How Japanese Tutoring Leads to Fluency

How Japanese Tutoring Leads to Fluency

It’s often been noted that book learning does not always translate into real-world skills. However language immersion alone doesn’t work for most people.

If so, how do you start from zero and progress to fluency? The best tactic is to get a mix of both defined learning and contextual practice.

The overall benefits Japanese tutoring has over other methods of learning boil down to flexibility, efficiency, and personal connection. This includes customizing lessons to fit your goals, adjusting to your level, catering to your learning style, teaching tips and tricks, and targeted explanations. This is true whether you want to especially work on reading, writing, speaking, or listening – all of which are necessary to truly understand Japanese.

Japanese tutoring helps you work smarter, not harder

Language learning is not “easy” for most people no matter what they do, so you don’t want to make it even harder on yourself and study in inefficient ways. You absolutely don’t need to memorize a long list of vocabulary to handle practical situations – in fact, that strategy can easily backfire. 

Getting a Japanese tutor is definitely the best way to study efficiently. This is a big claim, but there’s good reason to think so.  

A flexible learning experience

One of the biggest benefits to tutoring vs. other methods of language learning is having more control over your curriculum. If you have specific requests, tutors are flexible to accommodate you.

For example, Japanese textbooks often have vocabulary and sentences focused on college situations, since they assume the Japanese learner is currently in college. For both younger and older students, that might not be the most useful material! Working alongside an expert Japanese tutor means what you’re learning (and how you’re learning it) can flex as you grow into the language.

A speedier process

If you are self-studying you have to work harder to figure out what you should study. You might be studying to prepare for a trip to Japan, but the information you need could be scattered online or buried in a textbook. If you find a suitable tutor, you can jump right into learning without using up time and effort looking around for materials. You’ll also have an expert available to quickly answer your inevitable questions. It can’t be overstated how useful this is!

Important cultural context

There is also a huge benefit to speaking with someone who has experience navigating situations in Japan and with Japanese people. I like to point out when something is commonly used in real-world situations. This primes students so they can more easily recall the meaning when they do encounter that same word or phrase.

Japanese tutoring creates consistency and accountability

Learning a language requires consistency. But it’s unfortunately a common problem to lack self-motivation. This is why accountability is so important.

The method that gives the most accountability is studying at a traditional language school. The issue is that schools don’t offer much scheduling flexibility, and can be difficult to find. I’ve known people who have given up on Japanese lessons because the classes were at times or in places that simply didn’t work for them.

With a Japanese tutor, you can set up sessions as often as you like! I’ve had students meet with me 3 times a week, and others meet with me every other week. For some people, consistent language learning means less frequent, but still regular, lessons. Tutoring provides both the flexibility and accountability necessary to succeed.

Tutors are also equipped to hold you accountable for comprehending the material. When you don’t have someone to formally test you on your Japanese language knowledge, it’s easy to assume you “know” something…but still be unable to effectively put it into practice or real-world use when it’s time. Together with a tutor, you can identify your own unique blind spots and work on putting Japanese into practice at your own pace, while being appropriately challenged.

Tutors make reading Japanese easier

The Japanese writing system includes 2 unique alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are collectively referred to as “kana”. It also includes the use of Chinese characters in a uniquely adapted way. None of these are easy to learn, but all three are necessary for reading fluency!

Reading and Understanding Katakana

From my own experience and observations, schools tend to rush through writing and don’t necessarily give much support. They expect you to self-study and memorize on your own time. This isn’t impossible and plenty of people have successfully learned kana and even kanji on their own. However, this isn’t the most efficient way, and I notice this sometimes leads to problems down the line – especially if they studied by cramming. 

As I work closely with my students, I notice when they’re struggling and need more time or more explanation. I encourage them to use memory devices, like making picture associations with characters. I also find it extremely useful to give context to what they’re learning. This is why I demonstrate using the characters within words instead of just asking students to memorize. 

You can get the benefits of an adjusted pace and context for characters by self-studying from good resources. However, you won’t get immediate feedback and it’s less efficient. A tutor can also steer you away from common pitfalls (such as mixing up characters that look similar) and instantly answer questions you may have (which is especially important for kanji). 

Kanji Explained

I enjoy using what I’ve learned, both by studying the writing systems on my own and by living in Japan and seeing the writing in context, to help my students also learn in a more efficient and practical way! 

Understanding words in context

The ability to read Japanese isn’t just the ability to accurately identify the sounds; you have to correctly discern the meaning. This can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including homophones, advanced grammar, slang, and idioms. 

Textbooks do try to provide level-appropriate material and typically give translations, but other than that your reading options may feel limited. “Real Japanese” can seem overwhelming. If you have someone to go through the material and break it down with you, though, it’s much more manageable.

A tutor who understands your level can discern if you’d be able to understand material you’re personally interested in – I’ve done that with song lyrics for a couple of students!

Japanese writing systems are less challenging to learn with a trusted tutor

If you write in another language, you’re going to make mistakes – and probably quite a few of them. You need another person to check your writing and give you feedback on how to sound more natural. 

