Even after I could greet neighbors and strangers, shakily shout “orimasu” (I’d like to get off ) from the back of a crowded bus and glide through a bank account application with judicious use of “wakarimashita” (I understand), I still wanted more from my Japanese abilities. The height and thickness of the wall between me and total comprehension had shrunk since my early days of being in Japan but the wall remained. I concluded that I needed the help of a language school. But it had to be flexible and one offering parttime classes since I had a full-time job.
I enrolled in an evening class at a language school in central Tokyo, eager to embark on my language journey. The experience proved to be more than I could have imagined and all that I had wanted — at the same time.
Once classes began, what became immediately clear was that this was school. And school has structure. We would cover a schedule of grammar points each week. Materials were given to guide this weekly study. The teacher was committed, in a pleasantly firm way, to us getting through these materials in the allotted time.
This structure was good for studying in itself. However, it also revealed the gaps in my knowledge. I achieved a sense of accomplishment when previously unknown grammar points or vocabulary were practiced, understood and used in daily life. This was real proof of my improvement.
An important part of this structure was time to think. This is a departure from mumbling something — anything — to a gym buddy you run into on the street. Or going blank because even though you checked the dictionary and practiced the question you needed to ask someone in the office at work, you didn’t actually prepare for a response.
At school, since you have time to formulate responses using target grammar, you get to stretch your abilities by focusing on what you really want to say. This, for me, was the beginning of trying to think in Japanese. Your responses also have to make sense. If they don’t make sense, the teacher will tell you. She won’t just smile and say, “Nihongo jōzu desu ne” (Your Japanese is good).
But it’s not just the teacher whom you will talk to in class. Classmates also prove an integral part of the learning experience. In any class, students will have different levels and different strengths. Speaking to classmates is a good way to either practice explaining something in simpler terms or to challenge your abilities with those who might be more advanced. Not to mention the expressions, grammar and vocabulary that you can learn from your peers.
Even in our native language we have preferred words or phrases that we use habitually. I’ve found it’s the same in a foreign language. Everybody has an expression they use at least more than the average person. I still remember that I picked up “~ ni yoru” (because of ) from a classmate who used it often.
Teachers and classmates come together to provide a safe environment. At first you might worry that that everybody is going to be better than you, they’re going to laugh at you and you might slow the class down. But your worries will quickly go away when you realize that everybody is rooting for you and you are rooting for everyone else. No need to worry about mistakes. If your mistake is big enough, someone will correct you and you will learn. Plus, as you are paying for classes, worrying about making mistakes becomes a real waste of money.
Finally, language school was perhaps most valuable for me because it was in Japanese. At the time, I spent most of my daily life in a non-Japanese environment, so school was a way to ensure that I was hearing and using Japanese. Apart from class content, you get to talk with school staff, have conversations with the teacher, and, of course, your classmates. All of my classmates were from different countries, and I recall most people being able to speak English. But we were so eager to practice that we often spoke in Japanese. Even if we spoke in English it was most often about studying Japanese.
After a few months of language school, I didn’t wake up fluent. But I knew I had taken a significant step in chipping away the wall.