When I started learning Chinese, I never once considered taking a class. The simple reason is that I didn’t have the time and didn’t want to pay the money. But it might be more accurate to say I didn’t think that classes were worth the time and money. And although I’m currently not too thrilled with my rate of progress (mostly because I study for only 2 hours a week and also because I’m a perfectionist), I know that I’m a lot better off meeting with my language partners twice a week instead of attending a class for the same amount of time. Instead of having one teacher who I’d not only have to pay for but also share with all my other classmates, I have two private teachers all to myself who can cater to my wants and needs. That sounds like they’re my servants or something but it just means I get to decide what I want to learn and how fast for the fair price of returning the favor with the languages I’m familiar with.
My language partner once told me he was surprised by how much Chinese I’ve learned considering the fact that I never took a single class. I might have said the same thing many years ago but after learning Japanese, I knew that the bulk of the learning happened in the real world with real people. It’s telling that everybody I know who can speak Japanese has gone through tons of real-world exposure and practice. You can’t spend every day using Japanese for 2 years without getting really good. However, you can certainly spend years taking Japanese classes and still not be able to speak or read one whit of Japanese. This applies to about 80% of the students in my Japanese class in college even though we went through the same 2 years of classes. How many times have you heard the phrase, “You’ll never really learn Japanese until you live in Japan.” The first question to that should be, “Well then, why should I bother taking a class?”
What good is a class, then?
Well, you certainly can’t beat a class if you have no idea where to start. In other words, if you have no idea what particles are, how to use a dictionary, or how to even begin learning Japanese, a class can certainly help you get started. Also, the classroom is simply the most efficient medium of teaching when there is limited teaching resources. If there is only one teacher available for a large number of students, a class can be very effective in distributing the teachings of one person onto many. And if you have a particularly skilled teacher, many can reap the benefits at the same time.
As you can imagine, finding a good Japanese teacher can mean the difference between night and day in terms of getting a good grasp of the language and having a good foundation to build upon in the real world. Unfortunately, finding a good teacher can be difficult because you can’t really tell how good she is until you’ve already learned the language! That’s where I’m here to help with a list of some important things to check for in a Japanese class. Check your course syllabus or textbook and if you find that your class is failing every one of my criteria, you might want to consider finding some language partners or a private tutor and going it on your own. My guide and forum can certainly help you get started on your own.
Signs of a Bad Class
1. Uses Romanji
Ahhh, the famous romanji that forces every experienced Japanese learner to cringe. And yes, I misspelled it on purpose. In any case, if your class/textbook doesn’t teach you at least hiragana from the beginning, quietly excuse yourself from the class and never come back. Also feel free to set fire to the book, and wave it around while laughing at your former classmates like a madman through the window.
2. Doesn’t use Kanji
This is my second biggest pet peeve. Even if your class is smart enough to save you from the monstrosities of romaji, most classes won’t teach you a single kanji until it’s far too late. Your teacher should introduce them very early and also stress how important they are in reading things like… oh I don’t know… everything?? Start with 一、二、三. See? They’re not so bad.
3. No Dictionary Form
I understand that politeness is very important in Japanese society but do we really have to start learning masu and desu before the dictionary form? First of all, casual Japanese involves a lot more than just using the plain dictionary form. In addition, to nobody’s surprise, all the verbs in the dictionary are in the dictionary form. So if your very first list of verbs consists of 「します、見ます、食べます」, you’re not even learning words you can look up. First, you have to learn to reverse-conjugate them to the dictionary form and then you can conjugate them into something else. Seriously, I saw one textbook with masu-form to dictionary form conjugation rules. It’s crazy! All of Japanese grammar is built on the dictionary form and the conjugation rules for the polite form are one of the easiest in the language. I can hardly see Japanese students saying 「うぜえよ、このくそばば」 to their teacher just because they learned the dictionary form first and learned to conjugate from there.
Dictionary forms first, it just makes sense.
4. No rational understanding of the language
If your teacher says, “は is the topic particle, and が is the subject particle”, and you ask, “So what’s the difference?”, and he answers, “は describes the topic, while が describes the subject of a sentence”, you can assume he has no idea how to answer your question. Native speakers are great because nothing is worse than having a 外人… excuse me, 外国人 Japanese teacher who… can’t speak Japanese! However, the drawback of native speakers is that sometimes the basic aspects of the language such as particles are so second-nature to them, they really don’t know how to explain or even really understand how they work. Having a feel for the language is great for the speaker but doesn’t really serve as an explanation when teaching somebody else. I can’t tell you how confused I was when I was learning 「んです」 for the first time. Saying that it adds emphasis doesn’t really explain things at all.
The best teachers really study their own language and are experienced in explaining them to clueless students. Also, there are the rare non-native teachers who are really freakin’ good at Japanese and know how to explain things in a way that made sense to themselves and will probably make sense to you.
