Should You Start Japanese Lessons?

Posted: 6th Jan 2023

Welcome (or welcome back) to the Ippo Ippo Japanese blog!

Today I want to address a question that I think occurs to many language learners, but in particular to adult learners no longer in formal education.

Since becoming a Japanese teacher, something I have realised is that I was very lucky to have had the majority of my Japanese learning mapped out for me. I started studying the language over 10 years ago, and I still remember my very first lesson at the University of Edinburgh, in which my mind boggled at the length of the phrase よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku o-negai shimasu).

While my experience of learning Japanese at university was at times incredibly intensive and - I won't lie - stressful, I count myself lucky in that I had regular lessons generally five days a week during term time, with a year abroad in Japan to top it all off. While I know not everyone loves this kind of structure, for me it was pretty ideal in keeping the bowl rolling with my language learning.

Upon leaving university, I found myself quite at sea over how to proceed with learning Japanese, although I remained on a pretty intensive route of my own my studying for and passing N1 of the JLPT just after graduating in 2016, following which I worked at a law firm in Osaka for a year. Upon returning to the UK, however, I've had to take a more proactive approach, returning to a few of my study materials, reading the odd book here and there, dipping into podcasts and YouTube videos and, in the past year, starting fortnightly lessons with a teacher in Japan.

All this is very reminiscent of other language adventures I've had over the years, particularly in Mandarin Chinese and German. The difference, however, is that both of these languages are ones that I learnt primarily through self-study, only engaging in private and group lessons when I really felt well and truly stuck (although to be fair, I initially learnt German for a couple of years in secondary school).

For whatever reason, all this has been on my mind recently as I ask myself the question: if I didn't particularly want to have lessons with a teacher, why would other people want to learn Japanese with me?

While part of the answer to this lies in an attitude of "I should be able to do it by myself!" that I think I've managed to (mostly) shrug off over the years, in this post, I want to explore the kinds of questions I wish I had asked myself a few years ago. In doing so, I hope to provide some food for thought for anyone questioning whether learning with a teacher or tutor would be worth it, as well as to help those currently in lessons to reflect on and/or potentially reassess their priorities and broader learning goals when it comes to either self-study or Japanese lessons.

While I am of course a bit biased when it comes to the benefits of learning Japanese with a teacher (namely myself!), throughout this article I will aim to prioritise the perspective of a learner, in particular drawing on the issues I see students coming to me with when seeking lessons or general study advice.

The questions I suggest any learner ask themself when considering whether to start Japanese lessons are as follows:

  1. What are my learning goals?
  2. Can I reach my goals through self-study?
  3. Do I have the time for lessons?
  4. What do I want to get out of lessons?
  5. Can I afford it?

If you want to jump ahead to a particular question, just click on any of the links in the list above.

1. What are my learning goals?

Depending where you are on your learning journey, this may or may not sound like an obvious question to start with. By "learning goals", what I mean is essentially: what do you want to be able to do using your target language (i.e. Japanese)?

Examples of learning goals I've had students share with me include wanting to be able to:

  • Read their favourite manga in Japanese
  • Speak (and understand) some Japanese when travelling in Japan
  • Talk to a relative in Japanese
  • Understand the lyrics of their favourite Japanese band
  • Pass N2 of the JLPT to get a job in Japan

On top of these kinds of bigger, endpoint-focused language goals, you may also have some others that are more to do with how you study Japanese. For example, you may want to be able to:

  • Get into a regular study routine
  • Make faster progress with new language or a certain textbook
  • Have someone to hold you accountable with homework etc

Understanding why you want to learn Japanese can be an important step to making decisions around how you want to go about learning the language. That said, if you don't have any particular strong feelings around goals, there's nothing particularly wrong with just jumping in and having a go. Some people simply like the idea of learning Japanese, and that's that!

What I will mention at this point is that the more you learn, the more you might realise there are some things that don't match up with your personal learning goals. For example, you may discover that you love speaking but not writing - or vice versa, for that matter. Remember that it's okay to change your mind.

So: having had a wee think about your goals, it's time to consider our next question.

2. Can I reach my goals through self-study?

Depending what your goals are, your answer to this question may vary considerably.

In my experience of learning languages as an adult, it's easy to fall into the trap of insisting to yourself that you should be able to accomplish certain things through self-study alone. Vocabulary, for example, is something you generally have to spend time chipping away at by yourself, while speaking is also something you can practise through language exchanges or going to the country where your target language is spoken. You could argue that you don't need a teacher to guide you through any of this.

While there is some truth to all of the above, in my experience, trying to learn a language exclusively through self-study is something only a minority of people have true success with - and what's more, learning without the encouragement of a teacher or the shared struggle of fellow classmates is something that can be fairly isolating, becoming more of a test of willpower that can distract from the language itself.

