My arrival was timed to be able to attend the orientation for students starting the JLI in April. They have these orientations quarterly, and are largely aimed at the long-term course students, who can only start in April, July, October or January. As a short-term course student can start any time, if you are not starting at one of these times of the year, there won't be an orientation. But as I was, I decided to get here in time for it.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the orientation, but in fact it mostly consisted of them giving us some bits of written information about school rules, school calendar and the like, and emphasising strongly that we shouldn't skip classes. If you do, and your attendance falls below 90%, you won't get your certificate. And lateness for classes adds up to count as absences, so you have to be on time. And having your mobile phone go off in class counts as an absence. And so on and so forth. Those were the main messages. How they did this was that they split us into various classrooms (mine was only students staying 90 days or less), and within each, they split the room into 3 areas for English, Korean and Chinese. The school officials made the announcements at the front in Japanese, and in each of the 3 areas a translation was given by a more senior student. The only other thing to note was that even though my room was only people staying less than 90 days, they announced things about the foreigner registration. You don't need that if you are staying less than 90 days on the tourist visa. That was what I understood, and I checked at the end of the orientation with them, and they confirmed I was correct. So if you're staying in Japan less than 90 days total, don't let that confuse you.
The final thing that day was the interview, for those of us who had not yet had one. This was where they tested you to decide which class the students would go in. The placement interviews were divided into different levels, based on the information the applicants sent in advance in a level check sheet, and then in the interview itself (in my level, anyway), each student was given a passage to read, and then asked questions about it. Based on what I've seen, from the class I was placed in, and the classes other people in my interview room were placed in, they seem to get it about right.
There are 11 classes, and Class 1 (１組) is the most advanced level, and Class 11 (１１組) is beginner level. Whether there are always 11 classes, and whether any of the classes are the same level as each other, I don't know. I just know that, for example, I am in Class 4, and a friend I have made in Class 2 is using the same text book as I am, but starting at a later chapter, and people in Class 7, for example, are using less advanced textbooks, etc.
Having now completed the first (albeit short, as we started on the Tuesday) week, and also in that time completed the first chapter of our textbook, I've got a reasonable idea now of how classes work at the JLI and what sort of thing anyone coming here should expect. Although some of this is specific to my class, much of it will in general apply whichever level you are at.
The classes at the JLI are broken down into four 45 minute lessons a day, with a 15 minute break in the middle and two 5 minute breaks between the other lessons. One teacher gives the lessons before the 15 minute break, and another gives the ones after. So, for example, on the first day, the class began with Ichikawa Sensei giving us the syllabus, explaining something about how the classes would work for those newbies of us, and then going through the Kanji and starting on the grammar. And then after the break, a second teacher, Takeda Sensei, came in and took over. Takeda Sensei got us to fill in a sheet with our names, interests in things Japanese, and what we wanted to get from studying at the JLI. She then continued from where Ichikawa Sensei left off, but using a rather different style and method. A lot is down to personal style, and each teacher will be different. I've found the same thing with teachers at SOAS – but there, the teacher is taking the whole course, not just a part of it. It seemed a little odd to change teacher – and teaching method – part way through. But I guess it makes it more interesting, and as different students will respond to different methods, I guess it might be better for a class as a whole, too.
We had a total of 5 different teachers over the 4 days of the first week (so, that was Ichikawa Sensei, Takeda Sensei, Fujiwara Sensei, Kumamoto Sensei, and Ikeda Sensei). I have been told that the pattern of teachers each week will be the same, so, taking the first day as an example, each Tuesday we will have Ichikawa Sensei in the morning and Takeda Sensei in the afternoon. Takeda Sensei also announced that she is our “home room teacher” (a bit like a form tutor, or something), although we don't physically have a “home room” at the JLI, as they do at some other schools.
In my class, most of the students are doing longer courses – 1 year or more – and so this is just another term for them. My class is quite large (currently 18 students – although over the first few days there's been a bit of shuffling around as students get transferred to make sure they are in the best class for them), but at least one is larger, and the others are not a lot smaller, so I suspect that's not atypical. There is quite a varied mix of nationalities in the class: there are several Russians, several Hong Kong Chinese, a handful of Koreans, a few Italians, one Taiwanese, one American, and one English (that would be me). It's possible there are a couple of others. But as I'd hoped, there aren't a lot of Anglophones about, and even though in the breaks quite a few people are speaking in their native tongues, that mostly means I'm hearing Russian and Cantonese, rather than English. The same is true of the other JLI students I've met at the dorm, and seems again to be fairly typical of JLI classes. So I think that aspect of my choice of Sapporo, not hearing too much English spoken, is going to work out just fine.
