What Does It Feel Like to Study at NCF? Part 2: Intermediate Japanese

Intermediate Japanese has been an exciting and challenging phase of my Japanese language study. I was strongly motivated to finally venture out of basic Japanese (JLPT N4), and I began to actually feel my progress in Japanese the more I studied intermediate material.

If you are looking to improve your Japanese language skill beyond the basic level, consider enrolling at Nihongo Center Foundation (NCF). It is one of the few institutions in the Philippines that offer higher-level Japanese classes.

In this personal blog post, I will talk about my experience studying intermediate Japanese at a top-tier language institute. I will also provide key information such as:

  • The course content and coverage of Intermediate 1 to 6;
  • The comparison of the scope with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT); and
  • The learning experience under a one-on-one tutorial with a native Japanese instructor.

I have been with NCF since I started studying Japanese in February 2018. There, I completed all the main courses: Basic 1 to 5 and Intermediate 1 to 6. As of this writing, I am taking special classes for Advanced Japanese.

This is the second entry of a three-part series of articles covering each stage of my Japanese language studies at NCF: basic, intermediate, and advanced.

Disclaimer: The featured image (above) is that of a free Japanese class during the NCF Open House event in 2019. I have no images of a real Intermediate Japanese class.


A hallway at NCF Makati with portraits of advocates of Japanese language education in the Philippines

The Philippine Institute of Japanese Language and Culture

Although I am mentioning “NCF” in this article, the intermediate and special courses are actually offered by its sister school, the Philippine Institute of Japanese Language and Culture (PIJLC).

Both schools are operated under the same management and share the same faculty, resources, and facilities. Thus, you will often see that both institutions are referred to as “NCF-PIJLC.”

Currently, PIJLC offers the following courses:

  • Intermediate Japanese courses (1 to 6)
  • JLPT review classes (N4, N3, N2, N1)
  • One-on-one tutorials
  • Translation course
  • Business Japanese course

Like NCF, PIJLC has a long history of helping Filipinos succeed in learning the Japanese language. In fact, it was established in 1992, five years ahead of NCF.

The former Philippine Ambassador to Japan, Amb. Jose S. Laurel III, founded PIJLC to provide a venue for intensive preparatory language training for Filipinos aspiring to study at schools and universities in Japan.

The Japan Foundation supported the establishment of the PIJLC with a grant to dispatch a Japanese language expert who will serve as the instructor for high-level Japanese classes at PIJLC. He is Prof. Kenjiro Ogata.

Ogata-sensei (“Sensei“) continues to teach at NCF-PIJLC since he first arrived in Manila in 1992. He is also the Academic Adviser of both institutions and the instructor of the JLPT N1 review class.


Course details on Intermediate Japanese

The information below pertains to the regular Intermediate Japanese classes. If you finished Basic 5 at NCF or passed JLPT N4, you will be eligible for enrollment.

STRUCTURE AND SCOPE

At NCF, the intermediate level is divided into six courses. The first three courses cover the scope of JLPT N3 and the final three cover most of N2.

Given the huge scope of N2, I believe that finishing Intermediate Japanese 4 to 6 will not be enough. You will need to supplement it with self-study or by attending the N2 review class of NCF (This is separate from the Intermediate courses).

LEARNING MATERIALS

The courses use the two books of Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu. These are the sequel to the Minna no Nihongo Shokyuu books which were used in the five Basic Japanese courses of NCF.

Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu has fewer but longer chapters. There are 12 chapters overall per book, and these are divided into 4 chapters for each Intermediate course. Thus, the first book is used for Intermediate 1 to 3, and the second book is for Intermediate 4 to 6.

Most of the class exercises and homework are lifted from the supplementary books of Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu which are Hyoujun Mondaishuu and Kurikaeshite Oboeru Tangochou.

Note: Chuukyuu (中級) means “Intermediate” while Shokyuu (初級) means “Basic.”

Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu I and II are the books used in Intermediate Japanese classes.

CLASS HOURS

Each course has a total of 64 hours composed of the following: 60 hours of class discussion and activities, 2 hours of a midterm exam, and 2 hours of a final exam.

