Learning Japanese in Japan…for little money!
Studying Japanese in Japan can be extremely expensive. You can easily spend thousands of dollars per year on a language school and although I am not saying they aren’t worth it, there are some slightly cheaper options. Of course this does not apply if you need to get a student visa via some language school to come to Japan or if you want to commit full-time in order to achieve fluency very fast. But many people are here in Japan on working visas and while feeling they should invest more energy in studying Japanese they might only be able to spend a few hours per week on studying.
Here are some tips I found useful while trying to master the language
1. Free language courses (or nearly free)
Sounds like a dream, I know, but many people are not aware of there being plenty of free or low-cost language courses run by volunteers!
When I registered at my local ward office, of course they didn’t tell me there would be free Japanese lessons and I really doubt most city halls tell their new residents. This is a really a shame and I wish every new resident would be informed about all those possibilities. My city hall doesn’t even provide English information but all information on Japanese language classes can only be found very hidden in the darkest corners of the city homepage – in Japanese obviously. I only found out about it when I went to the foreign resident corner and they had some English pamphlets lying around. Everyone who ever browsed their city’s homepage knows what a nightmare it can be to navigate around – even with sufficient Japanese language skills.
Are you living in Tokyo? Then find your city hall in this list and get all the infos (alphabetically). Many of the ward homepages unfortunately don’t really provide information about language courses on their homepage, so it might also be a good idea to just drop by and ask them (they are most likely to have a corner for foreign residents). If you want to get more active in your local community, you can also sign up for certain volunteering activities. My ward for example is always looking for interpreters (have to be able to speak Japanese though) or foreigners who would like to go to schools and talk about their country \. Or you can support the local community by helping organizing international festivals.
You don’t live in one of the 23 wards in Tokyo? Doesn’t matter.
Nearly every city in Japan offers a similar program. Just head to your city hall and ask them.
Minato International Association
Nakano International Communications
Shinagawa-ku International Friendship Association
Suginami Nihongo Kaiwa no Kai
Asakusa Nihongo Dojo (Japanese only)
Didn’t find the right volunteer group in the list? Then check out the following links. A lot of the volunteer groups don’t have websites, but only email addresses or phone numbers you can contact them via.
Support Groups for foreign residents – list
2. Got the basics, but missing conversation skills? Get a tandem partner
What exactly is a tandem partner? Many not familiar with the term imagine a partner for the two-people bicycle but it has nothing to do with this. A tandem partner is a language exchange partner. Ideally, you would both profit from the encounter because your partner wants to learn your language and you want to learn your partner’s language. Over the years I had many tandem partners and I must say, it is not easy to find the right one. I wanted to practice my Japanese and they were either interested in German or in English. Especially when it came to German, they often didn’t even have the basics and assumed just by meeting once a week they would somehow learn it. But here is the thing; you are most likely not a certified and experienced teacher of your mother tongue so how are you supposed to get someone to become fluent by meeting once a week? Tandem only makes sense if you already have basics and can build on that. Both of you, or you will just end up practicing one language (which was good in my case but still).
How to find a tandem partner?
If you are enrolled at a Japanese university, approach the International Office and ask them. Many international offices offer help in finding language partners. Or go to the language departments within your university and look for a blackboard there to pin your tandem ad.
There are also several websites where you can look for a language partner.
Also check out whether there are certain cultural organizations promoting the friendship between your home country and Japan. They also often offer tandem services or they might be able to hint you in the right direction where to look for one.
For example, the Japanese-German Association (http://www.jdg.or.jp/de) offers this service.
Besides party groups, you will also find plenty of language exchange groups on Meet-Up where you get together in a more casual atmosphere with several people. Meet-Up groups are a safer way to get to know a possible tandem partner as you are in a group (which brings us to the next point).
A little note of advice here (speaking out of my own experience):
if you are looking for a serious tandem partner, you might want to be careful with giving out personal infos especially when you are a woman. I made the mistake of putting my age and gender in the search ad and got contacted mostly by guys, who were way older than me, didn’t speak a single word of either English or German and just wanted to “meet a foreign woman”. When you meet someone for the first time, always meet him/ her in public, eg in a cafe.
Meet-up groups can be good but be careful, even though a whole group is getting together. A friend of mine ended up in a Bible study class although it was promoted as a language exchange.
3. Get yourself immersed in colloquial Japanese by reading Manga or watching TV
Seems obvious, but I still want to stress this point. I know it can be really frustrating to watch TV without understanding much but you will really get used to it. First you start understanding a few words and then whole sentences. Netflix helps me a lot in this regard. There are some Japanese TV shows on Netflix with Japanese subtitles such as Terrace House. Maybe not the most sophisticated show ever made (reality TV…) but it’s everyday Japanese and the storylines are really easy to follow. I am not a big fan of Japanese TV shows as they are mostly centered around food and weird celebrities, but with services such as Netflix or Hulu you can at least chose your TV program.
Your Kanji skills are lacking and reading a Japanese novel takes you forever? Then head to the children’s book or Manga corner. I am not the biggest Manga fan myself but there are still stories I find entertaining. Moreover, most Kanji in Manga come with Furigana (Kanji reading in Hiragana), which makes it easier to read even if your Kanji skills aren’t that great. Second hand book stores such as Book-off sell Manga for as little as 100 Yen per book. Or get some children’s books or short stories. I am a big Murakami Haruki fan but didn’t dare to start with the big novels so instead I first read some of his short stories. Get a member’s card for your local city library and rent out books. It cannot get cheaper than that!
Have fun learning Japanese 🙂
And if you are looking for longterm accommodation in Japan, feel free to contact us via our websites TokyoRoomFinder and JapanRoomFinder. We are happy to assist you in finding a place in a shared house, shared apartment or your own private apartment.