So you’ve passed the beginner’s stage of learning Japanese.
Perhaps you’ve taken some kind of test such as the JLPT or you’ve successfully completed an online class.
No matter how you got to this stage, you deserve a pat on the back.
Although intermediate language lessons are somewhat similar to beginner, there are a few things you have to remember if you’re going to take your Japanese to the next level. Whether you plan to learn online, by yourself or in a class, there are certain rules you can’t avoid.
- 1. Your textbooks will probably be 80-100% in Japanese, perhaps with no English translations at all.
- 2. There’s a lot more kanji to learn.
- 3. You’ll need to get more involved.
- 4. Brace yourselves. Presentations are coming.
- 5. The classes themselves will most likely be only in Japanese.
- 6. Your teacher may encourage you to study more outside the classroom.
- 7. If you’re serious about reaching fluency, you might start to consider studying in Japan.
1. Your textbooks will probably be 80-100% in Japanese, perhaps with no English translations at all.
This is to encourage you to pick up the language more naturally, instead of always referring to a dictionary. There are several reasons for this:
- You’ll learn new language the way you learned your first language—by associating each new word with meaning and real-life usage, rather than how it translates into your mother tongue. It might be difficult at first and more complex grammar might require some explanation, but the more Japanese you learn, the more you have to separate it from your first language.
- There may sometimes be new vocabulary words or grammar patterns that don’t translate into English (or your first language) identically. Trying to find identical meanings in your first language can be confusing and actually more counterproductive than anything. With beginner lessons, things like “chair,” “hand,” “newspaper,” etc. could be easily translated, but with intermediate lessons, particularly when it comes to grammar, it can be difficult or even impossible to translate it perfectly, sometimes leaving learners frustrated.
- For example, words you might use during homestay like いただきます, ご馳走様でした（ごちそうさまでした）and 元気（げんき）don’t really have an identical English translation. It’s better to learn them and learn the meanings along with them using pictures, examples and role-play (where appropriate) rather than attempts at English translation.
- The textbooks themselves will usually be designed for intermediate learners of all linguistic backgrounds, not just English speakers. Besides, if you’ve ever seen a textbook for people studying English, there’s rarely a different language, such as French, Spanish, Chinese etc. in the textbook itself. If people studying English can do it without their own language’s input, we can do it with Japanese!
2. There’s a lot more kanji to learn.
Did I just hear you groan? Love it or hate it, kanji, the third Japanese “alphabet” and the most complex of them all, is essential for becoming proficient in Japanese. Expect to see, study and practice reading a lot more kanji. Here are some things to remember about classroom and out-of-classroom kanji study:
- Although it was probably touched upon in your beginner classes, depending on your level, kanji will be much more integrated into your classroom reading. You’ll see less furigana (hiragana placed above kanji to show you how to pronounce it) in order to get you used to reading kanji more naturally.
- You’ll have to spend more time studying kanji outside the classroom. Whether you’re taking one-hour class every week or studying in a school Monday to Friday, you’ll be expected to dedicate some time to kanji on your own with textbooks, websites or apps.
3. You’ll need to get more involved.
Instead of just listening to CDs and working in your textbook, your teacher may ask you to do role-playing using phrases and scenarios you’ve learned to check your understanding. It can seem a bit scary at first, but experiences like these are wonderful for boosting your confidence, as well as practicing using Japanese naturally. Here are some things you might be expected to do.
- You might need to perform a role-play based on your new lessons. This could be done in pairs or in a group if you’re in a class with a lot of people. A role-play activity can cover anything from ordering at a restaurant to shopping to making a complaint about something. If you get nervous in front of people, don’t worry—learning a language comes with putting yourself out there and not worrying about making a fool of yourself. Just remember that your teacher wants to help you improve. With practice and confidence, role-playing will become a norm—you might even enjoy it.
- You might be expected to take turns reading passages out loud. With the large presence of kanji, reading levels will differ around the class and maybe make you think of elementary school again (it did for me—there was always that unenthusiastic kid who read so sluggishly it put everyone to sleep). As long as you stay on top of your kanji studies and perhaps try practicing reading out loud at home, this shouldn’t be too much hassle. Worst comes to worst, you’ll just have to put up with being that person who reads slowly, which isn’t really the most horrible thing ever.
