Classes vs. no classes is a debate that most people go through early on, and through a little trial and error, figure out what works best for them. Classes work amazingly for some and are harmful to others. But Japanese tutoring is an entirely different beast.
I was recently asked how to get the most out of a Japanese tutor session. Having used Japanese tutors early on in my studying, and through the experience of tutoring people myself, I thought I could provide some insight about what to do with a tutor.
Let me start that I am for the most part pro-tutor. But only if they are used in the right way. With all the online tutor sites these days it has become very cheap and easy to get a tutor. But if you want to get the most value out of it, and you want to avoid certain pitfalls and frustration, keep the following in mind:
8. Don’t get a tutor too soon
One-on-one guidance is appealing. It can be tempting to immediately get a tutor right from day one, to start and keep you on the best path. This won’t be bad for your Japanese, but
- It can be unnecessary. You don’t need to learn the absolute basics with someone’s help.
- It can be boring. It’s hard to make excitement out of the basics.
- It can influence you in unintended ways. The tutor, especially if they are a native Japanese speaker, probably has their own strong ideas on “how you should be learning Japanese.” This may be based on how they learned English, or something that may not work for you.
7. Don’t go cheap
$5/hour, which can be found on different sites these days, can look real good. Especially when the tutor has great reviews.
But getting a Japanese tutor isn’t about saving the most money. It’s about working with someone who is going to give you the highest chance of success and really make a difference to your Japanese ability. A Japanese person working for $5/hour is doing it as a volunteer or hobby. Placing high expectations and demands is unreasonable.
The one exception is if you are looking for mere conversation practice, and nothing else. Only then might this work.
6. Don’t make your friend your new tutor
Have a Japanese friend who knows you are studying Japanese and occasionally helps you out with a question here or there? Maybe they could be your tutor… You ask them, and they say yes, happy to help.
Giving occasional advice vs. sitting down and giving you frequent tutoring sessions (for free) is vastly different. I’ve seen too many friendships lost through “won’t you be my tutor?” requests.
5. If you are doing J-J, explain that you don’t want English
Studying Japanese without English is still uncommon. Tutor sessions usually contain a lot of English. This creates a conflict. The only way to solve this conflict is to explicitly explain to your tutor from day one that you don’t want English. You want Japanese explained in Japanese. You want this as a strict rule without exceptions.
This can be hard, because it takes skill to be able to explain things in Japanese simply, when tutors are used to relying on English. But it is very possible. As a last resort, you can always allow for images as an aid.
4. Make them correct you
You want a tutor to help you with things you can’t do yourself. Where they shine is helping you kick all those mistakes and bad habits you will have inevitably developed over the months and years. Grammar, word choice, pronunciation, culture and more.
When I had a tutor and when I tutored, this is what I focused on. We’d start with a conversation in Japanese, without any breaks. I would listen to the learner, and take note of every single mistake they made. After the conversation was over, we would go through the mistake list and fix every problem together.
This allowed us to have conversations without interruptions, and then allowed for a super focused fixing session.
3. Make sure they are strict
It sounds silly to want a strict tutor. But if you are using them to help you fix your mistakes, you don’t want them to go easy on you like a teacher in a class would. You want a full detailed list of all your errors, every time you make them.
Fixing habits is hard. Going easy on you won’t help.
2. Don’t ask super difficult questions
This feels counter intuitive. You have a burning question that you couldn’t find the answer to yourself, so now is your chance to finally get the information from a pro. This is how I first approached tutoring sessions with my two favorite questions:
- Why is … like … ?
- What’s the difference between very similar … and … ?
While it is okay to ask questions like these, they often lead to one of two results:
- The tutor answers it, but it is confusing or an unsatisfying answer.
- The tutor has trouble answering it, because they don’t know the answer (well), or it is such a subtle difference that it doesn’t explain well.
Difficult questions like this are often best answered by experience and exposure.
1. They are just one minor element of your studying
A tutor should never become the center/lead of your studying. If you had been doing flash cards, textbooks, programs, and immersion and now decide to take a tutoring session three times a week, make sure you continue doing everything that you had been. They are not a replacement for anything. They are an addition.
How have you used a Japanese tutor before?
Want to share any tips or tricks that you used to get the best out of your sessions?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.