Classes are either morning, starting at 9am, or afternoon, starting at 1pm (and, as they repeatedly made clear at the orientation, you are expected to be there for when the class starts). My classes are on afternoons. That actually is slightly less of a benefit than I might have thought. Firstly, I have to be up in time for breakfast at the dorm anyway, so I can't have much of a lie-in. And secondly, the 1pm start means I have to have lunch a little early. On the first day, that meant I had a small lunch bought at a local Seicomart convenience store, and then it was a long gap before dinner (although the dorm serves dinner from 6pm, that seems too early to me, and besides, the friends I've been eating with here are mostly in a morning class, so would have a later lunch, and we had dinner together around 7.30pm that first day). Although a bit of exploration has found some lunch options nearby which are open early enough to eat and be at the school for around 12:45. I may write something about them another time, if I decide to do a foody post later.
On the first day, there were 8 of us who were new, and so had to be given the text books and have explanations of how it all works. For my particular class, we are using Chuu-kyuu kara manabu (中級から学ぶ) from Kenkyusha (ISBN978-4-327-38443-2) and 200 Essential Japanese Expressions: A Guide to Correct Usage and Sentence Patterns (どんなとき、どうつかう日本語表現文型２００) from ALC Press (ISBN978-4-7574-0174-7). Actually, I'm very familiar with the latter, as I already have a copy at home which I bought several years ago. I can highly recommend it: I've previously used it for self-study and to complement other text books on previous courses. It's particularly useful for clarifying subtle differences between similar expressions. But I didn't bring it with me from home, so it's not redundant being given another copy (although whether it's worth lugging home with me is another matter: if I can find someone here who can put it to use, I might pass it on before I leave).
By the way, there's a follow on book with 500 expressions which is also very good, though definitely a step above (the 200 expressions book has English explanations, but the 500 expressions one does not). I've already got that, too, although I haven't really made extensive use of it yet.
And talking about textbooks I'm very familiar with, some of the less advanced classes are using the Minna no Nihongo (みんなの日本語) books, which are used at SOAS for beginner through to lower-intermediate levels, and seem to be widely used, from my discussions with other students from various countries.
Anyway. The level of my course is aimed around about the Japanese Janguage Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 2 – which suits me fine, as I failed (or “didn't pass” -「不合格しまた」- as the result sheet nicely put it) that last year, and plan to take it again this year. So although it's not exactly a stretch, and I've previously studied (often more than once!) most of the Kanji and grammar we're covering, I don't know it all as well as I should or would like. Besides, for me personally, my main aim in coming to Japan to study is to improve my recall and retrieval of the Japanese I supposedly already know, and make myself a more confident, fluid communicator. So frankly, it suits me fine to be in a class which is maybe a little on the easy side (I was rather worried I was going to be in a class which was too difficult, from the interview I'd had at the orientation, so I'm somewhat relieved).
The syllabus for each lesson follows a similar pattern. So that we do Kanji and grammar, then the main text, with comprehension, then speaking and listening practice. For the main text for the chapter, first, we listen to it on CD without following in the book, then the teacher reads it in short sentences or phrases, getting the class to repeat it each time all together, then we read it over on our own, then we each take turns in reading a sentence or two until we'd read the text out again twice. After that, we go though it in great detail, to make us understand it as well as we'd need for the JLPT exam. We then answer questions on the text, to ensure we've understood it, and finally there is a precis exercise. There's not a lot of scope for interactivity in this part of the lesson, but in my current class, people seem a little on the quiet side, anyway. After that, the speaking practice was a little freer, with a bit of a game played to help us introduce ourselves to our classmates. I imagine this section will be the most interactive and least rigid. Then finally there is the listening practice, including dictation.
There is homework set on the Kanji and grammar, and there may be more on other sections, although it seemed a little light last week (of course, as we have a syllabus, less homework just means more time to prepare for class, though). Aside from the sort of thing covered so far, the syllabus also has separate grammar lessons, where we will be using the 200 Essential Japanese Expressions book, and there is a test: I don't know how frequent or infrequent tests will be, but there is only one in April.
Although it's early days, I think this probably gives a flavour of what to expect at the JLI. The pattern of the syllabus itself would seem to be fairly formal, although there is room for some variance according the the individual teachers' styles. Anyone looking for more conversational and interactive classes might prefer another school, based on this first week (but I will let you know if my impression of that changes as the course progresses). Again, I think it suits me fairly well, although I would like there to be more actual conversation in the class, and more scope for my spoken Japanese to be corrected: it's all very well having conversations with classmates, but as we're all learning, we'll all be making mistakes, and I would actually like to know the correct way to say things.