Review of Coto Language Academy, Tokyo, Japan

Coto Language Academy offers various Japanese classes for foreigners. I spent 4 weeks in an intensive course (level Beginner 2) in September of 2017 in order to learn some Japanese to make traveling in Japan both easier and more fun.

There are many things I like about this school and learning Japanese in general. First, as an older language leaner it’s great to be in a school where the average age is closer to 35 than 20. Being around other students that are living in Tokyo and have had various life experiences is far more interesting than the 20-somethings I usually meet in Europe and South America.

Our class was just 4 students the first 2 weeks, 6 the third week and 5 the last week. Students can join the class on any Monday. That didn’t disrupt the class and all the students seemed about the same level. In fact, as far as the other students were concerned it was one of the more enjoyable learning environments I’ve ever experienced.

The school is well run and well organized. Classes were three hours a day, actually three 50 minute sessions with a 10 minute break in between. We had three teachers, teacher A on Monday and Thursday, teacher B on Tuesdays and Fridays and teacher C on Wednesdays.

The first 40 minutes of each day is spent on kanji (Chinese characters). For me this was the least interesting and least useful part of the day. Writing kanji is something that can be learned on your own should you want to learn it. You don’t need a teacher to tell you how to trace letters and then drill you on them.

The next lesson focuses on one or two grammar structures or verb conjugations. For the most part I found the grammar explanations too analytical and more complicated than need be.

There seems to be a preference for teaching and drilling pure grammar structures rather than focusing on the usage of the structure in context. For example, they drill mas form to te form, dictionary form to mas form instead of using open ended exercises where students make requests using the te form.

While some students may like this kind of drill, I find that in the long run it really isn’t very useful for achieving fluency. Fluency is achieved when you practice grammar in context and it is connected to real meaning that can be internalized and used in daily life.

There is also a lot of choral repetition (the class as a whole repeats words or phrases after the teacher) which is not useful and generally only necessary when classes are so large that other methods just aren’t possible. In small classes it’s a waste of time.

Over the four weeks we did more pair work and more open ended conversation exercises in the later weeks. Not surprisingly, we were not very good at it despite the endless drilling in the previous weeks.

Between the three teachers there is definitely variation in the use of communicative teaching methods. Some preferred dated choral repetition while others found ways to teach and practice grammar in context, especially in the later weeks.

I talked to someone in administration about the school’s teaching methodology. I explained that I was surprised that the classes focused on grammar structures when their website clearly states that they focus on conversational skills. Although she did not say this directly I got the impression that they believe that this kind of drilling improves speaking skills.

They have part-time classes that specifically train students using drills. They also have part-time classes that may be more communicative in that they start with a grammar structure and work up to a role play activity. She gave me the opportunity to sit in on one of these classes but unfortunately I didn’t have time to take her up on her offer.

Tests given every Friday are heavily kanji vocabulary and grammar based. In my opinion these tests are not very useful in that it is more of test of how slowly I write in kanji than a true test of what I can say or understand in Japanese. If the focus of the class is oral communication the exam should test oral communication.

This is my first experience with a Japanese school so I don’t know if this style of teaching is typical. My fear is that it is. For those seeking a school to work on grammar structures Coto Language Academy isn’t bad.  For me, who came to Japan to work on oral communication – I can learn grammar structures on my own – this school did not meet my needs.

If I were to do it again I would either do one-on-one instruction or a combination of one-on-one with a group class in order to ensure that more of the lesson time was focused on oral communication skills.

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