick to it and keep doing it.

    My “classroom” was Japan itself – and I think that’s the best classroom you can have!! ^-^

    P.S.: Ignore any mistakes. It’s already 1am and I should go to bed now. ^-^;

  • http://twitter.com/JACKTHEDANIELS ジャック (Jack)

    It sucks learning languages at school, I learned more Japanese in six months with a private tutor than a year of Spanish at school :|

  • piderman

    I had been looking at offline classes but for €450 you learn half of one book of JFBP, and hiragana separately (what? you write wa as は? what nonsense is that?), all in about half a year. If you learn hiragana at all, many stay 100% romaji.

    Nooo, I’ll stick to online sources thankyouverymuch, in the long run it’s much cheaper and I learn a lot more :)

  • DAVIDPD

    Agreed. I think, though in all fairness, all ways of learning language(s) have stuck around because they work for different people. Some people are better at learning in a school setting, while others are better with private tutors, while others learn best teaching themselves. That said, “immersion” style learning (at least for languages) has the most evidence as being the BEST way to learn language(s) and RETAIN them.

  • pique

    How I’d love to have Japanese at school… Sure, You’ll probably learn faster with a private tutor or in the country itself, maybe even with a special course. But you first have to find time and money for that :/ Same with (online) selfteaching. And if you’re overly motivated you can still learn stuff apart from school, right? But it gives you a good basis :)

  • koichimainichi

    Someone should hire Koichi as Chief Department of Japanese. Anyone?

  • alienbee

    It doesn’t generally suck to learn languages at school. It really depends on your teacher and classmates and the amount of time you spend. I probably remember more Spanish from the 3 years I had at school (and not beeing interested at all), than I know Japanese, which I’m now learning for like 5 years at home or with a private tutor (and beeing highly interested in). Good thing about school is that you’re kinda forced to learn and you definately have the time. And if it’s only the lessons. For Japanese I barely have time to review my vocab everyday (but I do!) and I can only manage to learn maybe one new lesson per month :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    I’m studying Japanese as a diploma at uni, and while I have been using other resources as bonus study aids (like Japanese for Busy People and, yes, TextFugu) it’s not really the horrible dreary tediousness this article makes it out to be. And yeah, there are tests and the like, but the class isn’t just studying for the tests until I can make it to the final exam.

    Among other things, they actually require us to write and deliver a spoken presentation, post drafts for assessment in a forum, comment on other students’ drafts in the same forum, and actually discuss our topics verbally with other students while the rest watch.

    And yeah, we only learn maybe five kanji a week, but there’s no emphasis on “look, it’s fifteen strokes” – they just go “here’s how you pronounce it, here’s a few example words, now go learn it on your own”. It was my university lecturer who pointed out how many katakana characters appear as kanji radicals, something that Koichi has yet to demonstrate that he’s even noticed at all. =P

    They also expect us to speak in Japanese in class. If my tutorial teacher catches us speaking in English, she’ll come over and go ジョエルさんは英語が上手ですね!

    先生はちょっとこわい…

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Well, I wouldn’t expect many people to learn much Japanese in Spanish class.

  • ジョサイア

    Shes got a point there ;D

  • ジョサイア

    The way I stay motivated is I set goals for myself, Like my goal for Japanese is to be able to pass the Jlpt 5 by the end of this year. :D

  • http://www.myjapanesegreentea.com/ Ricardo Caicedo

    I agree with you, Koichi. The most important thing to study is kanji, it will help you with learning vocabulary quicker and also reading. If your kanji base is solid, it’s all downhill from there.

  • http://twitter.com/brightest ◕ ◡ ◕ thea

    Very good timing! I recently started taking extramural classes for beginner’s Japanese. I agree a lot with your first point in the disadvantages of learning the language in a classroom setup. Frankly, I found it hard to believe that there are people who have never come across to anything Japanese prior to taking the class. We spent more than an hour just trying to fix everyone else’s pronunciation of standard Japanese greetings. But then, being able to communicate in real time with another person is definitely easier for me in learning a language as opposed to learning everything through study materials only.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    lol

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    nuuuu thank you. that sounds too official.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Well, yeah, it’s going to depend on the teacher. Sometimes they’re awesome, oftentimes they’re average, sometimes they’re not so great.

    As for katakana characters as radicals… I don’t mention that because I use a completely different set of radicals for kanji teaching, so no real point of adding to that pot when it’s already pretty full, you know?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That’s a good example of how a class has to move at the pace of the slowestish person. Keep staying ahead of the class and you’ll have a great fun time! :)

  • ZXNova

    When I was living in Illinois it was pretty hard learning Japanese due to lack of Japanese courses, lack of being able to use your Japanese in real situations, etc. Although I was able to learn quite a bit self studying, it didn’t really seem like enough. Now that I’m in Oregon, I have a bit more oppurtunity to learn Japanese. There’s a Japanese class at my High School, and now I am able to have a bit of an easier time learning it. I kinda figured the things mentioned in this article would happen, so I was gonna do my self studies along with going to Japanese classes. So I would be able to learn twice as fast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PeterStanton Peter Andrew Stanton

    Third word of the last paragraph of the The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Classroom Japanese section: there’s -> there’re

  • kleinir

    Well, I have been taking a Japanese class for some time now (last year Level I, this year Level II) with a native japanese teacher. From what I see, my japanese class doesn’t go like the ones you probably know. It’s not slow at all. In fact, my teacher goes really fast, this year even faster (not so many students), as fast as the 2nd faster student probably. (Our teacher says that we are the most advanced and interested class she has ever had). And me, being a person who didn’t use to study… Well, I’m getting left behind. And I don’t think I’m that bad, but I do have a lot of work to do besides japanese. Still, I’m studying japanese and getting involved everytime I can, the problem is that I don’t study my class’ lessons.
    And right now my goal is to be ahead of my class, just so I can be more relaxed during it, and so I can study my own way. Although its already hard to keep up, that’s my goal.

    I’m portuguese, english is my second language and it was a piece of cake for me to learn it. Through games and movies I learned most of it. And in school, the english classes did seem really slow! I just want to get that same feeling with japanese.

  • Guest

    Totally experiencing this right now. I love my Japanese class, for the interaction and being able to get help from a native speaker. But we are using the JSL method and the vocabulary is IMO extremely limited. I’ve just realized that by the end of the book (and a year of study) we will only have learned about 40 verbs. Going to try out some of these suggestions and get the best of both worlds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503448715 Valerie Landers

    Totally experiencing this right now. I love my Japanese class, for the interaction and being able to get help from a native speaker. But we are using JSL and the vocabulary is IMO extremely limited. I’ve just realized that by the end of the book (and a year of study) we will only have learned about 40 verbs. Going to try out some of these suggestions and get the best of both worlds.