Blogs galore abound with stories of young people moving to the other side of the world to start a new life. It’s easy to imagine a scrawny Welsh college graduate taking a year off to go teach English in the Cambodian countryside. Or a German software engineer thinking it would be pretty sick to do a motorbike tour around Argentina.
Many of those trips are just that: trips. A quick burst of adventure before embarking on a decades-long trek down the corporate road.
Then there are those who have something else in mind. Maybe they’ve started down a career path and thought, “Wait a minute, no way I’m doing this non-stop for forty years!” Maybe out of college they decided they couldn’t live without satisfying their curiosity for a far away culture. Maybe they’re just loaded and can do whatever they want without long-term financial consequences.
Whatever the reason, these are the kind of people who end up in language school. I was in that first category, and my language of choice was Japanese.
What is language school?
There are plenty of ways to learn a new language as an adult, but just like getting a six pack, the only way that actually yields results is hard work and discipline.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by people with six packs.
Language school is the linguistic equivalent of military-style boot camp. You’re signing up for at least twenty hours a week of intensive language lessons, sprinkled with homework, tests, and real-world activities. Unless you’re actively trying not to learn, you will get better.
However, just getting better doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth it. Language schools are expensive. They’re time-consuming. At times, they can feel soul-crushing. Many people end up losing what they’ve learned a few months after returning to their home countries; or even just by tucking themselves tightly within the expat community and never really using their language skills.
Whether or not Japanese language schools are worth it really depends on what how long you’re planning on learning, whether you’re prepared to take the financial hit, and your reasons for studying Japanese in the first place.
Let’s break it down.
The first thing every expat with broken Japanese told me when I got to Japan was, “I wish I’d spent more time early on in language school.” I’ve heard it from dozens of people; especially those who have settled down here.
If your mother tongue is significantly different from Japanese, the language won’t come naturally through osmosis. You’ll pick up a few words, maybe even a few phrases, but you won’t become fluent. The reason for that is simple.
In Tokyo especially, you’ll learn to survive without good Japanese before you learn to thrive with it.
That doesn’t mean language school is the only route. Plenty of people learn Japanese on their own, and being in Japan will absolutely help you with that. However, I believe that if you go to a Japanese language school, you will learn faster. No doubt in my mind. The environment is more motivating, there are more learning materials, and you’re paying a lot to be there, so you’re more likely to want to make the most out of it.
That being said, there are a few caveats.
Your fellow students
Japanese schools typically offer group lessons, and how fast you learn is going to depend on your fellow students. Be smart about where you go. Look up class sizes, and try to get information on the average age and most represented nationalities at your school.
In my experience, young students whose lessons are paid for by mom and dad just aren’t as motivated, which can be a pain if you’re stuck with them for a group activity. On the other hand, schools targeting working professionals with night lessons might not be ideal either, since your classmates are more likely to be exhausted after work.
I’d recommend a school with an average age in the mid to late 20s, that offers classes in the morning.
The nationality aspect is a bit sensitive, but very important. Depending on what your mother tongue is, you’re not going to learn a new language in the same way. Japanese and Korean grammar are extremely similar, and they share some vocabulary. Japanese kanji (the Chinese characters that make up the bulk of Japanese writing) are easy to pick up for Chinese students.
Teachers naturally tailor the speed of their lessons to the average of the class, so if your native language is English and you’re learning with twelve kids from China, you’re probably going to fall behind. Unless you’re ready to work twice as hard as everyone else just to keep your head above water, I’d recommend a school with a mix of nationalities. Or people with a similar linguistic background. Whatever you can find.
Length of study
Then there’s how long you want to spend in school. Here, know what you’re aiming for before you go in. Typically Japanese language schools will offer three-month increments, with the full program from beginner to advanced lasting around two years. At my school, levels 1-3 were beginner, levels 4-6 were intermediate, and levels 7-8 were advanced.
This can be misleading. Very few students go through the whole two-year program. Most will come in at a certain level and progress from there. In my experience, the higher you go, the bigger the gap will be between incoming students and students who started from scratch. The reason is that the schools usually want to make more money by having people stay longer, so at the initial assessment, they round down the language ability.
I did most of my school’s program, going from level two to eight, so 21 months in total.
Hardly any of the people who started as beginners and did the whole program with me were able to pass the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT N1). A lot more were able to pass the second highest level, JLPT N2. This is not what language schools advertise on their website, but it’s the reality.
If there’s one thing you want to keep in mind, it’s that Japanese is really, really hard for Westerners. Let’s look at how long you should study depending on your desired outcome.
If you’re just learning as a hobby, then the duration of study doesn’t really matter. Knock yourself out for as long as you can afford it.
If you’re thinking of working in Japan as a foreign specialist who doesn’t rely too much on language (e.g. engineer, data scientist, developer, web marketer, designer), most companies demand N2. Same thing for most universities and specialized schools (I’m looking at you, aspiring manga artist).
