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Do you really need to learn nihongo as an ALT?


Many ALTs struggle to accomplish this requirement of Chesham. 

Actually, you don’t need to enroll at a Japanese school just to learn the basic Nihongo. 

(But if you have extra time and resources for that, please do so.) 

You yourself can prepare a simple plan that you can submit to Chesham. 

In my case, I made a simple course outline in the form of a table with several columns. 

The columns are day, time, content, target language, sources, and number of minutes. 

My sources are mainly Youtube. 

It looked really nice. 

In my opinion, if a student will follow that, he/she will be able to speak Japanese in a few weeks. 

Did I follow it? 

Not 100%. 

That’s because of time constraint and other work-related matters. 

Did Chesham accept it? 

Yes! 

Now, let’s answer the question. 

Do you really need to learn Nihongo? 

My answer: YES! HAI! ONEGAISHIMASU! 

 You are not required to speak Japanese in the classroom. 

Actually, you should not. 

That’s not the right place to practice your Japanese. 

But outside the classroom, believe me, your Nihongo is as essential as your English. 

Building a rapport with your Japanese colleagues requires that you speak even the basic Nihongo. 

Ideally, we should speak English so that teachers may also learn English. 

 But in reality, no one will approach you or even look at you if you cannot speak Nihongo. (Except the ones who are really interested in learning English and dying to strike a conversation with you.)

When you go to the supermarket, you need Nihongo. 

When you eat outside or make simple transaction in the municipal office or bank, you need Nihongo. 

 I was pressured because the ALT that I replaced could speak Nihongo. 

He is from California. 

For the entire December, I was just shadowing him. 

I witnessed how he spoke Nihongo in our classes just to let the student appreciate the lessons. 

I know he was breaking the rules. 

But I fully understand him. 

 As a teacher, our concern is to teach in a way that is reachable by our learners. 

I believe speaking Nihongo in a class depends on the discretion of the ALT. 

 Once again, learn Japanese as much as you can. 

 Learn to read at least hiragana and katakana and some basic kanji. 

 You will rarely see romaji in the street or documents (unless written in English).


So, do you really need to learn nihongo?

It`s your call. 

But let me give you some reasons why you should study nihongo.


1. Convenience 

The moment I landed in Japan, I realized that I was now on my own.

I have all the freedom here.

But that freedom is highly restricted by my lack of knowledge of the language.

I can read hiragana and katakana but my reading does not make sense when the letters are combined with kanji.

I felt frustrated whenever I try to figure out the signages in the streets, establishments, papers, and so on.

Of course I use an apps in my phone to translate Japanese into English.

This google translate app is very convenient since I just need to scan the Japanese characters and voila, the English translations appear.

But this is not always possible.

You can imagine me in the supermarket scanning every item I want to buy (especially the items without English labels).

It`s crazy because it does not only take more of my time but also some translations do not make sense.

Then, when I went to some restaurants, I felt helpless when there were no English menu.

When I wanted to have a haircut, I struggled a lot how to figure out the style I wanted.

I could not give detailed instructions.

The best solution was to show the photo of my last haircut.

When I wanted to take a bus, I could not understand the routes of the bus.

When walking around, I could not read the street signs or even buildings` names.

When I attended a holy Mass, I could not read the words in the Mass guide or the songs on the screen. 

The instances can go on and on.

The bottom line is that, when one has a zero knowledge of Japanese, it becomes harder to live a convenient life in Japan.

The solution? Learn Japanese. One kanji at a time.

On my first month, I tried hard to learn one Kanji per day, especially the basic ones like the kanji for teacher, school, bank, car, danger, food, poison, people, person, help, money, etc.

This makes a lot of difference after a month, especially when I need to check the mails I recieve regarding my bills and so on.

I begin to feel at ease because I could already understand something.

But this does not stop here since learning is a lifelong process.


2. Professional Development

Have you ever felt a sense of satisfaction because you did something worthwhile?

Have you ever felt dissatisfied at the end of the day because you know you did nothing worthwhile?

How many times did you channel your energy and time to something that could add to your professional development?

How did it feel when you accomplished something at the end of the day?

Professional development is a sort of development that you personally do to refine your craft.

This is something you can do by yourself or with others.

You are convinced that this will help you grow not only as a person but also as a professional person in your chosen field.

As an ALTs, studying and learning Japanese and eventually speaking it, have a huge impact on our career in Japan.

There is always a sense of growth when we learn something new.

This is the same in learning Japanese.

My basic knowledge in Japanese allows me to understand someting about what is going on in the staff room during the meeting times.

It also created bridges that connect me to my fellow teachers especially my JTEs and other Japanese teachers.

Moreover, my Japanese knowledge allowed me to win quickly the respect and admiration of my students.

The third year JHS students have plenty of speaking time towards the end of February until March.

Our conversation classes were a lot of fun not only because the students tried their best to speak English, but also I tried to assist them in speaking by supplying the appropriate English words.

I was able to do that because of my basic knowledge in Japanese.

Other than these achievements, learning Japanese has even far more implications in our lives as an ALT.

Let`s see them below. 


3. A Door to endless opportunities

What is your long-term plan?

Do you plan to be an ALT forever?

Do you plan to stay in Japan for good?

Do you plan to be a part of a bigger and better company in Japan?

Your answers to above questions may help you in your decision and motivation to study Japanese seriously.

A foreigner in Japan who can speak Japanese has a bigger chances to be hired in a bigger and better company in Japan than the one who cannot.

A foreigner who can speak and write Japanese has endless opportunities both in Japan and outside Japan.

In Japan, many companies offer a very attractive package to an interpreter or translator. 

This is true in many industries not only in Japan but also in other countries in the West since  many Japanese companies have been expanding their business overseas.

With the knowledge in Japanese, you can imagine the opportunities that lie ahead of you.

You can even choose the work you want to do.

This means that you can choose the place, the type of work, and the packages perfect for you.


Again, should you really study and learn Japanese?

My answer? It`s your call.


(Image from Pixabay)