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.