When I decided to learn Japanese, I had no idea how to approach it.
What books should I read? Can I commit myself to study outside of work? Do I have a sufficient budget? I had a lot of questions running in my mind.
None of my family and friends studied Japanese, so I couldn’t get personal advice from them either. But after thinking about it more carefully, it ultimately boiled down to one question: Should I study on my own, or should I enroll in a language school?
I am certain that other beginners are facing the same dilemma. You might be one of them too. Based on my experience, what I can say is this: There is no “better” option.
It all boils down to your learning style, personal goals, and financial capacity. Each option has its pros and cons, so it is important to weigh each of them before choosing the path that fits you best.
Here are some factors that you might want to consider:
1. Flexible schedule and controllable pace
With self-study, you are your own master. You get to choose when and where to study, fixing your own schedule according to your convenience. You control the pace and timing of your lessons.
You also have the benefit of spending less time on easier topics and allocating more time on harder ones to properly absorb them.
Therefore, you can study Japanese at a tremendously fast pace if you are ambitious, or you can study it at a relaxed and leisurely pace if you want a comfortable learning experience.
2. Tailored to personal preference
You can research good study materials on your own and choose which among them you like best. However, finding the right materials might involve some trial and error too.
Thankfully, many Japanese textbooks have different levels under the same book series. If you find the textbook most suitable for you, you can select the next entry within the series as you progress with your studies.
Do note that it is important to understand the book’s content structure and presentation to come up with a solid study plan.
Self-study is (relatively) affordable because you only have to worry about paying for resources as you need them. You can buy a few textbooks or avail a subscription for online Japanese videos or audio for at least one month.
Some resources over the Internet are entirely free. If you prefer not to spend so much on studying Japanese, self-study is the best way to go.
4. Requires more discipline and commitment
The challenge now is whether you can sustain your momentum and stay committed to studying until you reach your goal.
Highly driven and disciplined learners are less likely to have issues with self-study, but those who tend to procrastinate may take significantly longer to reach their target proficiency level.
This could be a huge problem especially for those with plans to work or study in Japan with a specific timeline in mind.
5. Little to no assistance on areas of difficulty
It could be hard to find ways on how to confirm your understanding, especially if you have questions or need clarifications in certain areas.
If you have friends who can help you, that’s great. Otherwise, you have to figure things out for yourself… or move on and hope that you’ll understand someday.
1. Guidance from skilled and experienced teachers
If you feel that you will need assistance in your studies, enrolling in a language school is a good choice. Teachers in a language school are not just skilled; they are also trained to teach the language that is most efficient and effective to students.
Non-native Japanese teachers were once beginners, so they do understand the challenges of learning Japanese. As such, they can give useful tips and advice to help you improve. In addition, you can easily ask them questions if you do not understand a concept.
2. Standard curriculum and materials
In a language school, there is a standard curriculum already in place and an experienced teacher will help you all throughout the course. You do not need to worry about making your own study plan or thinking of how to manage your time among kanji, grammar, and vocabulary.
Since the course is already standardized, so are the materials. You cannot choose which books to use in class. Thus, if you prefer to use Genki but the course uses Minna no Nihongo for basic Japanese, then you have no choice but to go with the latter book.
3. Social interaction
Interacting with your teacher and classmates is an advantage, especially for conversation practice. To get better at speaking Japanese, there is no other way than to speak it as much as you can.
So, being in a class gives you that opportunity to strengthen your conversational skills. Plus, you can make new friends here, enriching your study experience.
4. Fixed and regular schedule
Regular classes will drive you to commit to studying consistently. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste the tuition that you paid, right? (I hope!)
This means you can make steady progress and avoid long periods of procrastination. However, since the schedule of classes is fixed, the pacing is fixed as well.
If you are a slow learner, you have to put in more effort to catch up with the lessons. If you are a quick learner, you will find yourself stuck with the slower pace of the class.
5. More costly
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of getting into language school is that it could be costly.
The tuition fee varies depending on the quality of the course, the number of students, program length, and the skill of the teachers.
You might have to shell out a considerable sum of money if you want to get the highest quality of language education possible.
I want to point out one last thing: The number of available Japanese courses significantly decreases as the level of difficulty increases. Thus, there are countless N5 and N4 classes out there to choose from but N1 classes are extremely rare.
If you started with language school, you’ll find yourself shifting to self-study as you progress with your studies in order to achieve the highest level of proficiency.
Given these considerations, how will you start your Japanese studies? Remember, it must fit your capacity and needs. There is no correct answer, so feel free to choose the path that you are most comfortable with.