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Choose Your Path to Fluency

Absorb Japan’s Language and Culture in Tokyo

Multiple kanji readings, perplexing particles, three alphabets…yes, the Japanese language is a tricky one. The most effective way to cross the language divide is to pack your bags and head to Japan for full immersion; once there, regardless of your level of fluency, you are sure to be chin-deep in opportunities to practice speaking Japanese because most locals speak little English. Add to this, the culture of “saving face” where communication hiccups are met not with impatience but graciousness. Could you possibly find a more conducive place for language learning?

Building blocks at a pre-college intensity

There are two things to keep in mind when considering a language school: your personal goals and visa needs.

If you want the discipline of developing a solid base in the language, go for a school certified by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education (www.nisshinkyo.org). These schools can sponsor language students for the pre-college student visa for renewable periods of six months. (The initial processing takes six months.) The visa will also permit you to work part-time.

The Study in Japan website (www.studyjapan.go.jp/en/toj/toj05e.html), has a small listing of language schools. However, to pick one out of the more than 370 certified schools your best bet is to follow word of mouth advice, visit a school, sit in on a class, and judge for yourself.

Judging from the fluency of some of its former students, the Naganuma School’s (www.naganuma-school.ac.jp) strict curriculum gets good results. If you are willing to sweat and breathe Japanese studies for a year and a half, coming out of such an intensive program will leave you linguistically ready to be one with the locals.

Or maybe you seek a smaller school for a sense of community away from home. Shibuya Language School (www.shibuya-gaigo.com/sls2/index.html) fits into this category, boasting flexibility (small classes taught by a rotating group of teachers) and cultural exposure (excursions out of Tokyo). They even offer the possibility of a homestay with a Japanese family.

Even if you do not want the visa or the building blocks almost all schools have less intensive courses. Focus on conversation, business Japanese, or whatever combination of skills you desire.

Private lessons for the noncommittal

If you would rather not commit yourself to an institution, check out Labochi (www.labochi.com), which matches students and qualified teachers for private lessons. On the website’s application form, you can specify the qualities you want in a teacher as well as your personal goals.  If you happen to find a good match, this Japanese mentor could be your key into the culture. I’ve heard of an Irish girl who was on such good terms with her teacher that she and her husband were invited to spend a traditional weekend at her teacher’s family house in the countryside.

Know thy neighbors

Another way of learning from the locals (at almost no cost) is through the Tokyo Nihongo Volunteer Network. Encompassing more than 200 Japanese Language classes around the capital, the Nihongo Volunteer activity originally blossomed in the years 1993-4 to help out its population of foreigners displaced by the burst of the economic bubble. Made up mainly of housewives and retired businessmen, the intention is not necessarily to provide pure language study but to support its foreign residents as members of the community (from how to deal with landlords to learning important vocabulary for the grocery store).

You’ll find class sizes ranging from large group lessons to one-on-one chats. Some groups will teach out of textbooks while others will ask you when you arrive, “what do you want to learn?” For help with grammar, customs, or simply some neighborly advice, check out the listing of courses on www.tnvn.jp. Or you can simply submit a request with a note of your criteria (location, desired course of study) and the TNVN will respond with recommendations. The foreign residents’ support section of your ward office will also have information for your area.

Now that we’ve covered your language bases, let us go over a few ways to round out your skills.

Reading…ah, if only you knew how

If indecipherable kanjis are deterring you from reading, start out with children’s books or mangas instead. Let the kanji readings spelled out in furigana and illustrations carry you along.    

For grown up topics, you’ll find the monthly Hiragana Times available at any bookstore. Insightful articles for those interested in Japan are translated paragraph by paragraph from English to Japanese. Challenge yourself by trying to figure out the Japanese part on your own first.

Surprisingly useful is Making Out in Japanese by Todd and Erika Geers. It is filled with expressions used in colloquial “plain talk.” This is how people really converse out in the real world beyond the stilted dialogues of the textbook world.

While you are at it, pick up a few locally produced CDs. Listening to songs while following the written lyrics is an entertaining way to get in manageable portions of reading practice.

Karaoke: a passion for song

What do you do when you have gotten to know a good selection of J-pop? You take your skills to karaoke! A Thai girl once told me how after a few months of schooling, her fluency and kanji abilities continued to advance thanks to regular karaoke outings. With the lyrics and music coming at you in real time, you’ll have fluent Japanese rolling out of your mouth in no time.

Head to the Izakaya

The locals can be a bit shy about contact with foreigners. This is where the izakaya becomes the ideal setting. An izakaya is similar to the tapas bar, where snacks are plentiful and drinking renders socializing as smooth as butter. Whether it be a group of red-faced youths or businessmen with their ties off, chances are that sake will have loosened their tongues and inhibitions. Wait for the tap on the shoulder and the request to explain yourself, since you are an intriguing foreigner….

Finding balance in a language partner

If you’re self conscious about subjecting the locals to your poor language skills, find a forgiving ear. Find a language partner. The classified section of the local free magazine, Metropolis (metropolis.co.jp), is packed with ads requesting Japanese-English exchanges. Look for a match in age, interests, convenient meeting location…and let the conversation flow from there.

Pillow talk and other human interest stories

You have no doubt been told that pillow talk is the most effective way to master a new language but simple friendships works too…if your heart is in it. The beauty of the concept is that language is no longer the hurdle but instead the tool used toward the greater goal (to satisfy your interest in someone). In Tokyo, international clubs, bars, and parties are aplenty. The Pink Cow (www.thepinkcow.com), a bar-restaurant-event space, draws an international mix with its weekly schedule of events. For a more targeted approach, the Tokyo International Club (www.kokusaika.org/index_e.html) organizes speed dating and international friendship parties (essentially singles parties).

Whatever works for you

We all have different ways of learning. The important thing is to take an approach you are comfortable with. Once you have made a good start, look at the aspects of language learning you are less than comfortable with. Chances are, these are the areas where you will need to push yourself for more well rounded fluency. The great thing about learning Japanese in situ is the challenge of adapting your communicative ability to the “only in Japan” contexts you will encounter. By the end of your stay in Japan, you may find that you’ve not only absorbed the language but become quite attached to the culture as well. Go on, give it your best shot—Gambatte

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