Don't get me wrong: it's okay if you do want to test your willpower! However, looking back on my experience of language learning over the last 10 years or so, I can say with confidence that the times I've a) made most progress and b) had most fun have been when learning through teacher-led classes, be it in group settings or one-to-one.

Before we move on to the next question, let's look at two examples of learning goals and how you might answer the question of whether you can reach them through self-study alone.

Example 1

First, let's think about a complete beginner who:

  • Wants to learn Japanese but doesn't really know where to start
  • Wants to be able to communicate the basics when they travel to Japan for their honeymoon

If someone doesn't know where to start, there's a chance that they can get advice by doing research online or speaking to people they know who are already familiar with Japanese. This is definitely a route that many people take, and in fact I would suggest that anyone considering starting to learn a language should look into the experiences and recommendations of others. Tofugu, for example, has a great article on the topic of how to learn Japanese that you can read here.

However, if perhaps you find the process of researching how to learn Japanese too overwhelming or simply time consuming, it may be a sign that employing the support of a teacher would be a speedier, more effective way for you to sift through the nonsense and get straight to the good stuff.

As for this person's second goal (about communicating the basics when they travel to Japan), I see this as more of a mixed bag. While formal lessons are likely to be a sound choice in this scenario, there are a great many resources out there aimed at helping travellers pick up essential bits of survival Japanese by themselves.

To sum up, my honest recommendation when it comes to this second point is that if you have the time and energy, see how far you can get by yourself, then consider reaching out to a teacher to help you practise what you've learnt, including clarifying any areas of confusion that have arisen along the way. I recommend this especially because practising with other people can really help you get a more realistic feel for how interactions might play out in real life, as well as the kinds of miscommunications you may encounter along the way.

Example 2

Next, let's think about an intermediate learner who:

  • Did Japanese lessons a few years back but has since struggled to keep up a regular study habit
  • Feels like they're forgetting their Japanese

These are two common issues I hear from students who have learnt some Japanese in the past.

For those struggling to keep up a regular study habit, I generally have a few suggestions of things to try. While by no means fool proof, these include:

  • Starting small and keeping things light, e.g. by watching a Japanese drama or anime once or twice a week (if you don't already), and building gradually from there
  • Considering having a go at a language exchange (although this can take some courage if you're feeling rusty!)
  • Exploring some 多読 (tadoku) reading materials (see some recommended links in this article: Should I Aim to Read a Book in Japanese?)
  • If you have old study materials you've been meaning to go back to but feeling guilty about, considering whether it would be more motivating to switch to something completely new you haven't tried before

Depending how all this goes, the person in this example may find they're able to get out of their rut and back into a study habit they're happy with. However, it's not at all uncommon to struggle to create a regular study habit all by yourself. If you start to feel you're struggling to maintain motivation in your studies, this is the point at which I would suggest looking into lessons, as these can help to create structure as well as to provide direction and support with your learning.

The second concern this person has about feeling like they're forgetting their Japanese is very much linked to the above. While you can absolutely regain confidence in your Japanese through self-study or seeking input from others, e.g. language exchange partners, having a teacher to help jog your memory and encourage you step by step can make all the difference - whether you sign up for one 10wk course, a handful of one-to-one lessons or a whole year of group lessons!

3. Do I have the time for lessons?

Assuming at this point that you're leaning towards the option of learning with a teacher, it's time to start asking some practical questions.

Do you have time for lessons?

Let's say you're looking at a 90min group lesson happening once a week. If it's online, in theory all you need is that 90min slot to be able to squeeze it into your schedule. If it's in person, you'll naturally need to factor in commute time.

While I'm not advocating completely maxing out your availability to the point where you have zero free time, the duration of the lesson is naturally the absolute minimum amount of time you will need to put aside for language lessons.

In reality, however, many courses - and one-to-one lessons - tend to require a time commitment for homework and/or self-study, although this will vary depending on the intensity of the course or agreed study plan. For example, my Japanese for Beginners 2 course comes with a suggested minimum of 2hrs spread across the week (around 20mins a day), while the recommendation for my Intro to JLPT N2 Grammar course is 3-5hrs per week.

While it may seem glaringly obvious when written out like this, it's important to take all this into consideration before signing up for lessons so as not to set yourself up for stress and disappointment.

If you think you may struggle to put aside the time (and energy) for studying outside of class time, there are other options you can consider. For example, it may be more appropriate to seek private lessons with a tutor (either one-on-one or potentially two-on-one with a friend!). Many teachers offer initial appointments (like my own free 30min consultation) where you can go through your goals, needs and availability, and while most people opt for weekly lessons, you may be able to make a different arrangement, e.g. for fortnightly or even monthly lessons to begin with. I've had plenty of students come to me in the past saying they're struggling to make time for their studies, and it's never been a problem to adjust expectations and start things off at a more reasonable pace.