The period for completion will vary depending on your class schedule. If it is held thrice a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) at three hours per session, then the course will take nearly two months. If it is a weekly Saturday class, it will take six months.

EXAMS

For Intermediate, the exams are similar to the JLPT format. There are three test sections: (1) Language Knowledge (vocabulary, kanji, grammar), (2) Reading Comprehension, and (3) Listening Comprehension.

To pass the course, you need to obtain a final grade of 60%. The final grade is the sum of 50% of the midterm exam score and 50% of the final exam score.

TUITION FEES and financial aid

On average, the tuition fee is about Php16,500. This is slightly higher than the average for the Basic courses. However, you can still get some form of financial aid that will help you fund your studies:

If your final grade is at least 85%, then you will qualify for tuition fee rebates in accordance with the school guidelines. Your rebate will be applied when you apply to the next course.

Also, if you finished as one of the top three students for Intermediate 6, then you will get a full refund of your tuition fee for that course.

INSTRUCTORS

NCF has a policy that instructors may only teach until the JLPT level that is lower than their proficiency level. So, you can expect that only N1-level instructors will handle the higher Intermediate courses.

My friends who completed Intermediate 1 to 3 were taught by senior faculty members who are all JLPT N1 passers.

JLPT review classes for N4, N3, N2, and N1 are also offered by NCF-PIJLC.


Intermediate Japanese at NCF: My personal experience

After the Kake Speech Contest 2018, I decided to continue studying Japanese until the intermediate level. Since Japanese language study was a hobby for me, I was setting my goals one step at a time; I had not yet planned to continue until JLPT N2 or N1.

In any case, I am glad that I started with an excellent school that offers a wide selection of courses, so it was easy to move on to Intermediate after my completion of the final Basic course. Also, since I was awarded a full scholarship for Intermediate 1, it was best for me to stay at NCF.

Selection of the class format and schedule

With the change in my work schedule, I could not continue with weekday classes anymore. However, I didn’t want to experience the painfully slow pace of weekend classes as I did with Basic 1.

I could certainly continue learning Japanese through self-study, but I didn’t have an environment where I could practice speaking. Thus, to meet my goals in Japanese, I decided to adopt both study methods: self-study on weekdays accompanied by weekly Saturday classes.

With this proactive study style, I believed that the best format for the weekend class is a one-on-one tutorial.

Finding a Japanese language instructor

I expected that it would take some time to find a teacher for tutorials, so I contacted the administrative staff of NCF Makati as early as January 2019. At that time, I have just completed Basic 4.

In my e-mail, I described my preferences for the lesson content and the class schedule:

  1. Tutorials should follow the content of Intermediate Japanese 1 to 6 and use the same materials and exams.
  2. Each session will focus heavily on speaking and listening, so I will be responsible for learning the vocabulary, kanji, and grammar before class.
  3. Tutorials will be held every Saturday for 2 hours beginning in late March.

The administrative staff at NCF-PIJLC are friendly and accommodating. They welcome inquiries from current and prospective students.

My proposal was forwarded to the Faculty Development Manager of NCF, who promised to provide feedback as soon as she found an available instructor.

Five days later, she informed me that Sensei, whom I first met at the Kake Speech Contest, is interested in becoming my mentor. He had a good impression of me, so he was eager to help me study Japanese.

He laid out a few conditions before I could get him as my tutor, which included speaking only in Japanese during class hours.

I was surprised when I received his offer. Since I just passed JLPT N5, how could I be good enough to learn from such a high-caliber native Japanese teacher?

But this was an incredibly rare opportunity that I should not let pass. Sure, a class fully conducted in Japanese seemed frightening to me, but I knew it would work to my advantage in the future.

I agreed to Sensei’s conditions, and with that, my one-on-one tutorials with him were finalized.

Learning intermediate Japanese with a native

Sensei teaches the JLPT N1 review class every Saturday morning, so my tutorials with him were scheduled in the afternoon. My weekly classes were held at the Manila branch which is located near Far Eastern University.

