Ever catch yourself saying,

“I really wish I could learn Japanese but it ain’t ever gonna happen ’cause I can’t just up and move to Japan! Nor are there any native Japanese speakers near me… Guess I will have to put my linguistic dreams up on the shelf alongside competitive caber tossing and having lunch with Warren Buffet.”

The bad news? Kilts and cabers can be hard to come by outside of Scotland. And you probably won’t ever share a cheeseburger and coke with the “Oracle of Omaha.”

The good news? You can reach and maintain fluency in Japanese (or any other language) anywhere in the world using tutoring sites like iTalki. (Other good options include Verbling and LingQ.)

Just a few short years ago, where you live had a profound impact on your ability to learn certain languages. Today, anyone with an internet connection can connect with millions of native speakers anytime, anywhere. This is a a Gutenberg-esque revolution for independent language learners. Online tutoring increases our freedom of time and place and democratizes learning to a level never before seen in history. Your zip code (and the number of digits in your bank account) are no longer a barrier to acquiring a language.

Okay, so now that I’ve made my case for why online tutoring is so wonderful, let me now share some thoughts on how to get the most from it. Like any tool, it has its pros and cons, and you get as much out of it as you put into it.

Try out multiple tutors before committing to multiple lessons.

If you don’t click with the first tutor you choose, do not despair! Don’t throw in the towel and say to yourself, “Guess online tutoring just ain’t for me!” Much like with dating, you have to “play the field” for a while before you meet Mr. or Mrs. Right (Tutor). The chances of any given stranger being your educational soulmate are slim to none. But if you keep going to bat, you are bound to find someone you enjoy working with.

Agree upon when and how you’d like to be corrected.

Correction of mistakes is a controversial topic in the world of applied linguistics, with some arguing that overt correction of form leads only to increased nervousness and a higher likelihood of yet more mistakes, not internalization of proper usage. Others claim that if we aren’t corrected immediately that we will go on to “fossilize” the error into long-term memory. I’ve seen and experienced both phenomena in fact, and think that a healthy balance is the key. But that’s me. It’s up to you to decide if you want to be corrected by your tutor, when you’d like them to offer suggestions (i.e. in the moment or after the fact), and how you’d like the corrections to be presented (i.e. they politely model the correct utterance, write it out in the chat window, send you a post-session report, etc.).

Agree upon a structure and list of topics.

While free, organic conversation is fun and far better than not talking at all, you will progress more quickly if you implement a modicum structure into your tutoring sessions. While I don’t personally like using language textbooks, some learners find that they provide just enough context to keep lessons on track and create a satisfying sense of direction and progress. Another more ad hoc approach is to simply agree upon a specific topic before each session (ideally one that relates to an immediate practical need or a personal passion).

Have your tutor find resources that fit your unique interests and goals.

One of the key benefits of working with a tutor is getting their to find tailored resources and materials. Your Japanese tutor, for example, will be much faster at browsing Japanese Google for articles, digging through Japanese YouTube for interesting videos, or poking around Japanese Netflix for shows and movies they think you will find interesting based on what you’ve previously discussed in the tutoring session.

Do free language exchanges if you can’t afford tutoring.

Though I think it is well worth paying for tutoring, money (or a lack thereof) needn’t be an obstacle to practicing Japanese online. In addition to paid tutoring, iTalki also offers free language exchanges in which you spend half the time speaking in your native language and half the time in the target language. Will your exchange partner be able to explain the intricacies of Japanese vocabulary, grammar, and kanji the way a professional teacher can? Probably not. But that’s fine! Knowing why something is the case in a language may be interesting, but it’s irrelevant for the purposes of learning to communicate. Moreover, this metalinguistic information can often be a distraction instead of an ally, getting you caught up in learning about Japanese instead of learning to communicate in Japanese.

Online tutoring is the most direct, efficient, and effective way to reach fluency in Japanese for those who don’t live in Japan or near Japanese native speakers. Minute for minute and dollar for dollar, there is no better use of your precious learning time, energy, and money. Tapping around a language app, memorizing flashcards, or translating sentences, on the other hand, will barely inch you forward. You will feel like you’re learning, but will find it difficult to activate the passive knowledge you learn on your screen when trying to speak with real humans.

I know that talking with a native speaker can be intimidating and that it’s far more comfortable to stay in a safe “input bubble” of books, apps, podcasts, and videos. But to learn to speak, you actually have to speak! You have to be willing to do the important, uncomfortable things that matter. And that is precisely what iTalki helps you do no matter where in the world you happen to live.

So what are you waiting for? Whether you want to learn enough Japanese to understand anime or manga, order sushi in Japan, talk to far-flung relatives in their native tongue, or ask your potential parents-in-law for their blessing to propose, an online language tutor will give you the active, hands-on practice you need to reach fluency, become a confident speaker, and better understand the culture.

Don’t write off your Japanese fluency goals to the nebulous ether of “someday.” Start today. Schedule a lesson right now before you lose your nerve or talk yourself out of it. Use this link to get a free iTalki lesson.

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