With the wide range of resources available now, there's never been a better time to achieve a high level of Japanese proficiency — by yourself, for free, with nothing more than a computer and internet connection. Even so, there are plenty of reasons you might want to look for a teacher or tutor, especially for self-learners, as we'll talk about later in this article!
I am primarily a self-studier who meets once a week with a Japanese teacher, and have found the experience to be both extremely positive and beneficial. A teacher or tutor can offer consistency, be an expert conversation partner, offer personalized guidance, and help you stay motivated to achieve your language-learning goals. Personally, meeting with a teacher I trust and respect has helped me gain a much clearer understanding and mastery of some of the trickier aspects of the Japanese language, and kept me on target toward my goals.
In this article, I'll share some of the reasons you might want to enlist the help of a teacher or tutor, the best ways to find one, and tips for getting the most out of your learning experience.
- What is a Tutor?
- Why Might I Want a Japanese Tutor?
- Who Should Consider Finding a Japanese Tutor?
- Where Can I Find a Japanese Tutor?
- How Can I Get the Best Tutoring Experience?
- Can a Tutor Take my Japanese to the Next Level?
What is a Tutor?
iTalki and other similar sites define tutors and teachers in a similar manner, with teachers possessing some form of certification to credit their ability, and tutors being everyone else.
Before we talk about why you might want to find a tutor or teacher, let's define what a tutor is and does. A tutor is someone with high-level knowledge in a specific subject whose goal is to teach a specific component of a subject or help a student practice something. A tutor can even be a student themselves. A teacher, on the other hand, is someone certified to teach a specific subject, usually to a group. iTalki and other similar sites define tutors and teachers in a similar manner, with teachers possessing some form of certification to credit their ability, and tutors being everyone else.
There's a vast network of people available to help you in your Japanese studies, from certified teachers with years of experience that can guide you along your path to fluency, to tutors — both native speakers of Japanese and not — to help you with everything from conversation practice to studying.
I'll cover the different types of tutors and why you might seek out a certain type a bit later in this article, but I'll primarily be using the term "tutor" to discuss someone who will help guide your Japanese study outside of a traditional classroom setting, regardless of their certification. Just keep in mind for your own search whether or not their credentials or license is important to you, and be sure to check for that if so.
In general, different platforms have different requirements for their teachers and tutors, most notably with iTalki's "community tutors" who aren't required to have any certification or experience. With a certified teacher, you might have more confidence in their methods or ability to instruct, though this does command a higher price. Alternatively, if all you need is a conversation partner, perhaps an uncertified native Japanese tutor would suffice. It depends on your specific needs and wants, but make sure you look closely at the site's guidelines and your tutor or teacher's background and qualifications.
Why Might I Want a Japanese Tutor?
As I mentioned before, it's now easier than ever to learn Japanese by yourself, through textbooks, apps, websites, videos, and more. But even for learners studying outside of a traditional classroom setting, there are plenty of reasons why you might still choose to meet with a tutor consistently, and that's the first reason — consistency!
Meeting with a tutor on a schedule is a great way to keep yourself motivated on the long journey to Japanese fluency.
While language proficiency can be difficult to gauge, reaching a high level of Japanese proficiency is a big commitment. The US State Department estimates that for most native English speakers, reaching what they call "Professional Working Proficiency" in Japanese takes upwards of 2,000 classroom hours! That's a little over three years if you study two hours a day, every day. Of course, since every learner has specific needs, the actual timeline will look different for everyone working at their own pace, but no matter what, it will take a lot of diligence to reach whatever goals you set for yourself.
After each lesson, I end up feeling newly reinvigorated and excited about studying, which helps carry me through the next week.
Personally, I've found it to be really helpful to have a teacher to check in with weekly. Over time, I've built up daily study habits, but by focusing on that alone, it can be difficult to gauge my own Japanese proficiency. But because I meet with the same teacher each week, she's able to reliably judge my progress over time in a way that's difficult for me to see by myself. Having said that, looking back at where I was when we started meeting, it's clear even to me that I've made great progress, of course due in large part to her help!
