Should You Learn Japanese From a Native Speaker or a “Foreigner”?

It’s the debate of the century! (That, and people keep asking me on e-mail, so I thought I should just write a post about it). If given a choice, should you learn Japanese from a native Japanese speaker, or from a “foreigner” (aka non-native Japanese speaker). For a lot of people, I think the decision is already made to do everything they can to get a native Japanese speaker, though that isn’t necessarily always right. Both native and non-native Japanese language teachers have their pros and cons. Let’s figure out what they are.

[offtopic: Did you know that Tofugu has its own Japanese Textbook, specifically written for self-learners of Japanese? If you've always wanted an excuse to start learning Japanese, now's your chance]

The Native Japanese Language Teacher

I think a lot of people automatically assume that native Japanese language teachers are the best. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. Really, it depends on the individual (duh). Let’s go over the pros and cons of a native Japanese language teacher.

PRO: They speak Japanese really really well
This one’s a given. They’ve grown up speaking Jpaanese, which means they’re really good at it. They know a lot of kanji, they know the obscure words, and they know how to read and write. No matter what question you have about Japanese, chances are they know it and already use it.

PRO: Their pronunciation is perfect
Of course their pronunciation is perfect (unless they have a speech impediment, or something). Native Japanese teachers are great because you can try to mimic how they speak. They can also more effectively figure out when your pronunciation sucks and needs work.

PRO: Conversation practice is great
Why wouldn’t it be?

PRO: They don’t make that many mistakes
Native English speakers make mistakes when they speak English, and Japanese native speakers make mistakes when they speak Japanese. Even if they do make mistakes, though, they tend to be small and fairly limited to unimportant things.

PRO: Better for advanced learners of Japanese
If you are an advanced student of Japanese, native speakers tend to be better, hands down. There comes a point where (for the most part), native speakers are going to be the only ones who can consistently answer your advanced Japanese questions.

NEUTRAL: Learn more about culture
One thing I’ve noticed is that native Japanese speakers tend to focus a lot more on cultural aspects of Japanese. Sometimes this is important for learning “Japanese-only” words / grammar, and sometimes it’s just interesting (definitely important to learn culture + language!). I’m putting this as neutral because it seems to be pretty random whether a teachers does culture lessons or not, so it’s hard to generalize.

CON: They don’t really know what it’s like to learn Japanese
Because they grew up with learning Japanese, they have no idea what it’s like to learn it. Native speakers will teach you Japanese the way they learned it (or make things up along the way). That’s not to say that all native Japanese teacher are like this, but for the most part native speakers don’t know how to teach non-native Japanese learners how to learn Japanese. They just didn’t have the same experiences as you, which means it’s really hard for them to make things simple.

CON: Can be overwhelming for beginners
It depends on the teacher, but sometimes native Japanese teachers can be a bit overwhelming when they don’t know what a student is going through. Also, there seems to be a tendency for native teachers to teach things that don’t actually build on each other.

The Non-Native Japanese Language Teacher

The non-native Japanese language teacher is becoming more popular, I think. I see a lot more Japanese teachers who aren’t native Japanese speakers (but they’re good, they spent some time in Japan or studied Japanese in school). Like native Japanese speakers, there are pros and cons to non-native Japanese language teachers as well.

PRO: They know what it’s like to learn Japanese
When you’ve done something before, and you had to do it yourself, you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. One of the biggest problems with the Japanese language learning industry today is that they haven’t really made any improvements in the last 50 years. Most of the time, you end up learning Japanese sort of like Japanese school children learn Japanese. You drill, you bang your head on a curb, then you drill some more. This is because native Japanese speakers have set everything up. When it comes to simplifying the learning process, and eliminating a lot of the usual hurdles a Japanese learner faces, non-native speakers know how to do it. They have a fresher (though not always, it depends on the person) perspective that lets them make changes that will ultimately help you learn more effectively.

PRO: They can explain things more clearly, simply
For a lot of native Japanese language teachers, Japanese just works because it works. Go ahead and try to explain why a verb works in English, or why we do anything in English, really. It’s tough to explain something you grew up with. Non-native speakers of Japanese have had to break the language apart and put it back together in a way that they can understand it, and if they’re smart, they can pass that information along to you. So, instead of something just working because it works, it now works because of A, B, and C.

