Is a Japanese Language School the Way to Go?

Is a Japanese Language School the Way to Go? post image
Japanese Language School

Okay kids, time to learn Japanese.

Going to a language school makes a lot of sense. After all, most of the basic knowledge you have about the world you probably got through some form of a school while you were growing up. For most people, and for our parents and their parents this was where you got your ‘learning’ from, schools. Sure, those really aggressive folks might have made a few trips to the library to do more research, but the majority of people went to schools.

But, if you learned a language in school, there is a good chance that you forgot most of it already. There are some exceptions to this of course. There are some truly good education systems that seem to produce pretty capable speakers of a language.

For instance, 99.9% of the Germans I have met in my life speak pretty good English, and I would say some Germans that I have met could have fooled me into thinking they were American if they hadn’t told me they were from Germany.

On the other hand, there are plenty of self-studiers or language hackers out there that seem to be doing pretty well. In fact, some of them see better results for less money in better time. So, what’s the deal, should you go with a school or self-study?

How old are you?

So, first off, if you are still a hard core believer in the whole ‘you can only learn a language when you are young’ myth, that has been busted. You can learn a language at pretty much any age. If you haven’t been exercising your brain a lot, you might have a hard time in your 80s, but other than that you are pretty much able to do just fine.

However, the way you learn things can be much different. When you are younger, you are used to school, you are used to having assignments given to you. Having some kind of structure or schedule of classes is probably a very comfortable way of doing things for you. Furthermore, you like constant feedback through tests and quizzes that let you know how you are doing.

On the other hand, if you have been away from school for a few years, you are probably pretty used to doing things your way. On top of that, you might have an irregular schedule. For example, some months you are extremely busy, while others you have to hunt for things to do. For these reasons, a lot of people in their 30s and older will generally opt for self-studying.

Learning Style

Do you need to learn through experimentation? Were you the kid that loved ‘physical’ subjects like biology or chemistry where you got to experiment and actually see things happening. When you get a new app or a smartphone, do you read all the instructions or do you just jump in and start goofing off with it?

If this sounds like you, you are an experimenter. You need to learn something by doing it. If this is the case, self-studying is probably a good choice for you.

Or were you the person that took meticulous notes and was able to recall definitions of biological processes? Could you write out all the steps to calculus solution with precise accuracy? Do you love to read books, tons and tons of books?

Well then, taking a class might be better suited for you. Now, a good school and a good teacher will allow for experimentation in class and for students to use their creativity. But, a school can not allow you to go off the beaten path too much, because there are other students and they might not want to take the path you want to take, at least in classroom work.

Go Beyond the School Walls

If you do take a class, there is a tendency to put a good amount of trust in the teacher and to follow along with the flow of the course. I mean, the teacher is the expert after all. You should just do everything they tell you, and you will become a foreign language speaking machine right?

Well, first of all, not all teachers are created equal. They are only human and can, at times, leave things out or explain things in a way that leads to misunderstandings. For example, even natives will disagree on what sounds natural from time to time. This is actually a regular topic among my colleagues at work. I will actually ask them ‘Would you say this?’ or ‘Would you describe this, in this way?’

A teacher will give you advice based on what they see in class (if they give any advice at all). But, what is really causing problems with your language learning could be a whole host of things. For example, I hate to say this, but some students lack social skills even in their native language, so when they go to learn a new language it’s twice as difficult because they simply aren’t familiar with what kind of information that would be exchanged in certain situations.

Great students go beyond the book and the school walls and do some out-of-the-class experimenting. That might be just getting a chat partner to work with or it could be working your way through some supplemental textbooks that the teacher didn’t require you to read. Some classes have bad textbooks, so you might need to get a replacement.

In other words, don’t just follow the teacher, just for the sake of following the teacher. You still have to do the assignments and do what is required of you, but make sure you journey off the path and personalize it for you. I think language is a personal thing that you need to take charge of to be successful.

Which do you Choose?

Language school or self-study? If you did go to a language school, which school? And how was the experience? Do you think you learned faster/easier? Let me know in the comments below.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Niffer September 21, 2013, 9:35 am


    I am defiantly someone who works well in a school environment but you’re right when you say studying outside of the class makes the experience even more worth while.

    If you have the time and money I strongly suggest people go to Japan to study Japan, at least for a few months (which is easier for students with the summer holidays free, or even a gap year before or after University).

    I just got back from a 6 month trip studying at NILS in Fukuoka (, which I highly recommend. I even wrote a review on it if people are interested in studying in Japan and don’t know what school to go for:

    Hope this helps ^^

    • Clayton MacKnight September 23, 2013, 2:22 pm

      Thanks for the contribution. I’ve personally never gone to a language school, and so I always wonder about their effectiveness. Thanks for the write up.

  • Alex September 22, 2013, 9:47 am

    Having taken Japanese language classes at uni, taken a break, then done some self-studying I will be returning to language classes come winter.

