Learn Japanese: Classes vs. Private Tutor vs. Self-Study

There are many ways to go about learning a foreign language such as Japanese, with the main options being seeking a private tutor, attending classes, and self-study. But it is hard to know which to choose, elements such as time, money and effectiveness of the option need to be examined. But in terms of the overall best way to learn, there is a clear answer.

A private tutor is the most effective option to learn a language, such as Japanese, when considering among a private tutor, group classes or self-study. While it is possible to learn via all three methods, the targeted attention from a private tutor will yield the highest gains in the least time.

If learning Japanese is a priority for you and you have set up your life to be able to commit consistent time to learning it, then I highly suggest a private tutor. Or at the very least, a second-best option would be classes. Especially if you are starting from zero, it will be easiest to have a teacher as your guide, particularly one that can give you lots of one-to-one attention.

It is also possible to self-study, and it is possible to do it for free, but it will likely be the slowest path and you need to take it on yourself to create the structure of your learning plan and maintain the discipline to keep to your learning schedule. Let’s list-off some pros and cons of each option.

Pros of a Private Japanese Tutor

  • Completely individualized attention
  • Weaknesses easily identified and corrected quickly
  • Instruction from a professional teacher
  • 100% of practice time dedicated to you
  • Most efficient time spend leading to faster gains
  • Choose your own learning pace
  • Guided learning path (if you ask your tutor for it)
  • More freedom to choose what you want to work on

Cons of a Private Japanese Tutor

  • Highest cost per hour
  • No cohort of fellow learners to commiserate with and co-support (vs. a class)
  • Session by session basis (no lengthy commitment)

Pros of Taking Japanese Classes

  • Completely guided learning path
  • Instruction from a professional teacher
  • Cohort of fellow learners to commiserate with and co-support
  • Classroom environment can be very enjoyable
  • Some opportunity to practice in class with the teacher and other students
  • Fixed schedule to which you are committed

Cons of Taking Japanese Classes

  • Much less individualized attention
  • Pace of the class is fixed
  • Second highest cost per hour
  • May not like your teacher or teaching approach and cannot easily change

Pros of Self-Studying Japanese

  • Free and low-cost option
  • Choose your own pace
  • Choose your own learning path
  • Choose your own learning materials

Cons of Self-Studying

  • No structure (must make your own)
  • No guided learning by a professional teacher
  • No individualized attention
  • Must find answers to your questions on your own
  • Motivation fades the easiest (compared to working with a teacher/class)
  • No cohort of fellow learners to commiserate with and co-support (vs. a class)
  • Need to seek out speaking practice (e.g., language exchange)

Learn with a Tutor: Effective Learning at a Reasonable Cost

Let’s answer some important questions about working with a private tutor such as: how much does one cost, is it worth it, and how do I find a good one that is right for me? There is certainly a cost component to consider, and scheduling can be a challenge, but with online options, I think that you will find that a tutor is more affordable and convenient to schedule than you may have thought.

On average an online Japanese tutor costs $18.18 USD per hour. Investing in a tutor is the most effective way to learn per time spent working together due to the individualized attention the learner receives. Online Japanese tutors can be found on platforms such as italki, Verbling and Preply.

The most affordable place with the widest variety of available tutors is italki. I have written in detail about how to find and work with your ideal italki tutor here. With so many tutors living in various time zones all over the world, online tutoring gives total freedom of time and location to schedule lessons. If you are not quite convinced that a private tutor is right for you, have written more about why you should work with one here.

Tutor vs. Classes

One of the reasons tutoring is so effective is that it gets you closer to being in the second/foreign language environment, that is to say, most of the communication between you and your tutor will be done in the target language, Japanese. Having to communicate a lot in Japanese is what you would have to do if you were living in Japan, the second/foreign language environment.

Julian Bamford of Bunkyo University wrote a paper entitled How Much in How Long? — Estimating the Length of Time It Takes to Learn a Foreign Language [1]. The following quote comes form the paper and reveals the real difference between the effectiveness of a tutor vs. classes.

In an FL [foreign language] intensive program, working with a tutor or in a class of 2-3 students creates an effect similar or better than that of working in a second language environment. Any deficiency in methodology or motivation is compensated for by the intensity of personal contact. Once would expect spectacular savings in study time. In general, the larger the class, the more important are enlightened methodology and strong student motivation…

Julian Bamford, Bunkyo University

So, it seems the reality is that the individualized attention and the ample opportunity to communicate in the target language is what makes all the difference with a private tutor (or a really, really small class size). This quote also provides the answer the question: are Japanese classes worth it? The answer can be phrased the following way:

Classes are a worthwhile option to learn Japanese for motivated learners. The average cost per hour of Japanese classes is $15.18 USD. While not as effective as a private tutor, the greatest benefit is obtained when class sizes are small and when communicative learning techniques are employed.

Especially if you have an engaging teacher that employs communicative learning techniques, classes can be a lot of fun. With communicative learning, most class time is spent having students practice speaking with each other and the teacher in the target language, Japanese. You learn the language by speaking it! This is in contrast to spending most the class time to receiving grammar explanations in English with minimal time allotted to practice.

When you first start attending your Japanese classes, chances are you will be highly motivated, and interestingly, a class can help maintain your motivation and even increase it. The class environment is one advantage that a class has over a private tutor. It is a social environment in which you are a part of a cohort of like-minded learners sharing the joys and challenges of language learning.

