(This post uses a little bit of Japanese text. If your browser can’t handle it, my apologies. Most will, but I’m not using images as a work-around this time – it’s of interest to actual learners or Japanese literate people, not everyone and anyone.)

Hi, it’s been a while. Instead of blogging, I’ve been using what “free” time I had to pound out Japanese lessons for my online tutoring for http://learnoutlive.com . Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

After a few weeks of putting together more material, and testing my kanji teaching in the field, there are a few things I can report on.

#1: Yes, Grammar Mattered

Some grammar is indispensable for learning Japanese that is useful in the classroom and in real life. What I taught was the abridged version: pronouns, sentence structure, proper particle usage (a poltergeist that haunts many students well beyond the beginner level), a thorough and representative sample of verb conjugation, and enough other vocabulary to keep things fresh and provide a lot of opportunities for katakana and hiragana reinforcement.

Yet an anecdote my regular student told me today, in the context of previewing the next class (which will focus on asking, and being asked, questions such as ‘What is your name?’ etc.), that he had been taught the following formulation in the cafeteria of a residence he was living in by Japanese language school students sharing the same residence:


I was using kanji for the pronoun “watashi” at the start only but “namae” for name would be 名前 in kanji. Anyway, this reads akin to, “I name is” or “Me name is.” The correct version is below:


My name is ___”

I’m above pointing fingers, but I feel a non-casual sense of relief that I started teaching this guy before he’d been “taught” too much stuff that would have had to be unlearned later.

2. Kanji Are Concepts, Not Letters of the Alphabet

Lately, I’ve been using a term I call “kanji logic.” For example, “four” plus “corners” equals “square” in Japanese: 四角. This isn’t something created with an “alphabet.” It’s something that comes from blending two concepts together to form a further concept. This is how the language gains its richness and depth.

3. Kanji Are Indeed Best Learned Visually

By the end of today’s review lesson, my student was seeing that the “dai” in “daigaku” (college, the ‘big school’) is the same kanji for ‘ookii’ (‘big’). That’s right. That’s exactly how it is. Showing different looks to reinforce the same kanji worked. These are the neural pathways that will lead to long-term success.

4. Like Leading An Army, Ask What Can Reasonably Be Delivered

I didn’t expect my student to remember everything and get everything right for this review lesson. That would not have been sane or productive. What I expected was a) for him to seriously think his way through and give his best effort, which he most certainly did; b) to make tangible progress towards remembering things he’d seen a few times before, which he most certainly did; c) to learn, inch by inch, the thought process behind the language, which he was doing just fine.

Conclusion: Results Not Perfect, But Still Excellent

After I finished my “basic Japanese” unit, which overall did a fine, fine job, I was at a loss for a short bit of time. I tried to introduce vocabulary that would be useful for the EJU (a test for entry into Japanese-language universities, which is this student’s long-term goal), but my student found the content to be above his level. Now, why did he think of this in terms of “his level”? That’s because he was studying vocabulary “at his level” on smart.fm and so forth. Well, fine. I decided to stop trying to re-invent the wheel and started teaching things from smart.fm lists directly (but with 3 to 4 times the depth), conjugated verbs like “hanashi” (to speak) and “motsu” (to hold) rather than just the kanji themselves, spread to more of the “Kyouiku kanji” (the grade school kanji taught in accordance with Japanese Ministry of Education guidelines), and I kept things focused.

I also worked on introducing adverbs and adjectives more and how to deal with them… but in the context of using kanji to make things not stay just a wall of kana. (My student wanted a change of pace from that, and that was fine with me.) I’m going to slow down the kanji a little to focus on color nouns/ adjectives and “questions” for the next lesson, and similarly for the near future, reinforcing more of what’s been learned rather than get too hasty.

I mean, it’s only been a month, and I’ve already taught this guy stuff that puts him on, in many cases, an equal or better position than people who’ve been learning in a regular classroom for a whole year. That’s progress.

Oh, one last thing…

5. Information Overload Is Indeed Best Avoided.

That’s really the key to this whole process. I’m doing my festina lente bit, breaking things into distinct pieces, not overwhelming the student, asking the questions that can be fairly responded to and make the student think without crushing him, and creating a lot of visible progress that the student feels in his bones and brain cells. Thus, by explaining things slowly, and slowly repeating a lesson or two or three later, the material slowly becomes learned. Once learned, rather than simply memorized, it becomes retained much, much better.

The main question now is spreading these successes outward and doing it for more people. I mean, I had to develop A+ lesson materials through individual effort alone, nailing down explanations for things which are, I think it is fair to say, poorly explained in much of Japanese language education.

The successful stuff is 10 lessons comprising “Basic Japanese,” four Kanji-oriented lessons, and one Kanji review lesson (which was a big hit too). It’s a start. I didn’t begin this process to be second best… and I feel like I have not compromised. My theories are being validated and my teaching is working. Now I’d like to rinse and repeat for a lot more people.

Look at it this way, though. If you can’t teach a complete beginner from scratch in an effective and efficient way, how do you expect to teach everyone else, former pro translator or not? It’s not just what you know – it’s what you can explain in plain English (and Japanese).