At a Japanese language school you’d get writing assignments. These are good challenges and teachers will often give extensive feedback. The drawbacks are that you don’t have as much flexibility with your topics and you only get to write at assigned times.

Messaging with a friend, family member, or language partner is great practice because it reflects the real-world. You can tell from the interaction whether you communicated successfully. The main issue is getting assistance and corrections. Some people may be proactive and point out mistakes and give corrections, but it’s more common that any issues will be glossed over.

A tutor gives you the benefits of both a teacher and a personal acquaintance. They can give in-depth feedback and help with any kind of writing material, whether it’s casual or professional. For example, you may want someone to check your work emails but are unsure about asking a teacher or friend. You can ask a tutor for help without worry!

Conversation comes more naturally with a Japanese tutor

Conversation skills include both speaking and listening and are absolutely crucial in being able to use Japanese in everyday situations. Tutoring can be an enormous help in this area for multiple reasons.

One-on-one speaking practice

To test and grow your conversation skills, it’s good to find opportunities where you can speak one-on-one. Otherwise you may find it difficult to interject into a conversation and actually have the chance to “speak”. When it’s one-on-one, you’ll have many chances to speak – and a good partner will push you to do so!

Outside of tutoring, this situation often doesn’t come up naturally. In a classroom setting, the teacher has to balance time between students, and maybe only the most outspoken students will get speaking opportunities. With native Japanese friends or family, you may always end up in a group. You’d have to specifically seek out chances to talk with someone one-on-one.

Even if you know someone who will talk with you in Japanese one-on-one, the unfortunate truth is they may not be an ideal language partner. Speaking with a non-native speaker takes patience, which doesn’t always come naturally – ironically especially with people you know well. You might also feel more uncomfortable because you know them. If you both speak English, it’s common to fall back on that because it’s easier.

You also want to find someone who will meet you at your current level. Many people get discouraged because they can’t keep up with native speakers. They might even assume from that experience that they can never become fluent. This isn’t true! It’s perfectly normal to need to go through the stages from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced. You can depend on tutors to take your level into account.

Shake off anxiety about speaking

Different people have different issues when it comes to speaking in Japanese. Some people are shy to speak in Japanese. Some people are enthusiastic about speaking but lack certain vocabulary or grammar. A tutor is the perfect choice for helping both of these types.

When someone is hesitant to speak, I do what’s necessary to encourage them, whether that’s just waiting until they’re ready or giving them more prompting or hints. Once they do speak, I often follow up with another question or demonstrate how they can expand their answer. 

For people where confidence isn’t an issue, how I help depends on the person. Sometimes they lack practice with a basic grammar principle, such as the “te-form”. In that case, I identify those gaps and help fill them in. When they’re unsure about a word or how to express an idea, I provide natural-sounding options and give other contexts for the same concept, which I hope will both help them remember and allow them to use it in other situations. 

Tutors are astutely aware of how to stimulate growth in their students. This means meeting them where they are and then pushing them that extra step. This is especially relevant with speaking.

Listening is as important as speaking!

The other side to conversation is listening. People don’t often emphasize it, but it is just as necessary as speaking. In some cases, it may be even more so.

Just as with other skills, people need to build up their listening ability. This means that they need to listen to slower speech before they can handle native-level speed. They also benefit when emphasis is placed on keywords. Teachers and tutors are aware of this, and adjust accordingly. Tutors also have an advantage when trying to check listening comprehension since that is easier to do one-on-one.

Tutors help you find your own “fluency

For someone setting out to learn a language, “fluency” is a common goal. Maybe that’s what appealed to you about this article. While I said that tutoring can lead to fluency, it’s good to ask: what is fluency?

Fluency and 9 Other Language Learning Myths

This is more ambiguous than you might think. There are different interpretations and misconceptions about fluency. I’ve been asked by people if I’m “fluent” in Japanese, and I personally don’t feel comfortable just saying yes or no. I know that I’m not on the same level as native Japanese people and still have ways I can improve (especially in reading). 

Instead, I say that I can now comfortably live and travel in Japan without feeling many limitations. Many people who hear that description or hear me speak in Japanese would say that I’m “fluent.” 

Regardless of your personal interpretation of “fluency”, something important to keep in mind is that learning a language is not instant. It requires building up abilities over time. Any of those abilities could be useful in real-world applications and not necessarily require “fluency”. This means that language skills are on a spectrum, and progress moves along that spectrum. Even native speakers are on a spectrum, as a 5 year-old isn’t at the same level as a 35 year-old. Adult native speakers could even theoretically improve their language abilities by studying old literature or specific technical skills.

A Huge List of Japanese Language Resources

Find your perfect fit today

Wherever you are on the spectrum of learning this fascinating and beautiful language, you can benefit from tutoring. Some tutors are more adept at helping beginners, or intermediate learners, or advanced learners.

Whatever your level and/or goal, you can find a suitable tutor on Wyzant. Check out the profiles of Japanese language experts to find someone who can uniquely help you!

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