Signs of a Great Class
1. Teach casual Japanese at least somewhere down the road
It’s amazing to me that most Japanese classes never teach you everyday slang and casual speech. NEVER. I guess the idea is that you’ll somehow figure it out on your own (aah, the classic “throw them into the pool and watch them swim/drown method”). Or maybe they think there is no value in teaching a style of speaking that is used among close friends. Sorry, John-san, NO FRIENDS FOR YOU. I’m not even talking about the stupid stuff like 「ぶっちゃけ」 or 「私的には」. I’m just talking about everyday stuff like 「てしまう＝ちゃう」 or using 「の」 to ask questions. Is it so bad to teach, 「何してんの？」? OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I JUST WRITE??
2. Use a good Japanese-only textbook
Following up from #1, I was amazed when I saw one textbook that actually had a polite and casual version of the dialogue side-by-side. This was a Japanese-only textbook and upon further investigation, there appears to be a lot of excellent Japanese-only textbooks that you will never see in a store like Barnes & Nobles. (I went to the Kinokuniya in Seattle.) This is the kind of textbook they use to teach Japanese in Japan for people who don’t necessarily speak English.
Needless to say, I have yet to see a single English-based Japanese textbook that passes my simple criteria of a good textbook. Most of them have little to no kanji, some even use the dreaded romanji, they never teach casual speech, and they never explain things like particles very well. Japanese-only textbooks have some drawbacks as well such as very few explanations of how things work (it’s a Catch-22 because even if it did have a good explanation, it would be in Japanese and if you could read and understand it, you probably don’t need the explanation). However, they often do give you authentic, no-nonsense material and the rest can be taken care of by the teacher.
3. Teach the man how to fish, man!
No language class could ever go over every vocabulary or kanji needed to attain mastery of the language, so it’s inevitable that you’ll have to teach yourself at least some if not most of the language. I see this in advanced romance language classes all the time. They give you a novel and if there are words you don’t know, you’ll have to look them up in the dictionary and figure it out yourself. Big whoop. Ok, while it’s not as easy in Japanese, it’s by no means impossible. Your class should ideally teach you the skills to teach yourself.
Personally, I would explain how to study from example sentences from online resources such as alc.co.jp and the easiest way to look up kanji. I would also recommend some good electronic dictionaries with instructions on how to use them. There’s really no point in wading through a traditional Kanji dictionary and trying to identify the correct radical in our day and age. Also it doesn’t hurt to explain when to use 訓読み vs 音読み and yet, I don’t remember ever learning this in class.
4. Make the man fish even if he doesn’t feel like it
There’s really no way to become good at Japanese without practice and if a teacher’s job is to teach Japanese, he should make sure that his students get the practice they need whether they want it or not. At the very least, he could facilitate some kind of language tutor or partner setup. You can even match up classes from Japan via Mixxer. Ideally, practice should factor into the grading process like the Chinese classes at my college where meeting with language tutors was required. (Tutors were not required for the Japanese students which combined with the difference in how much kanji they learned, enforced the image that the Chinese students were just more serious than we were).
Personally, I would probably reserve one day of class to meet individually with the students if the class was small enough or make them find a partner/tutor somehow and reserve a day of class to present and grade on things they learned from their last session.
5. Teach what things really mean
When I ask my language partner how to say, “Can I go to the bathroom,” he knew the answer right away. But when I asked him how to say something like, “Even if I went now, I won’t make it in time”, he was stuck. This was very interesting to me because in Japanese, 「トイレに行ってもいいですか？」 and 「今行っても間に合わない」 uses the exact same grammar. As you can see from the literal translation, “Toilet go also is good?” and “Now go also won’t make it on time” is virtually the same sentence structure-wise. You can also probably guess that the negative such as 「今日行かなくてもいい」, which translates to “Today not go also is good” means “You don’t have to go today”. It really pays off to know what each part of the grammar is actually saying instead of just the English translation and your teacher should break it down from time to time.
6. Help students find what interest them
Mastering a language takes a lot of work and often times it can be a real drain to be constantly studying boring things like ordering at a restaurant or talking about the weather. I see people all the time having difficulty sticking with the language because of what seems to be an insurmountable goal, feeling of a lack of progress, or just a loss of interest. I think it would really be helpful if your teacher helped you explore what uniquely interests you about the language (hopefully it’s something a bit more inspiring than finding a Japanese girlfriend).
A good teacher should take interest in your interests and have a large library of movies, books, and other media of various genres that the students can freely explore. I would even put my PS2 in the student lounge if I was in charge. The really cool part is that it can only play Japanese games and DVDs. Another great idea is to have a budget for requests of stuff that the students are interested in (all in Japanese, of course).
So to answer the original question, “Should you take a class to learn Japanese?”, I think a good class can certainly be very helpful. Certainly better than no class especially if you’re a complete beginner and don’t really know where to start. However, there is nothing worse than having a bad class/teacher screw you up and create some very hard to break habits down the road. I think the field of Japanese-language education has been steadily improving overall but you still need to be careful. And with this post, I think you’ll have a good idea of some of the things to watch out for.
If you have any outrageous experiences in your Japanese class, please share them in the comments!