    Speaking for myself the structure a taught class introduces into my learning feels very beneficial, and it is good to have someone to query when you have a doubt about some grammar point – after all, humans can rephrase an explanation, but books cannot.
    Hopefully, now that I have had the experience of doing some self-studying, I will also be able to keep looking beyond the classroom.

    As for other languages – I am one of those Germans you mentioned, I suppose, so I was quite happy with the teaching at school.
    I would add that in my experience the Scandinavians are even better when it comes to average English ability.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 23, 2013, 2:25 pm

      Good points. Especially about rephrasing an explanation. I think even if you do study on your own it helps to have a tutor or at least some other resources to ask questions to.

      I’ve heard Norwegian is the easiest language for English speakers to learn because it is the closest to English in structure. I guess it is just as easy the other way around. I did meet someone from Iceland that spoke great English as well.

  • Chad September 23, 2013, 8:57 am

    In my opinion, the people who I have met who formally studied Japanese either while here or before they came not only learn faster, but tend to reach higher levels than those that do not. Of course, there are always passionate learner exceptions, but I think there are three large advantages to classes (or one-on-one tutoring) that are hard to overcome alone

    1: A class (or even a tutor) is a whip at your back. As every slug knows, where there’s a whip there is a will. Positive feedback doesn’t hurt, either.

    2: Grammar. Learning words and kanji on your own is easy. Learning the subtleties of grammatical structures is decidedly not. This is usually how I can tell those who took classes from those that didn’t. The latter often develop huge vocabularies if they live in Japan long enough, but remain unable string them together into anything but single phrase simple sentences.

    3: A teacher or tutor will correct your mistakes. Your Japanese friends generally will not. Trying and failing is a great way to learn…but you need to know that you failed. Without someone there to correct you, not only are you likely to repeat the mistakes, but you may well deeply internalize them, making them hard to rid yourself of even after you do figure it out.

    I wouldn’t say it is impossible, but I doubt many self-learners can beat the average progress made in a full-time school. Nor do I think that an hour or two a week with a tutor wouldn’t benefit even the most passionate self-learner. Obviously there are always time and money constraints, but to the extent that one can, quality professional help is almost always useful.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 23, 2013, 2:33 pm

      Good points. I guess I should clarify a little bit, self-studying doesn’t exactly mean locking yourself in a room and studying your heart out. When I had a tutor (for the first year or two of studying) I would consider myself self-studying because I wasn’t really following any set class or curriculum. Instead I would just study what I like and then ask questions about it with my tutor and maybe practice a few short conversations.

      I definitely need a tutor now, but my schedule is absolutely impossible at the moment. I have a hard time getting to normal stuff like picnics and swimming lessons. In the past my wife has tutored me a lot, but now she is busier than me. 🙂 Anyway, thanks for the good points!

  • Jansen September 28, 2013, 1:34 am

    Speaking as someone who’s done both language schools and self-study, I personally prefer the structure a class gives. That said, a class that relies too much on the students’ native language won’t be as beneficial as a class that’s conducted entirely in Japanese. It’s also on the student to try to participate as much as possible. In other words, if your nose is buried in your book the whole class period, you probably aren’t going to get as much out of it.

    I attended Middlebury’s Japanese Language School this summer, and it was easily the best, most productive Japanese-learning experience I’d ever had. But that was also because I was in a Japanese-only environment all day, every day. I had to speak Japanese not just in class, but during meals, with roommates, and anytime I was with anyone from school. My weekly phone calls with family was, for the most part, the only time I used English.

    On the other hand, students in language schools often use their native language with their classmates and non-Japanese friends once class is over. At least, this was my experience in college, even when I lived in Japan. I always knew it was best to speak Japanese as much as possible, but I didn’t realize the benefit of practicing Japanese with non-native speakers until I studied at Middlebury.

    Right now I’m doing self-study (with an emphasis on conversation practice), but I’m also trying to get into an advanced Japanese language school for next year. If I make it, I will probably be that obnoxious student who only speaks Japanese to everyone, even if class is over, hahah. It’s just so important to actually USE the language with everyone you possibly can!

  • Isaura September 28, 2013, 5:16 am

    Now I am studying Japanese in a Japanese language school, my teacher is a native Japanese teacher, too. Studying from a native Japanese teacher is very pretty for me, for my listening skill. We are studying Genki and Integrated Approach for Intermediate Japanese, etc. Kanji and grammar I am selfstudying, for me it is not problem. I am reading Japanese books and newspapers a lot, etc.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 28, 2013, 11:47 pm

      I think studying with a native is the best way to go, especially if they don’t know your native language. It does help to have some out of class explanations in your native language, but interaction needs to be in Japanese.

