Hurtling into Japanese Studies

I went to the first Japanese lesson of the new term and realized that I am already at the highest level of class offered by this volunteer organization. The realization was abrupt.

I have progressed through levels C, D, E and have now started F. There is only one further level but from what I hear it is a kanji writing practice course, without grammar and vocabulary.

I appreciate this volunteer organization in offering these classes by native Japanese speakers who have limited foreign language ability; the perfect combination for us learners. But, I get the suspicious feeling that it could be funded by the writers of the Minna no Nihongo (MNM) Japanese language book series. I have just purchased my third book from the series for these courses. And somehow, the courses tend to skip through the lessons. For example, the book for my new F class is Intermediate I. On day 1 we started from lesson 10 and were informed that we will only do every second lesson from the book. The book has lessons 1-12, so I anticipate the need to buy Intermediate II in 2 weeks. Something similar happened in prior courses for which I already have 2 partially completed books.

On Japanese language books, I have found the MNM series to be adequate but only due to supported the in-person volunteer courses that use it. I had previously used Japanese for Busy People (JFBP) for very expensive part-time lessons that I had participated in for 2 terms before opting out for self-study. It turned out that I was too busy for the JFBP series. It is probably a good series for anyone who is already beaming with enthusiasm about Japan. But my interpretation and memory of it felt like the following:

You are a dumb foreigner and are lost, hopelessly looking for a temple in Kyoto. Ask for directions to see the ancient World Heritage Site and accompanying magnificent rock garden. Write your conversation with a Japanese stranger for how you will get yourself from one restaurant to another with a temple in between while pretending that you don’t have a map nor a cell phone with SIM card and unlimited data:




This made me gravitate towards down-to-earth textbooks like Nihongo Challenge:

It’s always nice to laugh out loud from your study material.

This book had more practical lessons like trying to land a date, breaking up with a girlfriend, and even getting injured playing soccer football futsal!

And I even found this random textbook lesson in the bookstore:

The perfect kick-starter textbook to advance your salaryman career in Japan.

So it is the MNM book series for the win; simultaneously winning my textbook awards for 1) my most-used Japanese textbooks for the lessons that we have done and 2) least-used Japanese textbooks due to all of the lessons skipped. I credit it all to this volunteer organization and their use of the series.

This term has 10 lessons: once per week for 1 hour, 45 minutes each, as usual. It costs ¥300 per lesson so ¥3,000 for this term. The book costed ¥2,850, and I expect that I will have to buy another book soon, as mentioned, so I anticipate forking over nearly twice as much money on the books as the lessons themselves. This time around, I figured that I would buy the book directly from the volunteer organization to support their efforts in the hope that they get some kind of kickback.

And so, I had had a rude awakening in this top level F class last Saturday. It is the catch-all class level for this volunteer teaching group where, based on the MNM Intermediate I book, the level is roughly Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) – N3. I am at the point where I feel like I might attempt the JLPT N4 test again, while it seems as though some of the other students in the class have repeated this course perhaps more than once so they should be at the ~N3 level. That is a far cry from us new entrants. The material for JLPT levels N5 through N1 seems to double with each level. For example, the new material to learn for N4 is roughly double the material learned for N5, N3 is double that of N4, and so on. It felt like the top students should have already gone ahead and graduated to make room for us. Granted, this looks to be the highest level of class offered at this volunteer group so another group or learning method would have to be found to get through levels N3-N1. Perhaps the corresponding books are being written by the MNM series creators at this moment!

To make matters worse, the teacher on day one blew through the material as if it were a review. Perhaps a review for the repeat students… While I scrambled to look up a word definition from a sentence example, the teacher was already on the next question. I had started to write down the answer to #2 and when I was finished scrawling jot notes in my brand new book, my mind focused on the teacher’s voice again and I heard:

Next, #7.

The teacher was conversing with the top 1-3 students of our 8-student class. These top students belted out the answers as we raced to read each question. We, who had just graduated from E class, in some cases could not recognize any of the word choices to fill in the blanks and were rather left to choose between looking up 1 or 2 definitions of the word choices or simply listening to the top student respond to the teacher. It was unlike any of the prior courses and lessons that we had experienced.

My frustration and self-pity turned into amusement.

It reminded me of an example from Marketing class. My professor described how the Canadian fitness gym chain, GoodLife Fitness, offered 1-year contract memberships accompanied by a free fitness ‘consultation’ from a personal trainer. He described how optimistic and unsuspecting overweight customers would sign into the binding 1-year contract only to be hazed out of the gym from the first workout. The personal trainer would work them so hard on their first day to create such a negative experience that they would never come back again to tarnish the gym’s brand image but continue to ‘loyally’ make the monthly payments. I had actually signed up to one of these onerous cell-phone-type gym contracts luckily for only 6 months back in the day and I had witnessed exactly that. There were new sign-ups working their butts off on the floor with personal trainers keeping them sweating and then the rest of the members were ultra fit veterans, studying themselves in the mirror.

Over the course of the first whopper of a lesson for the New Year, the blame of my frustration moved from A) the top students not graduating (leaving), to B) the teacher tailoring to the top, repeat students, to C) the volunteer group organization itself. But of course, with the affordability, convenience, structure, volunteer native teachers, and minimal English, who could complain?

Finally, I felt optimism. Hope.

I am reminded of when I had worked in Korea. I had met a friend who shared the joy of pool, billiards. We had played together at our local pool bar at least once per week throughout the year. From the start, I was the better player and he was not that great. By the end of the year, he had become much better at pool and I had become worse.

So coming in at the bottom skill-level within this class, there is no place to go but up. Fake it ’til you make it. The less I study at home, the more my ass will be kicked in class. The harder I kick my ass at home, the lesser my ass will be kicked in class.

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