Diplomates: Ben Shaw
When I began the diploma course I already had some experience of the Japanese language. My spoken Japanese had been developed through a number of trips to Japan and I had taken some classes at my previous university. My goal in doing the diploma course was to formalize the knowledge that I had developed in a rather ad hoc way and bring my spoken and written skills up to business level.
The first thing that should be said about the diploma (and perhaps language learning in general) is that it requires commitment. You are trying to get from zero to JLPT level 2 standard in the space of a year, that means spending serious time with your head in a text book, learning kanji etc.
However if you are keen and want to improve your Japanese level as quickly as possible then the diploma is for you. You will find that you are amongst like minded people and that the teachers will offer you every support to get the most of your time at SOAS. You will also have access to a large amount of language learning resources such as Japanese TV, books and audio.
In terms of any tips I can give I would say that the most important thing is to dive straight into the language. Start watching Japanese TV from day one, it doesn't matter if you don't understand every word, it will help get you used to hearing Japanese as it is spoken by natives. Also, make full use of the conversation classes on offer, I found them invaluable as well as being great fun and a good way to make new friends.
I think another hint would be to not worry too much about making mistakes when trying to speak Japanese. The classroom is the place to work on grammar etc. but when you're trying to chat with a Japanese person it is more important to get into a flow and keep the momentum going.
As regards writing and the learning of kanji, it was definitely not my strong point but one thing that I found helpful was to use radicals. You'll find radicals listed at the beginning of most kanji text books. They allow you to understand the "building blocks" of more complex kanji and may help in memorizing them.
Overall I found that the diploma programme really helped me to formalize my spoken Japanese and greatly improved my knowledge of grammar and writing. I have made a number of good friends at SOAS who I hope to keep in touch with in the future. I found the whole experience to be very fulfilling.