What’s your motivation to learn Japanese?

“What is your motivation in learning Japanese?”

This is the question that Can-sensei asks whether I got stuck in my Japanese studies. I’m sure you will hear this too when you meet him for the first time. When I agreed to become his student, I know I have walked the road less travelled.

After many sensei I had and went to schools like Hougang(2005-2007), Ikoma (2016-2017), and online like iTalki (2017), Can is the best sensei I have.

Can is an urban legend to me. I first heard about him online when I was digging for last minute JLPT exam tips back in 2015. His free materials are handy even till now. Moreover, his name keeps popping up again, and again in hardwarezone.com.sg and Reddit. He caught my attention, but I picked Ikoma at that time. I was sceptical if a non-native can teach the language well, even though he has illustrated his technical prowess on these sites.

Then I met Can on Christmas 2017 for an interview to be his private student. My N4 in July 2017 is 140. The crazy me is asking for N2 160/180 in July 2019. Can immediately point out that my N4 140 is risky as it is an indication of my weak foundation, and I actually wasn’t ready for N3. However, prior to our meeting, I already did my N3 in December 2017. (Naughty me crammed N3 in 2.5 months.) He remarked that I shouldn’t have tried N3. He didn’t allow me to revise anything beyond N4 from January 2018 to May 2018. Anytime I asked a question that is N3-N2 related, Can shoot me down and reminded me to focus on N5-N4. I felt dejected, maybe even a little infuriating. However, I bit my tongue and my ego and went back to basics.

I officially become his student on CNY 2018 and retook N4 in July 2018 to see my improvement. This test was my third attempt in N4; first in 2007 which was still called JLPT 3, and it was a borderline pass. Then I stopped my studies in 2008 when I failed my JLPT 2 (N2) and left a ten years gap. My second attempt in N4 was that July 2017’s 140. Thanks to Can, I pulled up my score to 168 for N4’s July 2018. This is my personal best and never in my dreams would I imagine I can score as I am not naturally language-inclined.

Some of my former classmates were laughing at my absurd reasons to “downgrade”. I was revising N5-N4 when I owned an N3 and going to a non-native sensei when I am already in a reputable school filled with native sensei. What I see is behind Can’s strict exterior is his generous soul. Being his private student, he would be kind to invite me to his group lessons routinely or even to some meet-up so that I can experience others’ motivation towards learning. The free notes on his site, his massive library collection which I would bug him occasionally for book recommendations, going for courses to upgrade his skills, a free first trial for his lessons, him ritually giving out free last-minute JLPT tips; these are all tell-tale signs of Can’s generosity and passion towards Japanese language.

A trend I observe often in learning Japanese is the kiasu behaviour to rush for JLPT certification. Such a grade-driven system exists not merely due to Singapore’s competitive education system, but Japan also plays a part. There are still many employers in Japan assessing a potential employee to possess at least an N2.

However, the more I study for JLPT, the more I observe this trait; Doing well for JLPT has almost no connection to being fluent in Japanese. Possessing an N2 would not magically enable me to watch anime without subtitles or speak like a native. Therefore, do not be disheartened if you are slow. Only be wary if you become lazy or snobbish. Your learning in advanced Japanese will not retain if your foundation (N5-N4) is not stable.

I have heard about Can’s reputation in grammar explanation being his forte. I think his great emphasis and sensibility in understanding Japanese culture and its people makes him exceptional. This is the reason why he will start his beginner class with 2.5 months of foundation studies first before officially using the textbooks. In his classes, your homework will not only be consisted of the materials from the textbook, but you do presentations and projects too. The students are also actively encouraged to use media consumption daily like watching dramas, variety shows, playing games or reading novels, manga and magazines. By immensing in these activities, they enriched for a more well-rounded learning.

Many people have mistaken Can for a native as his Japanese sounds natural. As a result, Can always correct his students’ pronunciation as he wants his students to articulate proper Japanese. This is a feature you won’t get from other schools, yet this is so important. Japanese people are particular about making a good impression, and if you have poor pronunciation with a strong foreign accent, they will straight away brand you as 外人 (gaijin = foreigners). You may think what’s wrong with being labelled as an “outsider”. I think it’s a pity to live in the “gaijin bubble” and lose out an opportunity to connect with a native. Learning with Can don’t just make me fall in love with the language, I become genuinely interested in its people. I have looked at the Japanese with rose-coloured glasses and learning with Can taught me to look beyond the surface. As much as their ambivalence drive me crazy, I wholeheartedly respect Japanese’s sense of humility. Getting better at “reading the air”「空気を読む」 becomes my biggest motivation. This is when I realise my test to true Japanese language’s proficiency is not how well I score in JLPT, but the ability to speak the Japanese language that communicates straight to the Japanese people’s hearts.

Let Can be a part of your learning. His teaching style is not for the faint-hearted. Can’s words can be so brutally honest and his work ethics so strict that he may not the cup of tea for many students. However, if you heed his advice and do the hard work, you can definitely see your progress and will emerge as a more self-motivated and disciplined student. Can holds a belief as an educator, that academic excellence should go together with character development, and I applaud him for his dedication. My eternal gratitude to Can for allowing me to experience his teaching and in the process, making me a better friend to native Japanese

By bananakaya/ former student

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