Native vs Non-Native Japanese Teachers: Advantages of Both

You might think that you need to learn Japanese from a native speaking teacher, but there are surprising advantages to learning from a non-native speaking teacher that are not immediately obvious. Regardless of the teacher type, it’s unfortunate that there is a high discontinuance rate among learners at the beginner level, but the right teacher can make all the difference.

When learning beginner Japanese, it is acceptable to learn from either a native or non-native speaking teacher. Although there are pros and cons to each, what is most important at this stage to a learner’s success is the congeniality of the teacher and the learning environment that they create.

Indeed, one of the biggest determinants of whether a learner will continue to learn a new language or not is how they feel towards their teacher and their overall learning environment [1, 2]. Japanese tends to be a tough language to get into, and the initial stages of beginner Japanese can feel like a slow, tedious process without much progress.

Researchers in Australia conducted a study on Japanese learning persistence and examined the reasons why students decided to continue and discontinue their studies. They found that “Japanese is more difficult than expected” was the biggest reason for discontinuance. Conversely, they found that the biggest factor that kept students motivated to continue at the elementary level was whether they enjoyed their teacher and their class environment [2].

Regardless of their proficiency level, language learners seem to be greatly concerned with how they learn in class rather than how much they have achieved.

Masanori Matsumoto & Yasuko Obana

Even for learners with a high level of motivation to learn Japanese, there is a big hurdle to overcome early on in the process, and one very effective way to get over it is to have a teacher that makes learning enjoyable. With this insight, it’s clear that it matters less whether your teacher is native speaker or not, what matters is whether they can make the learning process one that you enjoy and inspire you to keep going.

Advantages of Learning Japanese from a Non-Native Teacher

You might think that regardless of how much you might like them, learning from a non-native speaking teacher (NNST) is disadvantageous. This is a common belief. In the literature on native speaking teachers (NSTs) vs NNSTs, in many cases there does exist a preference for NSTs [3, 4]. But in an extensive literature review by Raees Calafato of NSTs vs NNSTs it was discovered that this belief is not well founded [3].

…Students sometimes express a preference for NSTs, although this can have little to do with their teaching ability; rather, it is due to the novelty of NSTs for learners, their accents (the more ‘native’ the accent, the more positive the attitude), or the belief that NSTs will motivate them to learn the target language.

Cited from the research of Raees Calafato

This literature review revealed many advantages that NNSTs can offer to their learners. A key one is that they serve as inspirational role models. Because a NNST is someone that has gone through the process of learning the target language, they embody the successful multilingual learner and can inspire their students to do the same [3].

It was also found that NNSTs tend to be better at grammar explanations. NNSTs have explicit knowledge of the morphosyntax and structure of the target language, whereas NSTs have implicit knowledge. In general, their explicit knowledge enables NNSTs to better verbalize the rules and structure of the language and explain how the language works [3].

NNSTs can also impart their experiential knowledge of learning the language to their learners. Yet another finding of the study was that NNSTs often use a range of metalinguistic and other creative techniques when teaching vocabulary and grammar [3]. An example of an aspect specific to learning Japanese, where creative techniques come in really handy, is kanji.

A NST will probably rely on wrote memorization for learning kanji. This is probably how they would have learned it themselves in the Japanese education system. Whereas a good NNST might use a creative technique such as mneumonics. Sidenote: for better or worse, kanji is part of learning Japanese. I wrote a detailed article about the importance of kanji and techniques for learning it here.

Finally, it may just be easier to relate to a NNST. They have already gone through the challenges of learning Japanese and navigating the culture. You will face the same challenges and you may have moments where you doubt yourself. In these cases, an NNST is your sempai. In this respect, learning from an NNST is actually a more Japanese way of learning than learning from an NST!

In fact, my first Japanese teacher was NNST, Mr. Morrison. He was a hero to me. He lived in Japan for a number of years and could speak Japanese with ease. He was so cool. I wanted to be like him. He’s a great example of a NNST as role model for aspiring Japanese speakers. He even took my classmates and I to Japan for an exchange trip. It was awesome!

Advantages of Learning Japanese from a Native Teacher

Of course, the value of an NST cannot be underestimated. I mentioned several of the possible benefits of NNSTs above, but that does not absolutely mean that a NST couldn’t do the same thing for you. And in fact, there are areas where NNSTs seem to struggle, that a NST will not. Takako Aikawa, a senior lecturer at MIT, did a study analyzing the differences between how students’ linguistic errors are corrected by NSTs vs NNSTs. The study revealed that NSTs will correct errors with the highest fidelity.

The above-mentioned study found that NNSTs can suffer from language transfer [5]. This is when something is stated in the target language in the same way it would be communicated in the speaker’s native language. The statement is unnatural or even ungrammatical in the target language and would best be stated in a different way. A NST has clear advantage to get your Japanese sounding natural.

A couple more areas were highlighted by the study where NNSTs seemed to struggle. One was accurately determining the compatibility of adjectives in a given sentence [5], i.e., whether a particular adjective is appropriate to use or not given the noun it is modifying. Another was collocation [5], which is knowledge of what words are commonly paired together in a language.

In terms of what sounds natural when speaking Japanese, a NST will always know the answer intuitively, even if it’s hard for them to explain the reason why. There just reaches a point where rules are too complex or probabilistic in nature to be apprehended fully with explicit rules [6]. You need someone with intuition at this point. For this reason, when you progress beyond the beginner stage and your lessons focus more on conversation and unstructured application of the language a NST will be best.

If you are just getting started with Japanese, I definitely recommend working with a teacher. I wrote in further detail about the benefits of working with a teacher here. Whether a NST or NNST, choose one that you enjoy working with and that can give you the explanations you need to understand how Japanese works. To find your ideal teacher, I highly recommend italki. It’s an amazing platform with a huge variety of Japanese teachers at reasonable prices. I write in detail about using italki here.

If you are looking for starting point to break into Japanese learning, your best resource will be a textbook series called Genki. I wrote in detail about the benefits of using Genki here. Although you could work through Genki as a self-learner, it is designed to be used with a teacher. That is the way I used it, and with teacher support, it laid my Japanese language foundation. And it will do the same for you!


[1] Dornyei, Zoltan. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Routledge.

[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] Calafato, Raees. (2019). The non-native speaker teacher as proficient multilingual: A critical review of research from 2009–2018. Lingua, Volume 227.

[4] Yokochi, Yoshiko Samuel. (1987). A Survey of the Status of Native and Non-Native Instructors of Japanese in Higher Education in North America. The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 21, No. 2.

[5] Aikawa, Takako. (2017). Differences in Error Correction Between Native and Non-native Japanese Language Teacher. CAJLE Annual Conference Proceedings.

[6] Gass, Susan M., Selinker, Larry. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Third Edition. Routledge.

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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