For people in that category, If language school is the only thing you’re doing and you’re ready to work several hours a day, every day, on top of language school, you’re looking at about one year. If you’re doing things other than study or aren’t the most studious person but are still motivated, probably 15 to 18 months. If this is your first foreign language, you’re not that great at studying or your pace is a bit slower than average, it could possibly take you the full 24 months.
Say you’re like me, looking to work for a Japanese company in a more generalist position. You’re going to want N1. Same thing if you want to get into an elite university program in Japanese.
I’ve heard stories of language geniuses who were able to pass N1 in about 15 months of study. They’re a hyper-minority. Let them brag on Twitter and Youtube while we move on.
For me, it took until the end of my program. I passed N1 just before graduating, so in just under 21 months of study. I was working a side-job to pay for my living expenses, which was not ideal for studying, but I still did at least a couple hours a day at first, and then four to six hours a day every day in the lead-up to the final exam.
The JLPT N1 was the hardest test I’ve ever passed. Harder than my Master’s dissertation or any university class I’ve ever taken. I barely made it, despite countless hours and a lot of past experience with foreign languages. Every person is a bit different so I can’t give you an objective assessment, but at least you now have one data point.
In general, I’d advise to tailor your length of study to your expectations. If you just want to learn casual conversational Japanese without trying too hard, maybe nine months is enough. If you want to stay long-term in Japan and assimilate, stay as long as you can, but remember that if you want to pass N1 by the end of the program, you’re going to have to put in a LOT of work on top of school.
Your overall environment
Just because you’re moving to Japan to enroll in a language school doesn’t mean you’re going to make the most out of your learning environment. I’ve seen plenty of students come all the way to Japan just to spend all their time with expats in familiar bars and cafes, never having to really push their Japanese beyond grunts and broken sentences.
As I mentioned earlier, learning for adults doesn’t happen by osmosis. You actually have to be proactive about extracting lasting knowledge from the world around you. It’s notoriously hard to make Japanese friends, but far from impossible. For me, living in a sharehouse and finding people via language exchange apps was extraordinarily helpful.
There are also plenty of bars that cater mostly to Japanese patrons, but where they would be glad to have a foreigner or two. Same goes for restaurants; you won’t learn as much by pressing the same two buttons on a vending machine as you will by going to a traditional izakaya with Japanese friends who can explain the menu.
Since kanji are arguably the most difficult part of learning Japanese, make sure you absorb as much as you can from your surroundings. This is where curiosity comes in. Your brain is much better at remembering things in context. You’re far more likely to remember the kanji in your address or from your favorite karaoke song than from a flashcard. Use that to your advantage by providing as much context as possible to your learning experience.
The final major component of your work environment will be your side job. I taught English, which paid much better than most part-time jobs, but was counterproductive to learning Japanese. If you can afford it, you’d be much better off not working at all and using that time to find a healthy balance of study, rest and entertainment.
If you’re like me and can’t afford the golden life, teaching English could be your best bet. Just be aware of the fact that it’s exhausting. Lessons at most schools are delivered factory-style, with (depending on the school) 40 minutes of teaching followed by a five-minute break, again and again for hours on end. After your tenth lesson on a Saturday, it’s unlikely you’ll have any energy left over to memorize new grammar structures.
With those caveats in mind, let’s move past the linguistic aspect and look at the financial implications of going to language school.
If you are from a country that is as wealthy or wealthier than Japan, financially speaking, going to language school will almost never be worth it in the long run. Unless you become a celebrity here, chances are you’re going to spend a big part of your life learning a skill that will open doors to lower-paying jobs than those you could have gotten back home.
Not only that, but companies that require Japanese will often offer less money for the same job than foreign-based English-speaking companies in Japan.
This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of learning Japanese as an adult. Those years you spend learning a complex language and its underlying culture, other people are spending on developing management skills, becoming a better engineer, networking with other professionals, and so on.
It has become so notoriously unprofitable to properly learn Japanese that most companies don’t expect anyone to do it. Few companies have experienced the benefits of a multicultural workforce, so they perceive the value of foreigners only as translators or localizers. Therefore they will only hire either a translator and pay them a translator’s salary, or a Japanese person who has a high score on their English proficiency test.
As a side note, the test most widely used throughout Japan (known as TOIEC) only tests listening and reading, not writing and speaking. That’s how you end up with people whose level of English has been grossly overestimated in important global communication positions.
Now that I’ve set the big picture for career expectations, let’s look in more detail at the school itself.
The cost of language school
Different language schools obviously have different costs, but most Tokyo schools are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 JPY per three-month term. Mine was just over 250,000.
Contrast that with Japanese wages. Legally on a student visa, you’re allowed to work up to 28 hours a week. Most hourly service sector jobs in Tokyo pay between 1,000 and 1,200 JPY an hour. People looking to work in a Japanese environment at a store or restaurant are looking at less than 140,000 a month.
English teachers make more than that. As a part-time English teacher, I was raking in on average 175,000 JPY a month. In my best months, I could get my income to just over 200,000 JPY. My sharehouse (which was old and small, but in a nice area) cost me 70,000 JPY a month.
