SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Diplomates: Mouss Kamal

My own experience as a student of the Diploma in Japanese Studies could aptly be summarised as the most gruelling yet most gratifying subject I have read. Gruelling because it unceasingly demands extensive amounts of time, self-discipline and passion. Gratifying because you find yourself leap, within such a short time, from very basic Japanese to being fully proficient at an advanced level.

You will find that the introduction of the course will involve amongst other things, Shin Okajima sensei telling all students to expect a tough scholastic year ahead. Indeed, this is to be taken seriously, as I found out myself. With two assessed tests each week, assessed bi-weekly assignments, daily homework, and exams at the end of each term, you will find that whatever pastime you had before will ironically become a ‘time of the past’.

Despite this, the classes were always something I looked forward to, as the teachers were excellent and always there to answer your queries. Similarly, they expect all students to be as dedicated in preparing for the classes.

For those of you who have not had prior experience in learning Japanese, it would be wise to get up to speed in Hiragana and Katagana before the first lesson. From the first lesson, exercises and class notes were all conducted in these characters. I had expected to be slowly and comfortably introduced to them, but I was in for a rude shock because the teachers actually expected us to know them before the course. I recall the first day when a certain girl from my class and myself feeling (or rather hoping) that we were in the wrong class.

Classes are daily from morning to lunch time and sometimes till about 3 pm (2nd term onwards for translation classes). Thus you really progress fast in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but at the same time there will be so much to absorb that it was quite a challenge to find time consolidating everything. But this is a natural part of the learning process. (I simply convinced myself that it was part of the Japanese cultural experience to dedicate all those time towards studying). Realistically, you need to put in about 2 to 3 hours of self-studying a day. This should consist of some time going through the day’s grammar points and vocab, doing the homework, and preparing for next day’s class. Any extra time should ideally be devoted to other aspects of the language like listening, reading, and writing.

Perhaps the most dreaded component of the language for most us has to be kanji. It is really mind-boggling how some scholars can visualize some squiggly characters as something akin to a “fleshy bear with claws and nose can perform noh” and therefore that said character means “ability” and the “art of Noh”. I was admittedly very daunted in the beginning as I could not look beyond the kanji strokes into its meaning. I suffered from kanji paralysis. Each time I come across one, even the whole sentence becomes a blur to me. It took me months to come to grips with kanji.

But each person had their own way in dealing with kanji. One classmate believes in the “writing tediously till you either drop dead or remember them” method. He would write every single kanji that we had learnt tens of times daily. Hence, each week the number of kanji he writes accumulates. By the 10th week he was writing about 200 kanji, at least 20 times on a daily basis. Needless to say he is also one of our top kanji students. Another classmate would memorize kanji via the compound words. This gives a context within which to associate a kanji with, and also the on-yumi (sound) of the kanji. For me, I prefer to learn a kanji via a combination of its radicals and its compound usages. I would dissect each kanji into its separate radicals and then form a story to incorporate the kanji’s meaning. The more ridiculous the story, the easier it is to remember the meaning. A book I would recommend would be “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters” by Kenneth G. Henshall, which can be bought at the Japan Centre. I found it useful because the author goes through the history of each kanji and how it was actually derived. It gave me a better understanding of the combination of radicals and provided a useful tool with which I was able to build my stories.

There were other useful methods of general learning. Language exchanges with native Japanese definitely helps. It takes some initiative, and it takes some effort in setting out the agenda with the other person, but if carried out properly it is really the best way to propel your standards forward. Watching Japanese movies or dramas is another good way to improve. I find this especially useful for associating Japanese verbs/vocabs with the relevant feelings and ways of saying it. It’s also useful for listening practice. Another effective mean is by joining some of the internet communities for Japanese speakers. You would be able to improve your vocab and kanji by reading other people’s blogs.

The whole year was marked with fluctuations with regards to our progress with the language. Some of us found it increasingly difficult as we went through each term. Some of us found the first term difficult but the subsequent ones relatively easier as the whole language structure started to click and formed a more complete jigsaw. And most people experienced their own highs and lows throughout the year. Some days seemed so easy where you can breeze through the exercises, while other days can seem a torture when your brain simply refuses to co-operate. So my advice would be to pace yourself throughout the year; no need to burn yourself out. Do not let the hard times get you down because with the combination of the fantastic teachers, excellent teaching methods at SOAS Language Centre, and your own hard work, you will in the end achieve your goal of Japanese fluency.

At the end of the day, any past student would tell you how amazed they are at their achievement, after the ‘hardship’ year. Yes we sweated blood throughout the course, but it was worth it. Aside from actually going to Japan, I do not thing there is any other better course for those who seek to become fluent in the language within such a short time.