4. Brace yourselves. Presentations are coming.
As an assignment, test or simply for practice, you may be asked to do a several-minute presentation only in Japanese about a topic you’re interested in. This could be using Microsoft PowerPoint, photographs or simply just speaking. Japanese junior high school students do English presentations all the time, so as well as giving you essential practice, you can really appreciate how difficult their classes can be!
Usually, though, after once or twice, it becomes easier and you’ll start to speak with confidence about things you’re interested in.
Assigned topics usually include things like your hobbies, your family or an aspect of Japan that interests you. Here’s some advice for doing presentations in Japanese and getting a decent grade:
- Have some good visual aids. If you’re using PowerPoint, avoid cheesy fonts and bright colors. Keep your slides simple and clean, although engaging and interesting at the same time. And don’t include a wall of text saying exactly what you’re going to say in the PowerPoint itself. You shouldn’t be reading off the screen. You should just have enough text to remind you of your main speaking points and to help the audience follow along.
- Practice, practice, practice. Make sure you understand everything you’re saying (if you write your own presentation, you might need to use a dictionary once or twice, but this is a learning opportunity, not a handicap). Rehearse in front of friends, preferably native speakers who can give you tips on pronunciation and intonation.
- Exercise basic presentation skills such as smiling, eye contact and a clear, easily understandable voice. And although in Japan smiling and gestures are uncommon, it doesn’t hurt to use them naturally in your speech.
5. The classes themselves will most likely be only in Japanese.
This is especially likely if your teacher is a native Japanese speaker. They’ll teach most or all of your class in Japanese to improve your listening and get you used to hearing natural Japanese. Some things to keep in mind:
- If you’re in Japan, your teacher might not even speak your first language, which can be a bad thing or a good thing. It can be good because it encourages you to use Japanese throughout the entire lesson, but it can be bad because they can’t give you an English explanation if you’re really stuck. Either way, be prepared to use Japanese only in class.
- If in the first few lessons you feel like you don’t understand anything at all, don’t worry! It does get easier. I promise.
6. Your teacher may encourage you to study more outside the classroom.
Going back to the kanji mentioned earlier, your teacher will expect you to dedicate some of your own time to your Japanese studies. A few hours a week, particularly if there are a lot of people in your class, is simply not enough if you’re serious about reaching fluency. You can improve your Japanese in many fun and effective ways rather than dedicating many hours to studying in the library.
- Sign up for a homestay program. Want to visit Japan for a few weeks? Already in Japan and want to live with a real family for a while to learn about their lifestyle? Sign up for a homestay program. You’ll make lifelong friends, pick up some essential Japanese and create fantastic memories. You can get started looking for a nice homestay family on a site like homestay.com.
- Get a language partner. Whether you’re in Japan or not, there are many ways to get language partners wanting to learn English and in return, teach you Japanese. This is a good option because when lessons cost money, getting a language partner is free.
- Play Japanese games to practice reading and listening, such as with a Japanese 3DS or Wii U.
- Watch subtitled Japanese media. CrunchyRoll and Netflix have many great Japanese shows available. FluentU also has subtitled authentic videos with adaptive quizzes to help you improve your Japanese and have fun doing it. These short videos with interactive subtitles are also paired with vocabulary lists and flashcards to pinpoint new words and review natural Japanese expressions.
- Reading Japanese books or manga. This will especially help with dreaded kanji.
If you make Japanese something you enjoy doing and look forward to, studying will become so much easier!
7. If you’re serious about reaching fluency, you might start to consider studying in Japan.
If you’re not in Japan right now, why not consider taking a few months out to Japan to study and really immerse yourself in the language and culture? Here are some ways you can go to Japan to study, whether it be for a week or a year.
- Study abroad at a Japanese university. If you’re a student, see if your school or college has a partnership with a Japanese school.
- Get your Master’s degree in Japan. Already graduated? No problem. Consider getting your Master’s or PhD in Japan.
- If you like children, try teaching or au pairing in Japan. You can earn some money as well as being immersed in the culture and the language.
Following these tips and keeping these things in mind can really help you prepare for higher level studying.
Don’t forget to prepare, work hard and most of all, enjoy it!