I had no prior experience learning from a Japanese person, and the only time that I have spoken to a native was with Sensei himself during the speech contest rehearsal. I had poor speaking skills back then, so a class fully conducted in Japanese was incredibly tough for me.

But I had faith in Sensei that he’ll help me improve my Japanese. Under his mentoring, Intermediate Japanese became an enjoyable learning experience for me—far better than the entirety of Basic Japanese.

Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu is the book used in the Intermediate Japanese courses.

INTERMEDIATE 1

A few days after Basic 5 concluded, Sensei and I started our tutorial sessions in late March 2019.

Prior to each cycle, Sensei would prepare the course outline for my review and approval. In Intermediate 1, he divided each chapter of the book into two sessions.

The course outline for our first cycle of tutorials

Four hours per chapter is significantly shorter than the fifteen hours per chapter of the regular Intermediate classes. This was because I made it my responsibility to study the lessons in full ahead of class.

The first course introduced vocabulary and grammar concepts that are especially useful for foreigners in conversing with Japanese people such as making difficult requests politely, expressing gratitude, requesting a change in schedule, and answering voice mails.

Since we could only speak Japanese during class hours, Sensei taught me how to ask simple questions in Japanese such as “What is the difference between A and B?”, “What is the meaning of X?”, and “How can I say Y in Japanese?” Then, Sensei would explain the answer to me in plain and easy Japanese.

At first, I wasn’t familiar with Sensei’s teaching style, nor did he know my ability level and study habits, so we really took our time with the first few lessons. But as the weeks progressed, we became more efficient and productive in class.

By the fourth session, we were able to finish our regular class activities 10 to 15 minutes early, so we made use of the remaining time to answer one or two N3 reading practice drills.

Of course, I still did the midterm and final exams. If I am not mistaken, Sensei created them, and these were eventually used in the regular Intermediate courses. These exams were tough, and the scoring in Reading and Listening was quite harsh (One item is already worth 3 points). Still, the challenge helped me prepare for JLPT N3.

Books and handouts for Intermediate 1 and 2

Intermediate 2

We’ve become more accustomed to each other in our tutorials, so we could now finish the main lesson ahead of time. Hence, we decided to shift to a quicker pace of three hours per chapter.

Thankfully, there were only 70 kanji for Intermediate 2, fewer than the 120 kanji for Intermediate 1. With this, I had at least some time to adjust to our change in pace.

Intermediate 2 mostly covered expressions used in asking and answering questions in various situations: explaining a route from one point to another, providing a detailed description of a situation, explaining the reason for accepting or rejecting a request, and convincing another person to take a suggested action.

In class, we did additional activities to apply the lessons. For example, Sensei brought a road map with him and asked me to explain the route from my home to NCF Manila. In another session, I described some of my travel adventures by showing pictures on my phone. We also did a short mock job interview (which I failed terribly!).

The variety of class activities kept me on my toes, and these small and fun challenges helped me improve how fast I can think and respond in Japanese. These also made me look forward to the next class as I wondered what kind of challenge Sensei will prepare for me.

Halfway through Intermediate 2, I suggested that the midterm and final exams be scheduled on the same day as the lecture. Previously, I was taking my exams on a weekday, but I could not take time off from work anymore just to take a test.

Sensei was hesitant in granting my request, worried that I might be over-exerting myself. Two hours of an exam followed by two hours of tutorials seemed too much work in a day. But I insisted on it, promising that I can manage it.

And thankfully, I did. From now on, we adopted this kind of schedule. The exam is proctored by the administrative staff, except for the Listening section which was proctored by Sensei himself. Then, I would be given a few minutes of break before we started class.

The classroom at NCF Manila where I had my tutorials in Intermediate Japanese.

Intermediate 3

In August 2019, we started Intermediate 3 on the same day I took the final exam for Intermediate 2. I was a little tired from the exam, but I was more excited about the start of a new course.

Intermediate 3 is the final course that is within the scope of JLPT N3. The lessons revolved around situations that involve clearing up a misunderstanding, explaining the features of a product in detail, making comparisons between two items, and presenting or accepting a proposal.