Whether its deepening my understanding through review, presenting me with new topics and ideas to explore that I was previously unfamiliar with, or simply assigning me homework or tasks to keep me on target, after each lesson I end up feeling newly reinvigorated and excited about studying, which helps carry me through the next week.
Conversation and Comprehension Practice
One of the best things you can practice with a tutor is something you can't do alone: have a conversation. I think it's best to already have memorized hiragana and katakana, started to learn kanji and vocabulary, and know some basic grammar structures to establish a good foundation for conversation practice before meeting with a tutor.
I have become much more articulate in expressing my thoughts and understanding in a way that's been apparent to both my friends and myself.
It's certainly possible to practice listening by yourself, with podcasts, videos, and television, but those aren't quite the same as having a real conversation with someone. Additionally, it's very difficult to check your comprehension of these materials on your own, particularly at a lower proficiency level. I think the only way to really become conversational in a language is by practicing speaking with another person. A lot. Practicing with a tutor who can correct your grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation in real time makes this goal a lot easier to achieve.
Before I started meeting with my teacher, I only practiced conversing about once or twice a week with a few native Japanese friends. This has been great, and is something I look forward to beyond just practice, but since I started meeting with my teacher, I have become much more articulate in expressing my thoughts and understanding even in complex conversation in a way that's been apparent to both my friends and myself. In fact, I was just evaluated by another teacher as being at the intermediate level in conversation, which is a far cry from where I was even a year ago.
Personalized Lessons and Real-Time Explanations
Finally, a good tutor is good at teaching. I think everyone studying Japanese has found at least one grammar point or topic they just can't quite wrap their head around. Maybe you're not clear on exactly when to use くれる, あげる, or もらう, or the difference between なら, と, ば, and たら for conditionals. While the wealth of resources available means there's always a few places to look when you've got questions, sometimes the quality of a source isn't always clear, and you just can't beat a thorough explanation from a professional.
If there's something in particular you want to work on, chances are you can find a tutor that can help.
Beyond this, not every aspect of the Japanese language can be covered in detail in most general textbooks. For example, you might want to find someone to help teach you Japanese used in a business setting so you can work for a Japanese company, or help you prepare for the JLPT. There are a lot of different teachers or tutors, and many who have their own areas of expertise to help fill in the gaps or answer your questions. On tutoring sites such as iTalki, Verbling, and Wasabi, different teachers have different areas of expertise and offer different types of lessons, sometimes tailored to specific topics. If there's something in particular you want to work on, chances are you can find a tutor that can help.
Who Should Consider Finding a Japanese Tutor?
Even though I think there are a lot of good reasons to consider finding a tutor, in general I think it's more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have" on your path to Japanese fluency. In fact, it's not for everyone! So how can you know if it's right for you?
In general I think it's more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have" on your path to Japanese fluency.
Well, I think the first thing to consider is the cost. You can enlist the help of a teacher or tutor from under $10 an hour for uncertified tutors, all the way up to over $40 an hour for certified teachers who offer more specialized lessons. Of course, if you find a relatively inexpensive teacher or tutor to meet with occasionally, it might cost you less than you typically spend on coffee, but even meeting once a week can add up quickly. It is possible to learn Japanese without spending any money, but if hiring a tutor is the way you want to go you'll have to decide what best suits your needs and is available at your price point.
Another thing to consider is your proficiency level. If you're just starting out, you definitely can find teachers who will help take you from zero Japanese knowledge to as far as you'd like to go, but in my opinion, this might not be the best use of your time and money. Instead, as I mentioned before, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with both hiragana and katakana, some of the basic grammar points, and start learning kanji via whichever method you prefer before meeting with a tutor. That way, you'll have established a good foundation without needing to spend precious (and sometimes expensive!) time with a teacher learning the basics.
Where Can I Find a Japanese Tutor?
Now that you know why you might want a tutor and the types of learners best-suited to tutoring, let's talk about finding one!
Chances of finding a Japanese tutor depend on your learning preferences, and sometimes, your location. If you're looking for someone to teach or tutor you in person, you may find that like many other things, there are simply more options available to those who live in cities or more populous areas. But lucky for you, through the internet you can find a Japanese tutor no matter where you live, provided you've got a computer or cellphone and an internet connection.
