JLPT BC 70 | Are Non-native Teachers Worthless?

non-native japanese teachersJust a bit of a warning, I went a little over on this podcast. I usually aim for a 10 minute or so podcast, and this one ended up being 30 minutes. Sorry for hogging your earbuds, but it took a while for me to explain everything. This blog post is a shortened down version, so don’t worry.

I’m still reading through Mr. Itoi’s book.  I’m at about page 90, which is about a quarter of the way through the book. There are some hard parts and there are some easier parts. Overall, I think I’m making pretty good progress through the book. I had to switch to reading it in the morning now, because I had a hard time staying awake on the train ride home studying it, but other than that a good book. By the way, if you happen to be reading this book, I made a course of the more difficult words on memrise.com.

I have officially started studying N1 vocabulary with Sticky Study for my iPhone. Although this app does not have the most intuitive interface (I found myself several times hitting the wrong button or just plain getting lost in the interface) it does have a really nice look about it. There is something about good aesthetics that just helps you stay motivated longer.

I’ve also been narrowing down my hunt for a conversation partner. I have done a few Skype chats here and there with a few people that I met online. It has been a bit of an awkward first start, as these things are bound to be, but I’m optimistic that some good things will come out of it.

Are Non-native teachers completely useless?

I was cruising around the web doing some research for JLPT as I often do on Friday night (what else would a super cool married guy be doing?) and I happened upon a forum discussion where someone was talking about how non-native teachers are fairly useless.

I’ve actually had experience with a non-native teacher when I was first studying Japanese a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I took a year of Japanese college classes before I came to Japan. The classes were arranged so that we took 4 classes a week. 3 of those classes were with native Japanese instructors and the 4th one was with a non-native guy that was suppose to clarify grammar, writing, and other parts of the language that weren’t covered in the immersion classes with native teachers.

This worked out fairly well except the non-native teacher wasn’t all that sharp, and would often forget what he was doing mid-class. In theory though, if he were a little sharper, it would have worked out pretty well. Luckily, a lot of the Japanese instructors knew English fairly well and had mercy on us.

Except for one instructor who made it his mission to break us and convince us that all Japanese people are incredibly rude and cruel. He is still the meanest Japanese person I’ve ever met. But, that is a story for a different time.

Advantages of a Non-Native

A non-native teacher is able to really give you a clear explanation of the nuances in your native language. This is helpful, because you really want to be clear about particular points of grammar or else you risk making the same mistake over and over again. Also, a clear, solid explaination of grammar, vocabulary, or a particular difficult reading or listening can save you time and frustration.

Motivation is one big advantage in my opinion. Whenever I see someone whose Japanese skills are better than mine, I always look upon them with respect. They have must likely studied really hard to get to the level that they are at. It is also encouraging because they act kind of like role models. In other words, if they can do it, I can do it. With a native speaker, it is sometimes to easy to simply say ‘well, easy for you, its your native language.’

One last advantage is that non-native speakers have a greater ability to be empathetic. They have been through what you are going through so they aren’t going to throw the kitchen sink at you and expect you to catch it. They will help you along and be more sympathetic than a native. When I first started teaching English, I had a hard time putting myself in my student’s shoes and I feel that sometimes came out in my teaching.

Disadvantages of a Non-native Teacher

If your Japanese knows English, it can be all too easy to use that as a crutch to walk with. You can keep on using English to ask questions or to check your understanding, and not really get immersed in Japanese. I sometimes ran into this problem early on when I was studying. Heck, I still sometimes breakdown and use English to ask questions from time to time.

A non-native teacher’s Japanese is ‘learned’ Japanese. In other words, it is almost too correct. They speak using rules that they have learned and practiced, so that they are so good at speaking, they actually become unnatural. I’ve met a few Japanese that speak English really well, but I can still tell they are non-native because they are too perfect, and thus unnatural.

A non-native speaker will also never be the final authority of the language. Anything a native says is going to be okay (even if it’s ‘wrong’) because they are native. They use the living language which is constantly evolving (albeit slowly), whereas non-natives are just imitating it based on books, movies, TV shows, and the relatively (compared to natives) limited exposure they have had to it in real life.


So, what can we make of all this? Do you go the way that everyone seems to be leaning toward, all native teachers, or do you call on a non-native to help you out? I would say the best way is to use a blended approach because it’s good to have both. Natives are great for practicing skills, the skill of reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

But, non-natives are pretty good at the nuts and bolts, especially the grammar and expressions. Explanations of grammar points in English can really bring some clarity to what you are learning.

My advice is to realize the disadvantages and get the most out of the advantages, but don’t overuse a non-native. Non-natives are useful for about 25% of your learning starting off, this would include books in English as well. But, as you move up, I recommend making that percentage smaller and smaller until you are around maybe 5% or even 0%.

Always remember, everyone has their own way of doing things. Some people will excel with a non-native teacher others will do better with a native. It all depends on your personality and how you learn.

Who is your favorite teacher?

Do you prefer native or non-native teachers? Why?

P.S.  Do you like native teachers? Then, you should join my newsletter!

P.P.S. Do you like non-native teachers?  Really, me too! You should leave me a comment on iTunes about them and leave me a review.  If you have comments or suggestions for the podcast, by all means let me know in the comments below or contact me and let me know what I can do to improve the show.  Thanks!

P.P.P.S. Join the party over at the Facebook Page.  There you can get up to the date info about the site and join the conversation.  Hope to see you there!

What Should the Podcast be About? (select up to 3)

  • What I am doing to study and prepare (25%, 76 Votes)
  • What's it like to live/work/study in Japan (18%, 55 Votes)
  • Focus on grammar/vocab/kanji for one level (per year) (18%, 54 Votes)
  • Interviews with test takers (15%, 47 Votes)
  • Mnemonics for Kanji/Vocab/Grammar (15%, 47 Votes)
  • Japanese Culture (9%, 28 Votes)

Total Voters: 165

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Music by Kevin MacLeod

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Virginia March 12, 2012, 6:58 pm

    Hi Mac, as usual I really enjoy reading your articles. It’s good to know that you’ve been through the same issues. I started learning Japanese almost 6 years ago. My teachers were always native. I did well until I started studying for N4, I am very bad at grammar, and my native japanese teacher did her best to explain grammar points to me, but I did not get it. I decided to try with another teacher to complement my studies. This other teacher is Nikkei, she is japanese but she knows perfectly well my mother tongue, Spanish. Her parents are japanese, but she was born in Argentina. She can really help me to point out differences in our languages.
    I decided to take clases with my native japanese teacher and with my new nikkei japanese teacher. I like to have two different ways of learning grammar and japanese culture.
    At N3 level I’m also going to need 50% native 50% non native.
    By the way, I passed N4 🙂 So now I’m doing my best to study to sit for N3 this December 😀

    Keep up the good work you are doing with this site!


    • Mac March 21, 2012, 2:55 pm

      I think language teaching is an incredibly difficult thing to do. I really respect those that have the language skills to be able to communicate things so well. I think you really need to have a good mix of teachers and opinions mostly because they will present things in their own different ways and it helps you see the whole picture.

      Thanks for the complements and keep studying!

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