Sensei gave me the freedom to send questions to him by e-mail whenever I encountered difficult areas during my weekday self-study sessions. Until Intermediate 2, I was writing my e-mails in English, but since Intermediate 3, I have been writing in Japanese. (It’s a great writing practice!)

I asked a few questions at a time because I didn’t want to drown Sensei with a lot of work in answering all of them, but he assured me that I could ask him as much as I want.

Sensei wrote his explanation to each of my questions on an index card. Then, he would hand over the cards to me at the beginning of class. While I was reading them, he would check all my homework. This helped us stay productive and gave us more time for N3 practice.

Answers to my questions on grammar, vocabulary, and kanji were written on index cards.

We still had several months left before the JLPT N3 in December, but Sensei increased the intensity of our N3 practice. We began to do practice drills for the Language Knowledge section, mostly on vocabulary and kanji.

For JLPT reading, I was given a strict time limit to read the entire passage and answer the questions in the set. Sometimes, he would give me difficult reading passages that seemed N2 level already and provide additional N3 exercises as my homework.

Intermediate 4

Sensei decided to increase the pace of our classes, shortening the time spent on each chapter from three hours to two hours. Thus, we could finish the entire course in just four weeks.

Compared with the fifteen hours per lesson of the regular classes, two hours is incredibly short. But that was because we were very efficient with our time in class, and I did not rely on handholding or spoon-feeding to learn Japanese language concepts.

Also, with the shorter time, the total fee I paid for my one-on-one tutorials for one Intermediate course became lower than the tuition fee for the regular classes. At least this helped me cut back on spending on my studies.

Intermediate 4 marked the beginning of N2 territory. We started using the second book for Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu. Where the first half of Intermediate had about 75 vocabulary words per lesson, the second half had about 200 words per lesson. Grammar points have also become more complex.

With our schedule, I had to study both for the Intermediate 3 final exam and the first lesson of Intermediate 4. It was stressful for me, but fortunately, I survived both the exam and the lesson in one day.

The midterm and final exams were incredibly tough. The Reading and Listening test sections used N2 content already. Since I just cleared N3 material and I was nowhere near N2 level, my test scores significantly dipped, especially for Listening.

Noticing my declining scores in Listening, Sensei lent me some of his JLPT books for N3 Listening. Also, he gave me a photocopy of a full N3 mock exam to help me prepare for the actual December JLPT.

I was given a copy of an N3 mock exam to practice for the December JLPT.

Intermediate 5

The week after the JLPT N3 exam, we had our first class for Intermediate 5. We continued with our pace of one chapter per session.

Despite this fast pace, we would still have time to spare for JLPT practice. Sensei was confident that I could handle N2 material, so just as before, he gave me problem sets on JLPT Reading. He explained that reading is the best way to increase vocabulary. (It’s true.)

For me, Intermediate 5 is one of the most interesting courses in Intermediate in terms of content. You’ll get to learn how to express your ideas, feelings, or opinions in much greater detail.

In this course, you will practice issuing a humble apology, describing your own impressions, making impromptu speeches, conducting interviews, or even arguing and complaining. (Yes, you read that right.)

We did a fun little activity in class to apply my learnings. Sensei assumed the role of an interviewer and asked me things related to my profession and Japanese studies. Then, we switched roles, and I asked him several questions about his extensive career experience.

The point of the exercise was to make me comfortable with answering various questions spontaneously (as an interviewee) and to think of follow-up questions based on the responses of the other party (as an interviewer). It was an effective speaking exercise.

The final exam coincided with the day of the JLPT results announcement. I was elated when I learned that I passed N3, surpassing Sensei’s prediction of my total score. At least that was enough to compensate for the torturous final exam that I had to endure!

One of my kanji practice writing sheets for Intermediate 5

Intermediate 6

Even as we finally reached the last Intermediate course, we decided to maintain our pace of two hours per lesson. Having survived the previous two courses with this incredibly fast pace, I thought it would be the same for Intermediate 6.

…Or maybe not.

Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu II had a really steep progression in difficulty from one lesson to the next. In fact, the final four chapters of this book were bordering on N1 territory already. I was being pushed to my limit, so there were a few occasions when I cried during my self-study sessions. (Haha.)