I have experience meeting with teachers both in-person and online, so I'll break down some of the options available so you can find someone no matter what your circumstances are.
If You Live in a City
If your preference is to meet someone in person, I think some of the best places to start are nearby universities and culture centers.
For us city-dwellers, the sky's the limit. Fairly or not, there tend to be more options for meeting with a tutor, both in person and online for people who live in highly-populated areas.
If your preference is to meet someone in person, I think some of the best places to start are nearby universities and culture centers. Even beyond the standard classes, many universities have language-learning centers, and employ many tutors and teachers in a wide range of languages. Additionally, universities often have clubs or informal groups for this sort of thing: perhaps a conversation or study club, or a cultural club like tea ceremony or calligraphy, where you can chat with people. This is a great resource for university students, but non-students might be able to reach out to professors to find local resources available to everyone.
In Chicago, we're lucky to have the Chicago Cultural Center, which is where I took my first in-person Japanese lessons after self-studying with apps and videos. If you're interested in finding a local meet-up, look into your local Japan Society chapter or reach out to your nearest Japanese consulate or embassy; officials may be able to provide you with information. Speaking of meet-ups, if you're looking for something less formal, like a language exchange partner rather than a teacher or tutor, there are plenty of groups available on websites like Meetup.com. Searching for Chicago, there seem to be dozens of relevant groups, all with a different niche or area of interest. Additionally, there are apps for finding language exchange partners like HelloTalk, which I've written about before.
If You Don't Live in a City (Enter: The Internet!)
Of course, not everyone lives near somewhere tutoring is available. Luckily, there are great options for finding a tutor online.
For starters, some Japanese language schools based in Japan offer online courses in addition to one-on-one tutoring. These include schools like the Genki Japanese and Culture School, and Coto Academy. Additionally, there are online-only schools which follow a similar principle, like We Japan and Akira Online Japanese School. These schools tend to follow their own curriculum, and teach lessons in a series. This can be a great way to give yourself a bit more structure, with a defined curriculum and consecutive classes to help make sure you're making progress. Additionally, many of these schools offer group lessons if you're looking for more of a classroom setting with other fellow Japanese learners.
Regardless of which site you choose, credible teachers or tutors can be found on any platform with different teaching styles to suit your needs.
Other popular sites that help match you to a tutor or teacher are iTalki, Verbling, Wasabi, JapaTalk, and SenseiShokai. Each of these sites has different methods and requirements for certifying their teachers, usually requiring previous experience, a teaching certificate, and passing an interview with the company. However, it's important to note that in addition to certified teachers, iTalki also offers what it calls "community tutors," who aren't required to have any certification in either Japanese or teaching. These tutors tend to be the cheapest option on the site, but because they're uncertified, there's a high level of variance here. This might be fine if you're just looking for a native Japanese speaker to chat with, but I'd recommend taking a close look at their profile, doing a trial lesson, and seeing if they can meet your needs before committing.
Regardless of which site you choose, credible teachers or tutors can be found on any platform with different teaching styles to suit your needs. I found my current teacher, who is certified, through iTalki. She conducts our lessons entirely in Japanese on a wide range of topics, splitting time between conversation and practice using material she's made herself, like worksheets and presentations. I've also met with teachers on Wasabi, one of whom specialized in conversation practice, and another who was skilled in guiding reading practice and focused discussions.
So, how can you find someone who suits your needs? Every site has different means for filtering or searching for the right teacher for you. On iTalki, once you've picked the language you're learning, you can filter by the teacher's location (which can be useful for scheduling someone in your timezone), whether or not they're a native speaker, what other languages they speak (especially helpful for lower-level Japanese learners), what their price range is, the type of lesson (including conversation practice, business Japanese, and JLPT test prep), the time lessons are offered, and the types of tutor.
Discounted or free trial lessons are also widely available, so you can make sure the teacher is right for you before making a commitment.
On Verbling, it's much of the same: you can sort by the teacher's availability, their country of origin, which languages they speak, price, and a range of different filtering options like the subjects specialized in.
Conversely, on SenseiShokai, it's you the student who writes a profile and a bit about your learning goals, and teachers reach out to you for you to choose from.