PRO: They usually have better methods for learning kanji
The way that Japanese kids learn kanji is dumb and doesn’t make any sense for everyone else. This, however, is the way that most people end up learning kanji. Repetition, repetitions, curb+head, repetition. A lot of non-native speakers still follow this method, but I’m starting to see a little more variety and flexibility coming from the non-native Japanese teacher side of things, which is great. They’re starting to solve some of the biggest mistakes kanji learners make.

PRO: More flexibility to try something new
A ton of “traditional” Japanese learning methods just don’t work (but people use them anyways because that’s the way it’s always been done). Non-native speakers tend to have a lot more flexibility when it comes to teaching Japanese than native speakers do, which often means more innovative (and effective) ways to learn Japanese for you.

CON: Pronunciation can be an issue (but not always)
There are a ton of non-native Japanese speakers who have great pronunciation. Still, though, pronunciation can be a concern with non-native Japanese teachers. It’s not like people won’t understand you if you have an accent (I understand people from Texas… sometimes), but if you’re striving to be perfect in every way, this is something to look out for.

CON: Non-scripted conversation practice can be wonky
This is especially true when you’re at higher levels. Non-native speakers just can’t think on their feet quite as well as a native speaker can, when it comes to non-scripted conversation practice. That’s not to say that a lot of non-native speakers can’t get pretty darn close (and definitely be more than adequate), but native speakers will always have the upper hand on this one, which is more and more true the higher the level of the student.

In The End…

Seriously, though, both are great, and both can contribute plenty of things that the other one (probably) can’t. And yes, this article is a huge generalization on native and non-native speakers, so make sure you take that into account as well. No two Japanese language teachers (native or non-native) are the same. In the end, I think it comes down to inspiration and teaching methods. If the students aren’t engaged, then nobody wins in the end.

On another topic, I do know that I’d never want to make anyone have to learn English from a Japanese native-speaker in Japan… English teachers in Japan tend to be… pretty bad.

P.S. Why don’t you tell me what you think of this article on Twitter?

P.P.S. Why not let me spam your inbox with the occasional e-mail by signing up for Tofugu’s newsletter?

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  • aviscritique

    My native teacher is a joyful person but sometimes I want to walk out of the class. First of all most of the students taking Japanese at my university, I assume, are Japanophiles, so that is not good for me. I am not a big fan of Japanopiles. I do not mind a great appreciation and fondness of Japan and its culure and whatever, but it get annoying after “kawaii this” and “kawaii that” and “desuuuu”… seriously. -_-

    Anyway, my native teacher expect the students to know the lessons perfectly, even though she constantly emphasize that learning Japanese is hard. Her grading system is so harsh, it is impossible for the majority of the class to pass the class with no better than a “C”. I did better in French during my High School days then in this class.

    For example: If one sentence is worth 2 points, and the lesson for that sentence is “sentence structure” chapter, she will mark spelling wrong and 2 points will be gone even though the sentence structure is correct. Just because someone wrote “ka” instead of “ga”!! That is minus one point. And “Tokyo” instead of “Tokyoo”! minus one point. That whole problem is 0 point. She understand that gammar and spelling is hard, but her grading is harsh.

    I have been learning English since I was five, and as a 20-year-old I still struggle with English grammar. However, she expects that one lesson per week (a week of 2 days) is enough for someone whose first language is not even English, to know perfect Japanese grammar and spelling.

    kitte
    kite
    kiite

    whattttt?
    Distinguishing the difference between the kitte, kite, kiite, is hard for a lot of learners… but she will not let it go even though the test question was not focused on words but on sentence structure.

    Studying with Japanese Exchange students is worst. Most of the time they get sidetrack and want to talk about American things, or talk about Japanese things with the other “guy” in the group who want to know more about Japanophile subjects. I spent a lot of time thinking, “I don't care about that manga or if there are any hot Japanese girls in Japanese Students Association for you to pick up! This is a Japanese language study group, not a let's-pick-up-Japanese-girls-study-group!”

    The Japanese program at my university is just bad.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Sones/100000172560299 Thomas Sones

    You forgot one major pro to non native teachers. Teaching language is like a science, while there may not be a perfect way, we understand alot about how language is learned and we know what are good (and what are bad) methods for teaching langauge. All langauge teachers, native or not,should be educated in teaching/ learning science (methodology). Unfortunately, there are alot of native speakers who are hired to teach on the sole premsis that they are native speakers, who do a lot of harm to learners teaching with bad methodology. MOST non-native teachers are well trained in teaching methodology.