Thankfully, Sensei was extra patient with me, and he accommodated all my questions about the lessons, especially about the reading exercises in the book. He helped me understand the main idea and the flow of the reading passage. He also explained the formal and archaic expressions that appeared in it.

Intermediate 6 covered vocabulary and grammar points that can be used in an academic or career setting. These include exchanging ideas in a meeting, presenting charts and graphs, delivering a formal speech to an audience, and taking a job interview.

In one of our sessions, we did a speech demo. Sensei made me deliver a speech as if I were a participant in a speech competition. I stood at the front of the classroom, while Sensei sat at the farthest seat, pretending to be a judge. This was one of the toughest challenges that he gave me in class!

Intermediate 6 wrapped up with the final exam and a full N2 mock exam, both of which were held on the same day. Basically, I did four hours’ worth of exams.

The final exam was as hard as I expected it to be. Sensei previously informed me that the whole exam is between high N2 and N1 levels, especially for Reading and Listening. At this point, I think Intermediate 6 should have been called “Advanced” rather than “Intermediate.”

Still, I’m glad I could handle such intense exams. I managed to earn a score of 164 out of 180 for the final exam and a 75% score for the N2 mock exam. It’s a great ending to my journey in the Intermediate courses.

Some of the course handouts which I did as homework prior to attending class

My final impressions

Overall, it has been an amazing 11-month journey of studying Intermediate Japanese at NCF. Despite the increasing level of difficulty, the pace of our lessons grew faster. That sounds crazy and impossible, but I managed to pull that off thanks to Sensei’s guidance and expertise.

With that kind of pacing, our last session for Intermediate Japanese ended in early March 2020, just two weeks before the strict lockdown was implemented due to COVID-19. Talk about great timing!

And while classes have been temporarily suspended, my interest in Japanese has not disappeared. I was keen on continuing my Japanese studies with a new goal in mind: to attain N1-level proficiency.

I kept my handouts in separate folders to keep them organized.

Summary and Key Takeaways

The Intermediate Japanese courses at NCF were tough but enjoyable. Even Intermediate 1 was a huge step up from Basic 5. You have to be much more dedicated and proactive in your studies.

If you are looking to work at a Japanese company or in a Japanese division of a multinational company in the Philippines, you should target a JLPT proficiency level of at least N3, but preferably N2. The Intermediate courses of NCF are well-suited for that goal.

Here is a summary of the content and structure of Intermediate Japanese:

  • Intermediate 1 to 3 is within the scope of JLPT N3, while Intermediate 1 to 4 is within JLPT N2.
  • You will learn more than 650 kanji and more than 3,000 vocabulary words throughout all six courses.
  • Intermediate Japanese courses differ from JLPT review classes. The former involves class activities such as conversation practice and role-playing.
  • The learning materials are the two books of Minna no Nihongo Chuukyuu.

In my article comparing self-study and language school, I listed the pros and cons of each study method for learning Japanese. A third option, one-on-one tutorials, has the best of both worlds. You can learn at your own pace and still receive guidance from a teacher.

If you are interested in taking one-on-one tutorials at NCF, here are some tips and reminders:

  • Be clear about your study goals, preferences, and schedule so that NCF can find the best tutor for you.
  • The tuition fee is based on an hourly rate multiplied by the number of class hours.
  • Tutorials must be 20 hours at the minimum, and you should pay the corresponding fee as a downpayment prior to starting class.
  • Make the most out of tutorials by studying on your own as well. Tutorials can become significantly expensive if you linger too long in just one lesson.

I strongly encourage NCF students who completed the Basic Japanese 5 course or anyone who holds a JLPT N4 certificate to join the Intermediate Japanese classes of NCF. It is well worth the time and investment.


If you are interested to enroll at NCF, please send an inquiry through their official website using this link. You may also check the list of courses here.

Author: Francesca Galve

Japanese language enthusiast (JLPT N1). Master's student in Tokyo, Japan. Accountant by profession.

2 thoughts on “What Does It Feel Like to Study at NCF? Part 2: Intermediate Japanese”

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