Daily Life & Schools

Daily Life & Schools
How Much Japanese Do You Need to Know Before Coming to Study?
November 8, 2023  |  By Amélie Marie Nishizawa

When coming to Japan to study at a language school, you may think that since you’re taking a beginner course, you can just show up without any knowledge of Japanese. Although this is theoretically possible, it’s not a very good idea. Here, we’ll explain how much you should know and why!

How Do Japanese Language Schools Rank Levels?

One thing that confuses potential students is how they should put their Japanese level when filling out applications, or they might be upset that they test much lower than they think they should. For the most part, these are what the schools categorize based on JLPT level:

N5: Beginner

N2: Intermediate

N1: Advanced

Although having no level at all would certainly place you in the beginner category, the schools will be operating under the assumption that you should have around N5 before you enter. This may be too difficult for some students who don’t have access to Japanese classes where they are, so you can still apply without N5. 

Additionally, students often take a year or so of Japanese study back home and assume that they are intermediate or advanced based on their comparison to others in their home country. However, in Japan, they’re still considered beginners.

How Much Japanese Should You Know?

These days, with study apps and books, it is possible to raise your level enough for the minimum requirements, although it will likely take some time and commitment. At a minimum, you really should know the following:

  • Hiragana and katakana
  • The basic phonetic system
  • Some general vocabulary and grammar

The amount of vocabulary and grammar is hard to say, but ten lessons from your typical Japanese language textbook will probably be a good base. You’ll be in a stronger position if you can complete the entire book before arriving.

Is Starting with Zero Japanese Skills a Good Idea?

Jumping into a Japanese language school without prior knowledge might seem tempting, but it often leads to challenges. Here are some things to think about:

  • Intensive Class Structure: The classes are immersive, running four hours daily and five days a week. Everything is taught in Japanese, with only occasional English handouts for clarity. This intensity is a significant leap from casual one-hour classes you might find elsewhere.
  • Quick Pacing: The curriculum moves swiftly. While the first week might cover basics like hiragana and katakana, you’ll be expected to grasp them quickly. From then on, the pace only accelerates. Starting with some foundational knowledge can help you adjust without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Diverse Student Background: Many of your classmates might already have some experience with the Japanese language. Sometimes, visa regulations require students from certain countries to have prior language training or even pass the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) before enrollment. Entering the class without any background in Japanese could make you feel out of place or left behind.

To maximize your learning experience, it’s worth investing some time in basic Japanese study before diving into a rigorous program. It’ll make the transition smoother and more enjoyable.

How Should I Prepare For a Japanese Language School?

If you’re gearing up to study Japanese, here are some tried-and-tested approaches:

  • Local Classes: Many cities offer Japanese classes through private institutions or foundations. Some universities or community colleges also provide courses that are open even to non-students.
  • Textbook Study: If you prefer self-study, consider investing in a Japanese textbook. “Minna no Nihongo” is a popular choice often used in schools. While self-study is generally more feasible for beginners, advancing through the levels might require additional guidance.
  • Digital Learning: Many smartphone apps and computer programs are designed for Japanese learners. These platforms are typically more user-friendly than textbooks. However, remember that many are designed for casual learners or travelers. If you’re committed to mastering the language, you might find some apps less comprehensive than you’d prefer.

Remember, the key is consistency. Whichever route you choose, regular practice will set you up for success! No matter what route you take, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into and plan appropriately. Once you get the hang of things, your Japanese level will improve so fast that you may learn more in one month of study than you would in a year back home!

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