Make Gains in Japanese: Work with a Teacher the Right Way

Learning a language such as Japanese necessitates a lot of practice using the language. Practice can be done effectively by working with someone who is at a higher level than you, preferably a native speaker. Without testing your ability to use the language by formulating your own output, it will be a challenge to make gains. And when you do output, you need someone to help correct any mistakes you make and provide answers when you get stuck. Accordingly, a good teacher will be a worthwhile investment to help you make gains in the most effective way.

Japanese language learners should work with a teacher to accomplish the goal of coming able to communicate in Japanese. A teacher facilitates opportunities for learners to practice what they have learned while adding new expressions to their repertoire, making corrections, and answering questions.

Working with a teacher will be your best bet if your goal in learning Japanese is to be able to communicate in the language, particularly if you want to speak it. As you learn more, there will be things which you come able to do, such as asking for directions, but there will continue be things that you can’t yet do. It’s tempting to assume that at some point over the course of your study you will learn these things. You might think, I will be able to do that someday. I know I thought this way.

The fact is, actually trying to do the things you can’t yet do is how you will learn them. The key is to have guidance from someone who is more knowledgeable than you to help you through the process. Within the realm of research of how humans learn, there is a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development, which was originally developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The zone is the distance between what you can do on your own now, and what you could be able to do with the help of a more knowledgeable other. This is where your teacher comes in.

How Your Japanese Teacher Will Help You Make Gains

A teacher facilitates your learning by providing you with opportunities to use Japanese in meaningful ways that extend your current abilities. Early on in your learning journey, you will likely be working to develop your repertoire of various speech acts, for example, making and declining invitations, making requests, apologizing… You can work with your teacher through a variety of different situations to develop your competency, and the beauty is you get to practice and receive live feedback and correction all at once!

If you are working through a textbook, which I also recommend, various speech acts and the grammar that support them will be covered. But it’s the exercises that come after the main instruction (which was probably mostly written in English) such as pair work and role play activities where the real learning takes place. It’s tough to do these activities on your own. If you try, at least you’ll know if you get stuck somewhere, or have questions about whether what your saying is right or not. But by working through these activities with a teacher who can help you in real time, these problems are solved.

For a beginner level textbook, I wrote about Genki here. For an intermediate level textbook, I wrote about Tobira here.

Another benefit of a teacher is that they are someone who will be able to observe you and make you aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Your teacher can create opportunities for you to work on your weaknesses simply by focusing on those areas. Perhaps you are weak in keigo but will be entering a Japanese company soon where you will need to use it a lot with your colleagues and customers. Just by role playing various situations, your weaknesses get exposed and bit by bit you can cover the ground needed to overcome them.

Here is something I learned from my teacher, how to use ~ていただくin the specific context of asking somebody to do something in a formal situation, namely in interactions with Japanese customers. I should have already known how to use it from my past studies, but that’s just it, it was just knowledge of the language that I remembered studying, I had never used it in practice, so it did not occur to me that I needed to bring it into play. And frankly, I didn’t know how to bring it into play until we practiced it quite a bit, and then I was able to use it naturally.  

Later on in your learning journey, when you want to focus more on general conversation practice, there will still be places where what you say may not sound natural in Japanese, or you just plain make a mistake, or maybe even struggle to express something altogether. Again, your teacher is there to provide correction and supply you with the right words (which could be e.g., more advanced vocabulary and/or grammar constructs) that you need to formulate and express what it is you want to say.

Let me emphasize the situation of struggling to express something altogether. This happens a lot because you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to say it and get stuck. Then you ask, “how do I say…”. This is it. This is your teacher’s real superpower. They are the perennial answer to that question. Maybe it was just arranging a sentence with parts you already know, or maybe it was that you needed new words or a grammar structure to formulate the expression. In any case, it is so valuable to be able to identify these knowledge gaps and have someone there to patch them up.

Get the Most Out of Working with Your Japanese Teacher

Spend most of the lesson time with your teacher using Japanese. When your teacher speaks, it will provide you with valuable comprehensible input, but you as the learner should be doing most of the speaking. Your teacher, you, or your textbook, should come up with activities where you are using Japanese to communicate. Activities can range from role plays in which you try to accomplish a specific task such as renting a car, to engaging in a conversation on a specific topic such as what you plan to do in Japan when you move there next year.

For you to learn and extend your abilities, the key is to use Japanese in a variety of interactions and practice speaking a lot. Minimize the time in which you are receiving e.g., formal grammar instruction from your teacher. If you are using a textbook, read through the formal instruction sessions on your own. If you have questions, bring them to the lesson. 

Otherwise let your teacher be the more knowledgeable other who is there as your practice partner and who provides any necessary corrections or the right words as you build your ability to express yourself. This type of teaching from your teacher in which the learner is actually learning by speaking the target language is called Communicative Language Teaching.

I tend to really emphasize speaking practice my own lessons with my teachers but reading practice can also be effective time spent with your teacher. Another aspect of Communicative Language Teaching is learning from authentic texts. Your teacher or you should pick a short article, which is just above your level, and preferably in which the content interests you. Read the article out loud to your teacher and then afterwards, have your teacher ask you reading comprehension questions and discuss your thoughts on the article. With this form of reading practice, you are still getting comprehensible input and working on your output as well during your discussion with your teacher.

Where to Find Your Japanese Teacher

I am a big fan of one-on-one private tutoring and I really like the flexibility of being able to connect with my teachers and undertake lessons online. These are a couple reasons why I highly recommend italki. Another beauty of italki is that there is a huge variety of teachers available on the platform, so you can easily find the right one for you. I write about using italki and getting the most out of it here.

Works Consulted

Briggs, Martin, “Second Language Teaching and Learning: the Roles of Teachers, Students, and the Classroom Environment” (2014). All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 377.

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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