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  • http://Website(optional) michelle

    One of the cons about the native Japanese speaker is that sometimes their English may be difficult to comprehend. Almost a lot of people in my Japanese 2 and Japanese 3 class had trouble understanding our professor because despite her living in the U.S. for a couple of years, her English pronunciation was really bad and she wasn’t clear enough to students who asked her questions. On some questions, she had no idea how to answer it in English.

  • http://twitter.com/raygungirl Jess

    I had no idea English wasn’t your first language until you said so! Your English is better than 90% of English-speakers on the internet. :D

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    Aptitude for learning foreign languages definitely plays some role in determining the pace, and perhaps even to some extent the depth

  • Alexandre

    I’m very serious about my language studies and consequently, the only time I’d ever consider having a non-native teach me is if the person were at a near-native level. The kind of level where most native speakers can hardly tell that the person is non-native. If the level I aim for is higher than the teacher’s level, then it’s a definite no.

    That being said, I used to teach English pronunciation as a Teaching Assistant at university and I currently help several Japanese language partners with their English, and I’m not a native speaker. But I am near-native and I managed to get there on my own, so I do have insight into the language that native speakers don’t necessarily have. So I do agree with you on that point.

    It takes a lot of confidence to claim that you can teach another language better than its native speakers; unfortunately, that’s not necessarily an indication of the teacher’s competence.

  • Dantae

    i used to have a foreign teacher for the first 3 years of high school.
    she was terrible, the school had to employ a trainee teacher from japan so the class wouldn’t be a complete failure.
    eventually she “retired :P” and we got a native Japanese teacher, who is actually pretty good.

    I used to have a non-native home tutor, all he Japanese friends said that she could be mistaken for a Japanese person if you wernt looking at her blatantly European face :P

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  • Emm2341

    whenever I try to double check a sentence with my Japanese friends, I’m always careful to ask simply whether the sentence sounds right. I try not to bother going into why something might sound right or wrong because most of the time they simply don’t know.

    Another problem with native speakers is that they all have different experiences with the language. Some people might think that a sentence sounds weird while others might disagree and think the same sentence is just fine. This is often a difference of dialect or their personal experience with the language.

    If you can, the best way to go is to get someone who has learned Japanese and someone who is a native speaker with you at the same table.
    When the first year students at my college meet before class there is a Japanese person there to check the fluency of their sentence and then they have me there to explain the grammatical functions.

  • Emm2341

    whenever I try to double check a sentence with my Japanese friends, I’m always careful to ask simply whether the sentence sounds right. I try not to bother going into why something might sound right or wrong because most of the time they simply don’t know.

    Another problem with native speakers is that they all have different experiences with the language. Some people might think that a sentence sounds weird while others might disagree and think the same sentence is just fine. This is often a difference of dialect or their personal experience with the language.

    If you can, the best way to go is to get someone who has learned Japanese and someone who is a native speaker with you at the same table.
    When the first year students at my college meet before class there is a Japanese person there to check the fluency of their sentence and then they have me there to explain the grammatical functions.

  • Anonymous

    Learn Japanese From a Native Speaker  en I think this way is better than the other..
    maybe…

  • http://twitter.com/AutumnMage Autumn Rush

    I used to have a non-native Japanese teacher. Everyone in the class was failing. Then they brought in a new teacher who was native Japanese, everyone started passing.

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  • http://twitter.com/JACKTHEDANIELS ジャック (Jack)

    After reading some of the comments, Im just lucky I have a really good teacher, she is native but somehow understands the difficulty in learning the language >.>

  • Eriyu Snow

    I’m in an intensive class in college, and I’m really lucky to have two professors, one native and one not! Though their teaching styles aren’t really different (that would be awfully confusing for a single class XD), I have to say, I kind of prefer my American professor because she is better at explaining things… and personally, I just feel less dumb making mistakes in front of a non-native speaker. :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001233663585 Karen Carrillo

    Actually, I’m from Texas, and I have no problem speaking Japanese…Probably cause I’m spanish?