Japanese is a difficult language for Americans and other English speaker to learn, there is no doubt. In fact, Japanese is generally thought of as being in the top five of difficult languages to learn for non-native speakers. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that the order of the parts of speech in Japanese (subject, object, verb) is different from the order in English (subject, verb, object), the unheard-of in English variety of lexical systems (hiragana, katagana, and kanji), a bewildering array of tenses that have no counterpart in English or any of the European languages that English speakers tend to be more familiar with, and subtleties of context that can be so hard for foreigners to detect that they can completely misread a situation.
And in general, Japanese is simply so “different” that most Americans who have studied English grammar and taken a foreign language like Spanish or French don’t have a clue as to how to begin. Perhaps the intimidation factor is the biggest reason that Americans find Japanese difficult to learn.
Nonetheless, many Americans wish to learn to speak this “difficult” language. And in the end, it may not be so much “difficult” as “a big job,” and those who stick with it often find that with persistence comes success.
Today, we’ll talk about what a Japanese class for English speakers ought to be like, to help maximize student success, both for the student looking for a class and teachers looking for the best way to increase student performance. We’ll talk about the best teaching styles, some good resources to implement, and the best strategies for anyone who wants to teach himself or herself how to speak Japanese.
If You’re On Your Own
Many people try to learn languages by themselves. For a variety of reasons, whether to save money, a tight schedule, or simply because they are antisocial, these individuals decide to fly solo on their Japanese journeys.
This approach is more difficult than taking a conventional class, but it can yield some results, at least for some people. If you are just starting out and you are on your own, there is an excellent online class that might be helpful, called “Casual Japanese Conversation for the Absolute Beginner,” and combined with some other strategies, that may well do the trick to get you started. There is also a great blog post by April Klazema on “Japanese Conversation” that offers some good pointers for beginners.
In addition to online classes, there are of course a number of varying types of Japanese language learning software, and prices are generally not excessive. These can be an excellent way to practice pronunciation before you try to speak to a native, or before planning a visit to Japan. In general, you get what you pay for, and the software can only help you if you work hard and are self-directed. If you are both of those things, you can go far.
There are now also many Japanese language groups that you can connect to online, which will allow you to speak to a native Japanese speaker via Skype or Facetime or some other video or audio chat system to help you polish your Japanese as you learn. Some charge a fee, while others are free or have a relatively low subscription rate. This may be the closest you can get to the classroom experience if you don’t have Japanese-speaking acquaintances.
Many people will tell you to “make some Japanese friends” and then work with them to practice the language, but this can be difficult to pull off. Perhaps the ultimate way to force yourself to speak the language is to date someone who is a native speaker. This may be even harder to pull off than making some Japanese friends, but if it can be done, this strategy is hard to beat. If you really like someone, you have the ultimate motivation to try to learn the language, so you can communicate effectively with that person. Love gives you wings, as the poet said, but it also makes you learn the language. Another good online class for those who are working alone and have advanced a bit beyond the beginner stage is “Japanese in Context,” which, since it is conversation-based, is a bit more challenging.
If you’re planning on taking a Japanese class, you should look for a few specific things. The same qualities could be said to apply to a teacher of any foreign language, so these ideas are universal in that sense. Teaching a foreign language is not like teaching math, or social studies, and foreign language teachers should all be doing all of the things we’ll be talking about already.
“Should” is the operative word here, we must point out.
The fact is that many of those who teach Japanese language classes outside of American public schools and colleges are not necessarily trained as teachers in the conventional sense. Many readers of this article may know an American who traveled to Japan, China, or South Korea and became an English teacher there, without ever having studied education or even majoring in English. It is considered qualification enough to be a native speaker and to have graduated college. So, caveat emptor, and look before you pay.
One thing that any teacher of foreign languages should have is a very high set of expectations. This is where a native Japanese speaker may have a very distinct advantage over Americans who have learned Japanese. Natives tend to hold their students to higher standards and while this may seem intimidating to a new student, it will prove valuable to you in the long run.
A good Japanese teacher will compel his or her students to speak only Japanese while they are in class, no matter the situation. This is the closest that you may come for a while to total immersion, so don’t be afraid of it. Try to stick with speaking only Japanese – don’t even ask where the bathroom is in English, if you can manage it. Of course, you should resort to English rather than have an accident, but you get the picture.
You should make sure that any Japanese class you attend is student-centered, not teacher-centered. What does this mean? Well, a student-centered classroom is a place where the students do most of the talking rather than listening to the teacher talk. For years, American educators have been told to be “the guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” meaning that teachers should talk as little as possible and serve as a coach more than an instructor. Nowhere is this as important as in foreign language classes, and especially so with Japanese classes. Hearing someone pronounce difficult words correctly is not nearly as effective as doing it, working closer to correct with each attempt.
Another criteria for judging a good Japanese class is whether or not the instructor makes the students take risks. Of course, this is not to say that a foreign language professor should encourage risky behavior, but rather that students must be nudged, gently, out of their comfort zones. Students must be made to challenge themselves, to be regularly put in the spotlight, so to speak. If speaking the language is the best way to learn it, then in classes, students must be willing and able to enter demonstration conversations that the rest of the class and the teacher provide feedback on. Teachers should not allow students to avoid such tasks, but rather must encourage and empower them to do so, and then kick them gently in the behinds if they still resist. This is essential when learning a foreign language.
Good Japanese teachers should also refrain from correcting students right away if they make mistakes. Most students will realize that they have made errors, and since most errors are made due to nervousness when speaking a foreign language with a native, if the student has time in which he or she feels no pressure, knows that he or she is not being judged, students will usually self-correct without the need for teacher intervention. Given the difficulty of Japanese for most English speakers, this is essential. Patience is essential, but if student patience is in short supply, there is an excellent online class that allows even impatient students to learn quickly, called “How To Read Japanese Quickly for Impatient People.”
Additonally, the chances for success in a foreign language like Japanese can be greatly increased by the use of ongoing assessment. This is not to say that students should be tested every day, but rather that during each session, student progress should be noted. A good foreign language teacher knows that progress must be monitored closely, and then strategies developed or modified for each student based on their individual level of proficiency.
Another thing to look for in a Japanese class or instructor is whether or not Japanese culture is incorporated into the language instruction. In a way, this would be difficult not to do, but using Japanese food, media, art, and history can be a great motivator. Many American teens find tremendous inspiration to learn Japanese from watching anime and reading manga, and the power of those elements of Japanese culture should not be overlooked.
Ultimately, students in any Japanese class should be initially required to repeat, recognize, and recall the basics of the language, and then required to apply what they have learned, create new sentences and ideas within that language, and make predictions about what will happen next in a Japanese narrative. If those basic tenets of foreign language educational procedure are followed, student success is more likely. If the teacher further allows for all learning styles, and gives opportunities for each, then you’ve found a winner!
For those who choose to pursue Japanese beyond the level of “konichiwa” and “sayonara,” there are certainly many options for them to follow. There are, no doubt, a myriad of offerings in terms of software, audio CDs, self-teaching textbooks, online programs and classes, and conventional “brick and mortar” classes available. For those who reach an advanced level, there are advanced classes, like this online class, “Speak Japanese Fluently,” which will take learners to the next level. Those who reach the intermediate level are strongly advised to travel to Japan for as long a period as is feasible, thereby to immerse themselves in the language and the culture. Maybe then, dating a native speaker won’t be such an impossible-seeming way to become more fluent in the language. Good luck in your quest, or as the Japanese say, ganbatte kudasai!