It was when I was studying for my Japanese for Communication final that I rediscovered this example sentence I had written for homework. Y’know, one of those sentences that you write because it’s appropriately cheesy at the beginning of the year when you’re taking the ‘studying abroad for a whole semester’ pill with a bite of bread to help the medicine go down. It’s terribly ironic that now at the end of a long and terribly slow semester I look back at this sentence and realize how true it is. Bags are being packed; Goodbye parties are being partied; finals are being written; parting tears are being cried. With the end of my semester at Nanzan comes the obligatory reflection post.
In previous posts, I might have dragged Nanzan’s classes a little bit because the teaching style and speed may not be what I’m accustomed to at Yale, but I’m realizing this might not be an entirely fair comparison. Just because classes weren’t what I expected doesn’t mean they were completely ineffective; there were definitely pros and cons to every class and instructor. The weight of those pros and cons could be different per person, so I want to take this time to talk about Nanzan Japanese and elective classes more objectively, drawing on my own personal experiences/observations as well as feedback from other Nanzan students.
Nanzan’s Japanese classes are labelled as intensive because students cover a year’s worth of material in one semester, but what’s considered “a year’s worth of material” varies by college. According to a friend of mine, the general consensus among Nanzan students is that Nanzan Japanese classes are markedly more difficult than those at their home universities. Whether it be purely the length of the classes themselves or the actual content is unclear, so I’ll just talk about the general layout of classes and let you judge for yourself.
I was placed in NIJ 600, the second highest level offered, appropriate for students approximately at the JLPT N2 level. NIJ 610: Japanese for Communication covered five different readings on topics based around issues in modern Japanese society including the absence of fathers in Japanese homes (always work work work), welfare and healthcare, and environmental issues. Some of these were editorials or actual newspaper articles from the 90s (Would’ve been more relevant with recent material, but I digress). Each chapter, we did prep homework where we looked up background information relevant to the reading or wrote our own opinions or what we knew about our own countries’ policies. This also was a chance for us to get familiar with the vocabulary and grammar that would appear in the reading. We had grammar practice every chapter, where we would write example sentences and go over them as a class. Then we went through the reading sentence by sentence with the professor asking clarifying questions and giving us the opportunity to pose our own questions. Usually by doing this in-depth reading, we could fix our reading comprehension homework before turning it in if we made a mistake. Some readings were supplemented with videos, clips or recommended websites or extra newspaper articles, and we did debates or group presentations to learn how to express our own opinions on the issue in Japanese. The class was very structured, almost to a point where it was irritating. The debates weren’t spontaneous or natural discussion, rather each person on a team talked about a particular point using suggested key words and ideas during a time limit. There was a specific time for posing questions and for one side to refute the opponent’s point and no clear winner. Even in answering homework or test questions, if the answer wasn’t posed exactly how the professors wanted it or how they answered it in class, it was marked as incorrect. (Just to throw a little salt in here: I was told that an answer that was marked correct on my homework assignment would be considered incorrect if I answered the exact same question the same way on the test. And what kind of sense does that make? Exactly, it doesn’t. Okay, that’s my little pinch of salt to the recipe. Moving on.)
NIJ 620 is the class focused on reading and writing. This class was less structured and repetitive than 610, but this could simply be a difference in the professors’ teaching styles. The readings were more geared towards literature and personal essays than the ones in 610 and in my opinion, much easier to digest. Despite reading comprehension being the backbone of the class, we spend a great deal of time reviewing basic grammar points and addressing mistakes in common grammar usage. This was actually very helpful because we teased out the differences between は and が, and found out linguistic motivations for what appears to be a silly distinction. We spent time learning new ways to study kanji (by origin, groups of meaning, and radicals) and learned the formats for emails and letters in Japanese (yes, there are numerous rules and etiquette when it comes to this too.) Overall, it was a fun class with a lively teacher that everyone seemed to like, even if it lacked the structure and good planning of the 610 class.
I thought this might be unique to my NIJ 610 teacher (who was the least favorite of the 600 level teachers, but that’s a topic for another day), but Nanzan Japanese teachers can be strict and inconsistent when it comes to grading, which just confused students at all levels. Some other students had things marked incorrect on a test that were marked correct on homework, or the same answers were marked as correct and incorrect, depending on the student. When students asked about these discrepancies, they were either told to look up the answers themselves or given some vague response like “both answers work, so don’t worry about it.” As far as I heard, mistakes with grades were never corrected, instead it was the student’s responsibility to “think a little harder.” Though the teaching is in-depth, my general impression is that the teachers want to stick to the book at all costs, a golden reward that all students are to strive for absolute perfection through memorization and regurgitating what was taught. If you can’t do that, you will be cheerfully and politely left behind. Between this and the rigid structure of the classes, many American students just seemed done with Nanzan right around midterms. Depends on the type of teaching style you’re used to/whatever works for you, I suppose.
There are a number of elective classes to take: from academic Japanese, to Japanese culture/society classes to the arts, and I can hardly speak for the teaching style of all of them. The workload also varies, so just take the time to read the syllabus at the beginning of the semester or ask someone who’s taken the class previously. Since most of these classes meet for a huge chunk of time once a week, the teaching was less in-depth since we only spent once class on one topic and we had so much to cover by the end of the semester. Some teachers talked in technical terms without explaining in-depth, causing more confusion for students than necessary, and some teachers lost their lectures in story-telling so we were all confused about what we were actually learning, but some managed to find a balance. Either way, grading for these classes was overall significantly less strict than the Japanese language classes–any homework was taken purely for completion and a lot of mistakes were allowed to slide. Because of infrequent graded assignments, students had no idea of how the teacher graded or what their expectations were, which caused a bit of anxiety when facing final papers and exams with very vague guidelines.
Outside of the classroom, there are a bunch of clubs and activities for international students to participate in like sports and dance teams. The Japanese students in these groups seem pretty receptive to foreigners joining them (not in my case, but nevertheless) and it’s a great opportunity to practice Japanese outside of the classroom and make Japanese friends to hang out with on the weekends. Be aware that some clubs and circles require a lot of dedication: practices and meetings are particularly long and drawn out close to the school festival, which also happens to be right around midterms.
So, would I recommend Nanzan to another student? Sure, why not. Any problems I encountered were because of my preferences for a certain teaching style, and those issues didn’t keep me from learning– I think my reading comprehension has come a long way from what it used to be; Japanese newspapers and television don’t scare me anymore. If anything, I’m even more motivated to read and write in Japanese than ever, as long as I’m actually interested in the subject matter. If you’re looking to Nanzan to make you completely fluent, then maybe reconsider. Though some students found it intensive, I’ve definitely had worse (er….better?). To be honest, no matter what program you do, it’s up to you to push yourself and practice until you reach the level of fluency you desire. The program alone won’t do it for you, but you could certainly do worse than Nanzan.