Some quick math and you can easily see why even by teaching, it’s almost impossible to pay for language school tuition with the money you make working in Japan. This isn’t a cheap country, and daily living expenses add up quickly. The only people I knew who were able to pay for their cost of living with their revenue stream were people who had freelance work in Europe or the U.S. For the rest of us, it was either savings or parents.
The biggest issue however isn’t with tuition or living expenses. It’s with opportunity cost. A quick Econ 101 refresher: Opportunity cost is how much you lose by not choosing an alternative option. For language school, the opportunity cost is phenomenal.
As I mentioned earlier, while you’re sitting through Japanese lessons, the people you’ll be competing with in the job market are busy advancing their careers, and probably making money doing so. To many employers, the time you spend in language school is going to look like a hobby. On your resume, those months of gruelling study read the same as, “Worked at a salmon fishery in rural Norway.”
Because advanced language learning is seen as a hobby, the cost is on you, the employee. It’s unlikely to be reflected as a raise in your post-graduation salary.
In other words, spending two years working like crazy to painstakingly learn enough about Japanese language and culture to get into a Japanese company will result in you making less money than another foreigner in Tokyo doing the same job, but in English at a foreign company.
On some level, it makes sense. Learning Japanese is a passion project, and companies have no obligation to reward you for doing something you chose to do on your own. The same way I could spend weeks building the world’s most amazing sandcastle, and I may end up with a truly astonishing piece of work, but nobody is under any obligation to give me money for it.
Obviously the difference between language learning and sandcastle building is that increased diversity and multiculturalism actually brings a lot of value to companies. Unfortunately though, since that value doesn’t appear on spreadsheets, it’s a hard sell to all but the most progressive-thinking employers.
The Life Experience
The great thing about life is that it’s not all about any one thing. It’s not all about accumulating knowledge, making money, finding love, or travelling the world.
If I hadn’t come to Japan, I’d probably have a lot more in savings. Perhaps a more prestigious career. I may have gotten married and had kids. At least that’s what all of my friends who stayed back home seem to be doing.
I may not have chosen one of those paths, but not for a second do I regret coming here. Nor do I regret starting off my journey with language school. I’m content with having sacrificed savings, stability and career success, because I’m satisfied with what I got in exchange.
Before moving to Japan, I made sure I knew what my reasons were. I wanted to immerse myself into a different culture, learn as much as I could, gain a new perspective on life, and become a better, more accomplished person for it.
I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied without a high level of Japanese. I knew I would fail unless I worked for a Japanese company and had a network of Japanese friends with whom to speak Japanese. So I worked hard toward that goal. I gave it my absolute best.
Having goals doesn’t make things easy. I still have doubts and anxieties like any other person. There are plenty of times where I thought of giving up. However, having that well-defined sense of purpose helped me refocus. Whenever I felt like Japanese would be impossible to learn, I reminded myself where I was headed, what I wanted to achieve, and I powered through.
At the end of the day, I think that’s what made the difference. It’s why I stayed when so many of my classmates went back home. Having a defined set of realistically achievable goals and setting a timeline to achieve them is the only way to accomplish amazing things in life. Guess I learned a valuable life lesson, too.
If you’re reading this wondering if Japanese language school is right for you, here’s my advice: Write out a set of realistically achievable goals that tie into what you hope to achieve in life. Break those goals into small chunks so that you never find yourself stuck miles away from a destination. Adapt your goals as you go along and get better at your own pace.
The hardest part is knowing what is realistic. Language learning varies so much from one person to the next that even well-intentioned language schools can’t tell you how long it will take to get to the level you’re aiming for. My own personal experience is also going to be very different from yours, so all of the timelines I wrote here may not apply to you.
Nevertheless, here’s how things worked out for me. I didn’t actually write out my list of goals, but in retrospect, if I had, this is what it would have looked like:
Overall goal: Immerse yourself into Japanese society, learn from Japanese culture, blend that knowledge with your own and try to become a better person.
0 months: Before arriving, start studying Japanese. At least learn some survival vocabulary and a few kanji.
6 months: Be able to start speaking conversational Japanese. Make Japanese friends.
12 months: Be able to have everyday conversations in Japanese, and start approaching more complicated topics.
15 months: Pass JLPT N2. Start studying for JLPT N1.
18 months: Be able to do job interviews, read articles and understand most television programs in Japanese.
21 months: Pass JLPT N1. Graduate from language school.
24 months: Find your first job, hone your business Japanese.
30 months: Find a more stable, long-term job at a Japanese company. Become an autonomous, contributing member of Japanese society.
Wherever I was, having a big overarching goal punctuated by short-term achievable goals helped me stay focused on what was ahead. I would only look back when I was panicking. That’s when I would remind myself that I had accomplished all of my previous goals, so there was no reason to believe I wouldn’t accomplish the next one.
To be honest, things started getting harder after language school. After I ticked the last box, I really had to sit down and think, “What’s next?” To this day, I haven’t figured it out quite yet, but I’m getting there. I’m making another list. But that’ll be a topic for another time.
For now, let’s just say the longer your list and the bigger your overall goal, the less time you’ll spend sitting around wondering what’s next, and the more you’ll spend on realizing your dreams.