I made a small group of friends when I was taking Japanese classes, and we hung out every week and had lots of fun together. Ultimately, liking your teacher and looking forward to the seeing your classmates does have an impact on your motivation to continue learning.

In terms of effectiveness per hour spent, a private tutor is still the best option. But there is still the element of cost to consider. Interestingly, the costs are reasonably close between an online private tutor and community classes offered in English speaking countries [1], see the table below.

Costs to Learn Japanese: Tutor vs. Classes vs. Self-Study

Private Online Tutor$18.18 USD/hr (average)
Group Classes (Online and In-Person)$15.18 USD/hr (average)
Costs to not include the cost of study materials (or enrollment fees in the case of classes), they are simply the per hour cost of time spent with the resource. Cost for classes is based on non-academic community classes*.

Scheduling is a yet another element to consider. Classes are often at a fixed time and location. Online classes can alleviate the need to commute to a specific place, but the need to available at a specific time remains a challenge. Again, online tutoring gives total freedom of time and location to schedule lessons.

One situation which you might be able to work to your advantage is if you are in university and you can fit Japanese classes into your existing schedule. You might be able to take about three one-hour sessions per week this way and you will at least have a structured learning path to follow. But considering cost again, the cost per hour is higher in universities than community classes. If you are instead interested in fully committing and wondering how much it costs to get an undergraduate degree in Japanese, I write about it here.

No matter whether you work with a private tutor or take classes, some amount of self-study will be required, e.g., homework, kanji training, supplemental listening practice… In fact, Julian Bamford states …the average (adult) student in the average [language learning] program would probably spend 2/3 of study time with a teacher, and 1/3 of the time doing homework and self-study [1].

Self-Study vs. Teacher-Mediated Learning

It is possible to learn Japanese without a teacher, and it can be done for free. But you might wonder how effective it will be and if it might be better to invest in a teacher, whether it be a private tutor or classes. Especially if you are an absolute beginner, you will want to be judicious in choosing your learning option.

Teacher-mediated learning, whether with a private tutor or classroom teacher, is a more effective means of learning a language, such as Japanese, than self-study alone. Especially at the absolute beginner level, student-teacher interaction forms part of a learner’s motivation to continue to learn.

The majority of my time spent to date learning Japanese has been via self-study, and I have been able to make gains doing so. For example, I passed levels N3, N2 and N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) via-self study alone. I enjoy self-study because you have a lot of freedom in choosing your learning materials, and it can be done at a fairly minimal investment. I write more about the cost of self-studying Japanese here. It can also even be done for free! Which I write about here.

My most substantial gains have been made when working with a private tutor and attending classes. Private tutors have definitively been the most effective for me, but I did in fact start learning Japanese by taking classes while in university, and as I mentioned, I really enjoyed it! My teachers and classmates really did strengthen my motivation to continue.

To further highlight the point about motivation, a study was conducted by Masanori Matsumoto of Bond University and Yasuko Obana of the University of Queensland on the motivational factors of university students learning Japanese. A number of factors were examined but overall the study revealed that …at the elementary level students are motivated by interaction in class (between teacher and student, and between students) [2].

Realities of Self-Learning Japanese as an Absolute Beginner

The absolute beginner stage is an especially sensitive one that is tough on your own. Teacher-mediated learning will help take away the guesswork of structuring your own learning path. And importantly, give you an overall better chance at staying motivated to continue to learn. Let’s look at a couple case studies for insight into self-studying a language from absolute zero.

One study had pretty negative results which examined self-study with language learning software and was conducted by Katharine B. Nielson of the University of Maryland. The study was done with adult learners who initially had high motivation to learn. It was found that …CALL [computer aided language learning] products… are not yet able to offer an alternative to human support or interaction [3]. This is a sad conclusion, but it should be noted that some learners in the study did persevere and made gains.

Another study was conducted by Rebecca Y. Jee and Gabriele O’Connor who wrote an accompanying paper entitled Evaluating the Impact of Blended Learning on Performance and Engagement of Second Language Learners. Blended learning …combin[es] the advantages of autonomous elearning with the benefits of in-person instruction in order to keep learners motivated and engaged [4].

There were two groups of learners in the blended learning study, both groups used the self-study software to learn. However, one group also got to undertake one-on-one tutoring sessions (synchronous language instruction) to supplement their learning. The two groups’ proficiency scores were measured before and after the study. It was found that those who use synchronous language instruction in conjunction with self-study do, on average, increase their proficiency scores to a greater extent than those who only use the latter [4]. So again, we find that teacher-mediated learning wins out.

In summary, I can say that self-studying can be effective. Although it will be tough for absolute beginners, if you are motivated and can persevere, it is still a possibility for you. Otherwise, your best bet is definitely a private tutor, and second best, a Japanese class. Choose the path right for you. Happy learning!


[1] Bamford, Julian (1987). How Much in How Long?: Estimating the Length of Time It Takes to Learn a Foreign Language. Information and Communications Study, 8, pp.143-149.

[2] Matsumoto, M., & Obana, Y. (2001). Motivational factors and persistence in learning Japanese as a foreign language. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 3(1), 59-86.

[3] Nielson, K.B., (2011). Self-study with language learning software in the workplace: What happens?. Language Learning & Technology, 15(3), pp.110-129.

[4] Jee, R.Y. and O’Connor, G., (2014). Evaluating the Impact of Blended Learning on Performance and Engagement of Second Language Learners. International Journal of Advanced Corporate Learning, 7(3).

*Japanese language community classes in English speaking countries used in the calculation of the average cost of Japanese classes. Listed by country:





Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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