Nihongo Level-Up

Moving beyond self study, a Mie resident tries an intensive program

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By Janelle Weibelzahl
Published Monday, June 11th, 2012 (10:03pm)

When I got off the plane in Tokyo just over a year ago, I had almost no Japanese ability. I knew a total of maybe 50 words and phrases, including the numbers 1-10 counted in two different ways. I could read hiragana and katakana, albeit very slowly. But I was optimistic that, within a year’s time, I could become at least conversationally competent in the language of my new host culture.

One year later, I could say I’ve learned a lot of Japanese: as long as I don’t have to do any real life interaction. Which is to say, I have spent a year doing self-study, and haven’t progressed much beyond caveman-style speech in actual conversation. I still suffer from chronic social ineptness and fear of long sentences.

With a desire for accelerated improvement, or evolution beyond my caveman state, as it were, I enrolled in an intensive Japanese program during summer vacation. I spent two weeks living and breathing Japanese, at the Yamasa Institute in Okazaki, Aichi. And, while I did not miraculously evolve to a state of fluency overnight, I do feel like Yamasa helped me step out of the cave.

Want to level up your Japanese?

The Yamasa Institute offers university-accredited courses for anyone from absolute beginners to advanced learners. Students at Yamasa are placed according to their level, and can study for any period of time from two weeks to two years.

There are a variety of programs tailored for different needs, but for people at the beginner to intermediate levels, the SILAC is probably the best option.

On my first day, a Thursday, I joined the five other SILAC newbies for a placement test. After the placement test we had a brief orientation (how to sort your garbage, don’t make fun of scooter gangs out loud, the usual), and a campus tour. The tour was my second, as I had visited Yamasa for a “Campus Open Day” back in March. Then we were sent on our way until the start of class on Friday.

Friday morning I was as nervous as a freshman. What class will I get placed in? Will it be too easy, or too hard? Will my classmates be nice? What if I don't understand anything? I walked up the stairs of the Aoi Hall where our classrooms were, and saw my name on the door of one of the rooms, along with about 12 other names. I put on my confident face, entered with my friendliest “おはようございます!” and took a seat.

From that point it was a whirlwind experience. Every day involved learning new grammatical structures and a lot of conversation practice. At the “beginner” levels, we used the Minna no Nihongo I & II textbooks, although we didn’t use them too much in class. Class was Japanese only, so anytime we needed to ask questions of our classmates or teacher, we had to figure out how to ask using Japanese. Sometimes people would slip into their native language, but because we all came from different countries – Canada, Switzerland, Brunei, Taiwan, and Spain, to name a few - in many cases Japanese was our only common language.

During our two weeks at Yamasa, my husband and I rented a temporary apartment from Yamasa’s housing department for two weeks. Even though Okazaki isn’t too terribly far from our home in Yokkaichi, commuting still would’ve cost substantially more than renting, and it would have eaten up all our free time. The apartment was nice, with Japanese-style tatami rooms for sleeping and studying, a faux hardwood floor in the kitchen and living room, and basic furnishings. My favourite feature was the two large desks for studying, which were located at opposite corners of the apartment, so I could study without constant interruption from my attention-needy other half.

My time at Yamasa passed quickly, and before I knew it, it was over. I could feel my Japanese ability evolving while I was at Yamasa more rapidly than it ever had during self study, and I was sad to leave so soon. I came back with the ability to spit out entire sentences without regressing to my former caveman-like tendencies, and also armed with a reinvigorated willingness to try my Japanese out on those around me. While I still wouldn’t call myself conversationally competent, that goal now feels far more attainable than it did before studying at Yamasa. Nihongo level up!


The Yamasa website has a lot of resources, but it can be rather difficult to sift through all the information provided there. Here are some parts of the website you may find useful:

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