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Do you want to improve your Japanese level? Maybe you have just moved to Japan and want to get a leg-up on your language studies? Maybe you have been in Japan for years and would finally like to learn to speak fluently? Maybe you want to move to Japan, but are afraid you won’t be able to understand anything around you?

Using the Japanese language everyday is one of the most challenging things foreigners to Japan encounter when facing life in this country. As an expat you must command more than just the basics; living here requires an entirely new vocabulary, alphabet, and way of speaking. Like most foreigners who end up in Japan, I had a dream of living here for a long time. As an English speaker, I always thought the best way to try out life in Japan would be to teach English for a year, but a full-time job gives most teachers little time to study the language, which can lead to missing out on myriad rewarding experiences. While searching for other options, I discovered language school. It was a perfect plan to catch a glimpse of life in Japan while learning the language. After graduating from the program, I had basic Japanese under my belt and enough knowledge about Japan to get started in the workforce.

Everyone learns differently, but when you are in an environment where you are using Japanese everyday, you are almost guaranteed to see your skills improve. Like any language learner will tell you—immersion is key.

What is a Japanese Language School?
Japanese language schools are just what they sound like, a school where you primarily study the Japanese language, along with a bit of culture. The curriculum of most language schools is 3.5 hours a day, either holding classes in the morning from 9:00AM to 12:30PM, or in the afternoon from 1:30PM to 5:00PM. Lessons are usually split between days of the week in which you focus on one of the big 5 Japanese skills: grammar, reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The classes are entirely in Japanese with teachers trained to handle everything from the most beginner classes to advanced test-prep and everywhere in-between.

Schools have been established in every major city, offering long-term study for up to 2 years or short summer programs for 4 weeks aimed towards more basic studies. Most schools have 6 month semesters, starting in April and October, to coincide with the start and end of semesters at Japanese universities. Placement tests are offered before classes start to determine your level and place you in an appropriate class.

You will be granted a student visa, which allows you to study for up to 2 years, and you can hold a part-time job up to 28 hours a week with special permission.

How much does it cost?
Most language schools are the same price, roughly $8,000 USD per 12-month term and $2,000 for short 4-week summer courses. Of course the tuition is not the same for every language school, with some schools having higher or lower tuition, and some schools offering more classes or activities for the same price, so it’s always a good idea to find the school that fits your budget and pace.

How to choose a school for you
There are a multitude of criteria you should consider when looking for a language school: The student make-up, dormitories and lodging, and tuition fees. Maybe you want to have a part-time job while attending. Another that you might not think of straight away is affiliation with a university. One of the best things about my own language school was that it is housed inside a Japanese art university. We were able to join the university clubs, use the facilities like the cafeteria to eat with Japanese students, and go to all the events that the university offered. Being in such close proximity to native students made a huge difference, as I was able to interact and use Japanese everyday with friends. Overall, the quality of the education should be your top priority when searching for a school that suits how you learn. Depending on your pace, there are a wide variety of schools with difficulty levels ranging from “a fun vacation in which I want to learn a bit of travel-oriented Japanese” to “I want to become a translator.” Please check out the following online communities that can help you find the one right for you.

This site has a ton of information on choosing a language school and even information about universities and scholarships for foreign students looking to study in Japan.

This database of language schools has detailed information on language schools that you can search for by area.

This is a site that not only introduces you to different language schools in Japan, but will help you get there after choosing your language learning path.

What are the perks?
Other than the obvious perks of being able to improve your Japanese, language schools also give you time to actually live in Japan and see what it’s like. While learning the language, you'll have the chance to test out everyday life in a new country, and you can decide if it’s a place you would like to live and work. It is a chance to network and interact with Japanese people (and other expats) in preparation for working life, and some schools even offer classes to help you find a job. Even if you don’t plan on working in Japan, language schools can help you improve your Japanese in order to enter universities or graduate schools; they can help you pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test; and they can start you on your journey to becoming a professional translator.

What are the downsides?
The expense associated with studying at a Japanese Language school is the number one downside.  Most people find it hard to save the amount of money needed to travel to Japan, let alone spend a year studying full-time. Other downsides are the fact that most people who are already living in Japan who would like to attend language school would have to quit their jobs in order to study for a year. Even summer courses can be a huge monetary commitment for those who don’t have the luxury of deep pockets. Another thing to consider is your own particular learning process. There are thousands of people who self-study Japanese for little to no cost and can become fluent on their own. However, if you are like me, the main problem with learning is motivation, and there is nothing more motivating than the fear of failure when you pour your own savings into going to school.

Overall, Japanese language school can make a huge difference in your quality of life when living in Japan. Being able to speak, read, and write fluently can give you a whole new view of the country and culture. Whether you already live in Japan, or are thinking of moving here, consider language school as one of your options.

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