The reason I say "start things off" is not because it's impossible to learn a language without ever putting aside the time for regular self-study. While it may slow your learning down considerably in the long run, I very much appreciate that for many of us, e.g. those who struggle with their mental health or who are disabled, simply turning up to lessons at all can be a major achievement.

Instead, what I mean is that if you're finding it hard to make time for learning a language, taking the first tentative step into beginning lessons can kickstart a process by which enjoying - and just getting used to the process of - learning the language may end up helping you to feel more eager to learn in what spare time you do have.

It should be said at this point that I appreciate this may not apply to (or work for) everyone, and that not everyone has the luxury of spare time. All the same, I would hate for anyone to give up completely on starting lessons just because of a lack of time or motivation for learning outside of class time itself.

To sum up this section, some follow-up questions to go with "do I have the time?" might include:

  • What is the total time commitment of the course (or private lessons) I'm thinking about starting?
  • Are there adjustments I could seek to help me be able to access lessons?
  • Does it feel worth giving some lessons a go to help me work out whether I can make the time and if lessons are something I actually enjoy?

4. What do I want to get out of lessons?

Following on from the question of whether you have the time for lessons, another important thing to ask yourself is what you want to get out of learning from a teacher.

Assuming you already have an idea of your learning goals, the types of questions I might suggest you consider at this point include:

  • Do I want lots of personalised feedback?
  • Do I want to be assigned homework?
  • Do I want to learn with other people?
  • Do I want an excuse to get out the house?
  • Do I want someone who will take the lead in planning what I study?

If you want lots of personalised feedback, it's possible that you would prefer private tutoring or a small group environment as opposed to learning in a larger group. While there are ways of getting feedback even when self-studying (e.g. through apps like HelloTalk), having input from a teacher who really understands where you're at with your learning can be invaluable.

If you want homework, this is something you can potentially get through either private or group lessons. However, you may want to get in touch with the relevant teacher or language school in advance to check what kind (or amount) of activities you can expect will be set, as well as whether these are compulsory or just recommended.

If you want to learn with other people, naturally a group class is likely to be the right setting for you, although there are other options out there such as finding a study buddy (or study buddies) and taking part in language exchanges.

If you want to an excuse to get out of the house, you guessed it: in-person lessons are the one for you! On the flip side, if learning from home is more enjoyable or accessible for you, online lessons are likely the best option. It should be noted that it is also possible to get out of the house through self-study, e.g. by studying in a cafe, library or other space outside your home. One way I like to learn is by going for a walk while I listen to a language podcast.

Last but not least, if you would like someone to take the lead in planning what you study (i.e. taking some of the pressure off you), this is a key sign that you may appreciate taking part in a course with a pre-determined curriculum or having a go at one-to-one tutoring. It doesn't have to be forever, but you may find it helps you get back on track with your studies.

If you find yourself reading this and answering each question with a "no", it may be that you are more suited to self-study or perhaps finding other learners to study with outside of a classroom setting. Either way, knowing the answer to these questions is likely to help you make better decisions when it comes to starting formal lessons or not.

5. Can I afford it?

Our final question today gets down to something which, if you're considering starting Japanese lessons, you may well already have the answer to.

While unfortunately I can't offer a great deal of help to anyone who is completely unable to afford lessons (other than to point you in the direction of resources such as Tofugu's Japanese Learning Resources Database or my monthly newsletter, in which I often introduce free learning materials), I do have some tips for anyone for whom the answer to this question is "maybe" or "I'm not sure".

First up, if you're looking into one-to-one lessons, remember that many teachers are open to more flexible, ad hoc or infrequent arrangements than the standard once-a-week schedule. I've had many students over the years do fortnightly classes with me, and I even have a group course (Pre-Intermediate Japanese Conversation) that will be running fortnightly from late January 2023. While courses will typically require full payment up front, an increasing number of tutors and language schools are offering more flexible payment options such as split payments. This is something I've made available through Payment Plans, which allow you to spread the course fee over two payments. Even if you can't see any info about this when looking up information online, it's worth getting in touch with the relevant language school or tutor to see if other arrangements are possible.

In addition to this, there are plenty of teachers out there who do a limited number of free lives streams, pay-as-you-feel lessons etc. For example, see the video below by あかね的日本語教室 (@Akane-JapaneseClass). Even if you miss the livestream itself, you can watch back with chat replay to feel like you're a part of the lesson.

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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