The wonders of the internet means it’s incredibly easy to find a Japanese teacher online now. When I started I went to my teacher’s house, but in the last five years I have used numerous Japanese teachers online. (Mostly through italki.)
Not all teachers are the same and some have more experience than others. Either way, you still want to get the most out of your lessons as possible. So here are a few things to consider when working with a Japanese teacher.
Have a Goal in Mind
Knowing your goal will help you select a teacher and give that teacher guidance in how they can help you.
A general goal like “I want to learn Japanese” might be a little too broad, but if you’re a beginner having a broad goal is okay until you have a better idea what you want.
The core skills you might want to focus on are speaking, listening, reading, and writing. (Some of these will naturally overlap too, like speaking and listening.) As well as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
Start thinking about what “type” of speaking/listening/reading/writing/JLPT you’d like to focus on. E.g If it’s speaking do you want to practice casual, formal conversation, phone calls? If it’s reading do you want to read articles or novels?
Note: Although you could go over kanji, vocabulary, and grammar with a teacher, it’s a lot easier to study and review these on your own. It’s great to ask your teacher about these if they’re confusing but you’ll get more out of your lessons if you focus on a particular skill. These will also often come up in your lessons, so you’ll naturally practice them either way.
Consider Your Study Approach
What you use to study will depend on your goal.
As a general rule it’s best to consult with your teacher about what study materials might be best. They might have suggestions you haven’t thought of or be happy to go with the materials you’ve looked into.
If you’re a beginner and your goal is “I want to learn Japanese” then you should try and focus on working through one textbook with a teacher. Textbooks are designed for class settings, so are perfect for learning the fundamentals of Japanese with a teacher.
A strong foundation makes learning more advanced Japanese a lot easier, after all!
Your teacher might have a textbook they prefer to use, or can advice on which one might be best for you.
If your goal is to improve your speaking then it would be best to consider how you would like to practice. Would you prefer to act out fake phone calls? Or just have a regular conversation with your teacher?
If you want to improve your speaking on a particular subject then you could provide your teacher with articles on that subject then discuss them in your lessons. You could read these articles yourself as homework or read them aloud with your teacher.
If you want to improve pronunciation and intonation then reading aloud and having your teacher correct your accent can be a big help. (It helps to find a teacher that has trained in speech training as they are better equipped to guide you with intonation correction.)
When working with a teacher you’ll naturally be exposed to listening as long as all your conversations are in Japanese. But if you really want to focus on listening comprehension then here are some ideas.
Watch a short video with your teacher then paraphrase what is happening.
Or ask your teacher to read an article aloud and paraphrase them. (Note: We talk faster when we read so make sure your teacher speaks slowly and clearly.)
If your goal is to improve reading then it helps to pick something you’d like to read through with your teacher. You can read aloud and your teacher can help with kanji and grammar you don’t know. Then you can summarize the text to show you understood it.
If you’re a beginner then graded readers and reading exercises from textbooks are great to practice with.
For intermediate to advanced levels then short novels, short stories, essays, interviews, articles on specific subjects of interest, etc., are all good.
Reading comprehension drill books for the JLPT are also great ways to practice a wide range of topics.
If you’re not sure what to read then discuss with your teacher what might work best for you.
Writing will probably involve the most work outside of class, but it’s a great way to improve your Japanese.
You could write write essays or short stories based on themes or a question for home work, then go over them with your teacher during your lesson. Your teacher can then correct your grammar and vocabulary and help explain the nuances of the language.
If you’re a beginner you can start small with simple questions about yourself. More advanced learners can practice with opinion essays on current events.
If you want to study for the JLPT do you want to focus on one thing you struggle with or study it generally?
I always suggest focusing on vocabulary, kanji, and listening by yourself, but ask your teacher questions during lessons if anything confuses you. I’ve found teachers are better for going over reading and grammar together.
If you’ve already studied the majority of the materials and the test is coming up, then you could do some practice exams in your free time, then go over your answers with the teacher. This is a more focused study approach that can help you pick out why you might get certain things wrong.
Again, consult with your teacher. Many teachers will have their own materials for studying for the JLPT because so many students want to study for it. But if there’s a particular series or approach you’d like to use, check if they’re happy with using them too.
Prepare For Each Lesson
You have your goal and know what you’ll use to achieve this goal. Make sure your and your teacher are both on the same page about what you want. Hopefully (if it’s a good teacher) they’ll plan lessons based around your goals and the materials you’ve discussed.
If you can, get your teacher to tell you what subject/section you’ll go through in the next lesson. This way you can prepare and practice for the upcoming class.
Study vocabulary and kanji that will probably come up. Practice making up your own sentences based on that subject. Make a note of questions you want to ask your teacher if you find something you’re unsure of.
Review Each Lesson (aka Homework!)
After each lesson you’ll probably have new vocabulary, grammar, kanji, etc. that came up naturally in the lesson that you didn’t prepare for. Make sure you study these so you know them when they crop up again!
Ideally ask your teacher to provide you with homework that you can go through during the week.
None of this has to be anything big or time consuming. Even just 15 minutes a day will help you improve a lot faster than just 1 hour a week with a teacher.
Give Your Teacher Feedback
Feedback is just as important for a teacher as it is for you!
After each lesson I find it really helps to point out what you liked from the lesson. Telling them what you liked encourages them to do it again next time.
Avoid saying what you didn’t like as that’s not always helpful and can make things awkward. But if there was something you didn’t like you can ask them (politely!) if they could do it differently.
I once had a teacher who translated words I didn’t know into English, which I found a little annoying. Instead of telling her I found it annoying, I asked her if it would be okay if she explained things in Japanese to me instead. This constructive feedback was a lot more beneficial for us both.
Sometimes Things Don’t Work Out
Things might not always work out with a teacher. This might happen if you don’t feel like you’re achieving what you want, or you’re just not vibing with them anymore.
When this happens I think it helps to first be upfront and honest with them and try to improve the situation. Ask them if you can focus on XYZ, or use different study materials, or try a different approach. (Constructive feedback!) Tell them you were hoping to achieve ABC and ask for their advice on how best to do that.
If it’s still not going the way you hoped it’s ok to drop them and move onto another teacher. Don’t just ghost your current teacher and stop working with them without telling them why. If you don’t want to use your teacher anymore then tell them. Be honest (but kind) that things aren’t working the way you hoped and will be changing teachers.
The best thing you can do to get the most out of your lessons is pick a goal and convey that goal to your teacher. If you don’t have a teacher then finding one with experience teaching the area of Japanese you want to work on will help a lot!
Discuss with your teacher how you might be able to achieve that goal. Ask them if they have any suggestions for appropriate study materials and convey early on if you want homework, and what kind of homework you’d like to do.
Make sure you study outside of your lesson so the information sticks in your long-term memory better.
And most importantly, have fun!
P.S If you’re looking for online Japanese lessons I highly recommend iTalki.
Click here for a referral link if you’re interested! (If you use this link we both get $15 in credits when you take your first lesson)
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