On most of these sites, teachers write a profile to give students a sense of their background, teaching style, and focus. Some even offer video introductions, which are also a great way to get a sense of a teacher's style, way of speaking, and attitude, before you book a lesson. Finally, many sites also offer reviews of each teacher, and some key statistics, like the lesson completion rate, response rate, attendance rate, and more. Discounted or free trial lessons are also widely available, so you can make sure the teacher is right for you before making a commitment.
One of the best features of using a site like these is that they handle all the logistics, including messaging between your teacher, payment, scheduling, and sometimes providing the platform for hosting lessons, though many also give students the option of using Skype or Zoom.
Finding a Tutor to Meet Your Needs
iTalki alone has over a thousand Japanese teachers available to learn from, so it can be a bit daunting to pick someone to meet with, even with all this search criteria! Here are a few of the ways you might narrow down your search for your ideal tutor.
Lessons are available at a wide range of prices, from as low as around $10 for a session, and up to greater than $40.
I think the most important thing is to know what your expectations are. Do you want to find a teacher to meet with regularly, or are you just looking to have a specific topic explained? Are you looking for a native speaker to practice speaking with, or a specialized teacher to help you with an advanced topic, like keigo or to prepare for a job interview? For example, like mentioned earlier, on iTalki you can filter by lesson type, which includes conversation practice, pronunciation, grammar, spelling, reading, listening, writing, business meetings, business presentations, business negotiation, business etiquette, job interviews, and JLPT and EJU test preparation. Once you determine how frequently you'd like to meet with a teacher, and what you'd like to cover, you should have a better sense of who will suit your needs.
The next order of business is even easier: finding someone available when you are in your price range. Lessons are available at a wide range of prices, from as low as around $10 for a session, and up to greater than $40, which tends to be for lessons specializing in a topic like test or job interview preparation. In general, I've found many sites offering lessons with a certified teacher with fees that tend to range from $25 to $35 per hour. No matter which site you choose, you can sort teachers by price and availability to match your needs.
How Can I Get the Best Tutoring Experience?
Right at the start, or maybe via message before your first meeting, make sure you articulate clearly what your level is, and what it is you're looking for.
Now that you know how to go about finding a tutor to suit your needs, here are some tips I've learned over time to help you get the most out of your learning experience.
Like any good relationship, the most important thing when meeting with a tutor is good communication. Right at the start, or maybe via message before your first meeting, make sure you articulate clearly to them what your level is, and what it is you're looking for. Do you just want to meet to have them explain a specific grammar point? Do you want to find a teacher to meet with regularly to check your progress? Are you just looking for a conversation partner to chat with occasionally? By making your expectations clear, both you and your tutor can prepare for the lesson to make it the best experience possible.
Next, free or discounted or trial lessons are a great way to test your compatibility before you pay for a full lesson or even a set of lessons. Both iTalki and Verbling offer trial lessons, among others. Of course, every teacher's style is different, just like every learner's preferences, so it's important to find someone who is a good fit for you. Perhaps you want a teacher who will correct every single mistake, or maybe you want someone more laid-back who will only correct major errors. Even something as simple as how they give feedback can impact your compatibility.
Even something as simple as how they give feedback can impact your compatibility.
Finally, I'd recommend watching the clock, and as your lesson winds down, try to make sure you're clear on what to work on for next time. If you're hoping to find a teacher to meet with regularly, this might be what to study ahead of the next meeting, or any homework they might assign you. Even if you don't intend to meet with the same tutor again, make sure you're on the same page about your language strengths and weaknesses so you know what goals to set for yourself and how to best work toward them.
Can a Tutor Take my Japanese to the Next Level?
Personally, I've found that meeting with the same teacher every week has been extremely rewarding. Not only has it been fulfilling to gauge how much progress I've made under her tutelage, but our meetings have become something that motivates me to study even more, and I look forward to each weekly meeting.
No matter what stage of the Japanese learning process you're in, having someone to help guide and focus your studies, measure your progress, and keep you accountable is well worth it. And now, thanks to the internet, finding a tutor that's right for you is easier than ever.