Nihongo Shinkansen: Learning Japanese at the Speed of a Bullet Train

My original plan for this blog was to have weekly about all the interesting things that happening in my life in Japan, but as you may have noticed, that has not really happened. Currently I am happy if I manage to churn out a post a month. This is not because I have nothing to talk about; I have been having the time of my life here and would love nothing more than to post about every little event from (finally) cleaning my room to exploring Beppu and nearby Oita City. However, there is one little snag in my plan that I did not account for, and that is my Foundation Japanese class.

At APU, you take a test during orientation that tells you what Japanese level you will start from, and for probably 90% of the students, myself included, that means starting from Foundation I, the lowest Japanese level available. However, you need to have finished Foundation III by the end of the semester, so in order to cram all that language learning into just a few months first semester students take 3 Japanese classes 4 days a week. That comes out to a total of 18 hours doing just Japanese a week, not including time for homework or studying (of which there is plenty).  What this all boils down to is that for the first semester international students, we are living and breathing Japanese. Everything else, such as blog writing, for example, gets shoved to the back burner.

While we are taking other classes in addition to Japanese of course, they only meet once a week and are not nearly as intensive as Japanese class. The other classes are also mostly study skills classes to help students learning in their non- native language (which is basically everyone) to get used to studying at a university level in English, but as a native English speaker I am mostly doing recap from my middle school English class about works cited and the dangers of Wikipedia, so they do not occupy much of my time outside of class. But even the non- native speakers will agree that those courses pale in comparison to the mountain that is Foundation Japanese.

In our first class, our Japanese teacher cheerily announced that by the end of the semester we would be able to do almost any everyday task in Japanese, and would know more than 250 Kanji. To put this in perspective, once you finish Japanese Foundation I-III, you are allowed to take classes where the language of instruction is Japanese, so in these classes people go from knowing absolutely nothing about the Japanese language to being able to take college- level courses and do well after only a few months. And the craziest thing is, this is actually realistic; I have plenty of friends who start taking Korean their second semester and do quite well, and Korean is only taught in Japanese. That should give you an idea of exactly how much you learn in Foundation.

This is where the “Nihongo Shinkansen” comes in: in order to cram all of this information into our heads so quickly, our Japanese teachers informed us that we would be moving at the pace of a Shinkansen, or Bullet Train. We have Japanese periods 2, 4, and 5 everyday but Wednesday, and every day during period 2 we start off with a quiz on either vocabulary, grammar, or kanji, and rotate through those for each topic. For an example of a normal week, we start on a topic period 5 on Monday, have our vocabulary quiz period 2 on Tuesday, 4 and 5 we learn grammar, have our grammar quiz on period 2 Thursday and then learn kanji during 4 and 5, kanji quiz Friday morning, and by the afternoon on Friday we have already moved onto the next topic. With this schedule, we are averaging about 1-2 topics a week, and each topic has 2-3 grammar topics, about 15 kanji, and about 80 new vocab. And even as the topics get longer and the material gets harder, the pace stays the same.

Already I can see the effects of this grueling pace slowly driving everyone around me insane. I now rarely have a conversation with anyone just in English, even if we are both English- basis students, because out heads our filled to the brim with whatever topic we are currently learning. But since most students still cannot form a real Japanese sentence outside of class, a normal conversation may go something like this:

Person A: “Ohayouuuuu (insert katakana-ized version of a foreign name) san!” (good morning ____!)

Person B: “Ohayouuuu (second katakana-ized name) san! Kyou, nani wo doing desu ka?” (Good morning ____! what are you doing today?)

A: “I have Nihongo class. it is totemo muzukashii desu.” (I have Japanese class. It is very hard.)

B: Responds with either “Sou desu kaaaaaa” or “Subarashiiiiiiii,” which may be the two most commonly used phrases in AP House at the moment. (“oh ok” and “amazing” respectively)

Passing Japanese student: “What on earth is happening here.” *backs away slowly*

This may seem somewhat ridiculous, but it is not only a useful way to practice in an amusing way, it also makes the amount of progress we have already made very obvious. Even now, the kind of dialogue from above is slowly but surely being replaced with real sentences, and each time we finish a topic you can watch as it becomes integrated into daily speech. Students who hadn’t even learned hiragana before arriving are able to ask simple questions of Japanese students and understand the response, or will understand the Japanese announcements before the English translation has played. I find myself more frequently talking in Japanese with my Japanese- basis friends, and now can at least understand the gist of every conversation I overhear, if not everything.

It is a lot of work, but the feeling of seamlessly integrating some new grammar or vocab that you learned that day into a normal conversation makes it all feel worth it. The first time I realized I was understanding the bus announcements without needing to read the English translations on the screen was one of the most exciting moments since getting here, and every time I read a sign (especially if it has kanji) without any difficulty my day immediately gets better.

In just one month, we have already finished Foundation I and have moved on to Foundation II.  Even with this pace, I have a backload of non school related things to post about, such as my friends, the play that I am in, and just general life in Japan. Expect new posts to come soon, but I cannot yet say when so click Subscribe to get a notification the next time I have enough time to sit down and type something in English for once.

Feel free to leave a comment if there is anything in particular you would like to hear about!


5 thoughts on “Nihongo Shinkansen: Learning Japanese at the Speed of a Bullet Train

  1. Love it, please keep your updates coming whenever you can, Grace-san! What an amazing experience! Hi from the boys -Tate wants you to know that he was a ninja for Halloween 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the pace really hit me when just last week I got an email from the Flashcard app I used that said, “You’ve learned 1095 words, let’s make that 1100!”
    In about a month. It’s so crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s so awesome, congratulations on the progress you’ve made thus far! My Japanese studies are progressing slowly, but I’ve had a similar “ah-ha!” moment when I came up with a sentence on my own and my language exchange partner told me it was correct! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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