Are College Classes Worth It to Learn Japanese?

I’ve made several attempts to learn Japanese over many years, and those attempts often started with formal classes through a local community college. I tried night classes, but they were after a day at the office and so late (ending around 9pm), that I couldn’t concentrate.

In 2020, I made another attempt because the community college nearest me had moved their classes entirely online. The class required attendance to virtual lectures twice per week for 2 hours, but it was early afternoon, so I thought it would be easier than the night classes.

Nope. It was just as difficult to go to a virtual class after clocking a full day at work.

Last fall, I was excited to find and begin a program that’s fully online asynchronous. If you’re like me and you’ve been trying to learn Japanese while working a full-time job, you may need a similar class that doesn’t require you to be at a certain place at a certain time, which was too restrictive for me, but still provides some amount of structure.

I just finished my first academic year of Japanese classes, so let’s talk about the pros and cons of taking college classes to learn Japanese versus self-studying. Keep in mind that these points are based on my personal experience taking asynchronous online classes at a particular school, so of course, your mileage may vary.

Opportunities to connect with others

Benefit: You have the opportunity to connect with others students, especially if you take an in-person class, which lend themselves more to socializing and making friends with classmates.

Drawback: Just because you’re in a class with people who are studying Japanese doesn’t mean they’d make a good study or language partner for you. They may be at a different skill level, they may want to practice more less than you, or they may simply be busy or prefer to study on their own.

Other than posting required assignments in the online forum, my classes have not been super social, so I’ve gone outside of class to make language learning friends.

Options for self-study students: You can definitely find language learning partners and other learners outside a class setting. I’ve heard you can also find language learning groups via Meetup, but I haven’t done that myself. Instead, I used Tandem to find language learning partners. If you want to read more, check out HelloTalk or Tandem: What’s better for language learning partners?.

Accountability and structure

Benefit: When enrolled in a college class, you have structure and paced learning with built-in check points to test your skills and progress. You’re held accountable by your teacher for doing at least some amount of work and engaging in the language on some regular cadence. For my class, we had an assignment or test every week.

My teachers have been a generous graders, which is a huge benefit — it’s hard enough to learn a new language without also having to worry about what grade you’re going to get on the final or whatever.

Drawback: Sometimes structure is limiting and makes it easy to cheat the system. During my first class, I was more advanced than other students since I’d taken the first class before. But I wasn’t advanced enough to skip to the next class, so I had to slog through. That was a little frustrating and only one example of how structure may hold you back a bit.

The structure and generous grading also means I could do the bare minimum but still feel a sense of accomplishment because I’m turning in the assignments and getting good grades. The bare minimum isn’t conducive to actually learning a language, though. For example, we don’t have to memorize words for the open-book tests because I can always look them up. But not being able to recall words is detrimental to speaking and writing in Japanese, so feeling like I don’t “have” to memorize vocabulary is a major drawback.

You’re also stuck with whatever textbook they’re using for class. I often found myself going outside of the textbook to learn grammar concepts because Genki doesn’t work for me, but doing so sometimes meant extra expenses. Using outside resources also means connecting the dots to what’s being taught in the class and making sure you give answers based on the class textbook.

Also, when I really needed a break from learning, it was not possible to take a real break unless I was willing to miss assignments. I could do the bare minimum, but that still meant checking in once per week.

Access to a teacher

Benefit: Taking a college class guarantees that you have some access to a teacher and maybe even a tutor or teacher’s aid. My teachers have been easily accessible via email or the chat function in Canvas, but your experience may vary depending on the school and individual teachers.

My school also offers a free language tutor for each quarter I’ve been enrolled in a Japanese class. I found her help valuable when I had specific questions about the material or needed help with a particular assignment.

Options for self-study students: If you’re interested in getting one-on-one lessons, I highly recommend Preply. Read Tips for Choosing a Tutor and How a Preply Tutor Transformed My Language Learning Experience for more information about my experience finding a good Japanese tutor.

In closing

Again, this is based on my experience with my particular program, so your mileage may vary depending on your school, teachers, curriculum, and personal learning needs. For me, taking the college classes has been worth it. Since they’re at a community college, they are relatively inexpensive, and it’s worth having the accountability and structure.

Some people can build their own structure, and that’s perfect for self-study students.

Personally, I decided to enroll in this program because I will be able to earn an associate’s degree when I’ve completed all the classes. Learning isn’t about getting degrees, but if I’m going to do the work anyway, I’m happy to have something to show for it — even if it’s just a piece of paper.