  • Joonu September 28, 2013, 5:33 am

    Hi Mac,

    If one isn’t in Japan, and would like to pick up the Japanese language, then I would think going to a Japanese language school that has a native Japanese teacher does a tremendous amount of good. While self study too is great, a Japanese teacher could help to reinforce the finer aspects of the language. I went to one such school here in Chennai, India, S&N Hayakawa School. I have a lot more to learn, but going to them did me a lot of good! 🙂


    • Clayton MacKnight September 28, 2013, 11:49 pm

      Yeah, outside of the country I can see where they would be invaluable. Also, if you are a higher level student, going to school in-country is invaluable as well because you just don’t get enough exposure to the more complex structures in daily use. I’m starting to wish I could take more classes.

  • Daniel September 28, 2013, 6:51 am

    I pretty much agree with what you have to say.

    When people ask me whether they should take Japanese classes or not, I generally say it doesn’t matter too much as long as you apply yourself as there is a wealth of material available for the self-learner. I myself am a fourth-year student majoring in Japanese, and though having a formal education has helped, I must say my informal and self-study has been way more useful. Breaking into a language is the hardest step. learning how to pronounce syllables and the basics of reading and writing etc is no easy task to do on your own, so a formal education may help. However, after getting the basics down (Genki I and II), a formal education is not as useful as one already has a good enough understanding of the language to pretty much fully understand the grammar explanations etc. written in textbooks. Some people say tutors are useful. I’m sure they are, but I found just asking Japanese friends questions was good enough. Sure they aren’t good at giving explanations, but by knowing this, I could often ask certain follow-up questions that would steer them in the right direction.

    I did very well in my first year of Japanese university classes, but by second year I found myself falling behind, especially in terms of speaking. The majority of the students in my classes were Chinese and had a lot more experience with Kanji and just communicating with Japanese people in general. Because of this, I had trouble communicating and participating in class discussions. By the end of my second year I was pretty much ready to give up, and dropped my summer class to figure out what I was going to do. Luckily 2 weeks later I ended up meeting two Japanese exchange students who were not all that proficient in English, and I became friends with them quickly. This was a huge motivator for me; finally being able to use Japanese with “real” Japanese made me want to start seriously studying again. I was also able to network with a lot of Japanese through them. I took a break from Japanese classes for the first semester after the summer class i dropped and just did a lot of self-study and practiced speaking, improving quite a bit and gaining confidence. I decided the next semester to finish my second-year Japanese studies, thinking I would be able to perform well. My Japanese was good enough to at least participate in class and understand class discussions, but my professor was terrible. She was by far the most demotivating teacher I have ever met which did not help me improve in any way. I ended up not getting a good enough mark to go on to third year. Despite being quite depressed, that summer I continued with my self-study but bumped in up a notch and worked extremely hard on reading, writing, and speaking through Japanese friends and various textbooks and native materials. At the end of summer, I re-took the class I failed and got a good mark (it probably also helped that I had a great teacher). Third-year Japanese was fine and the teacher was alright, so I was able to improve and pass the N2. This year I’m taking a sort of philosophical discussion class. About half the students have Japanese parents and speak Japanese at home and the other half have lived in Japan for quite some time and have a lot of experience. There are only about 3 or 4 that are just normal students. Despite this, the class is still going well due to all the self-study and practice I do with Japanese friends. The point is: Self-study is more important and useful. Especially after second-year Japanese, I found everything I was learning in class I had already learned on my own. Also, If you’re a native English speaker and deciding to major in Japanese, you have to do a lot of outside practice and study. A lot of my friends who were planning to major in Japanese had to dropout because they just got so overwhelmed and lacked experience.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 28, 2013, 11:56 pm

      What a great comment!

      You really made some good points that I think a lot of people struggle with. Class is great, but it can sometimes go too fast or too slow, and picking up some extra self-study as much as you can will boost your odds of success. I see this a lot with my own students studying English. Some of them have spent a lot of time abroad so they can communicate well and are comfortable with English, but have fossilized some mistakes, and so it is hard to get over that hurdle. Others have never been outside of Japan, but have studied so hard (on their own) that their level is pretty darn close to a native.

      The students that fall behind and struggle, leave a lot for the teacher to do. They get used to just grinding through the homework and ‘passing’ the class, but not really participating and getting into it. Teachers are great, but you need to understand how to teach yourself as well.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Lucy September 28, 2013, 5:52 pm

    I did start learning Japanese by going to a language school, unfortunately I had a very bad teacher who talks more to herself then letting us understand a language. Being a chinese teacher, her Japanese was not really strong, so I didnt do all that well in my first N5 and having her going on about how I just didn’t pay attention enough in class was not all that motivating. So I changed my study plan by buying a few books and started self study. So far I managed to pass N5 amd N4 easily and expecting to take N3 this Dec, but just in case I fail I already found a language school in which a native Japanese speaker is teaching, so hopefully that will be a better experience than the one i had before.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 28, 2013, 11:59 pm

      Teachers can really make or break the experience. And good teaching can not be taught sometimes. Some people just aren’t natural teachers. I had one or two of them (the class was taught by 4 teachers and we got a new group every quarter) for my college Japanese classes.

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