Learning Japanese, Comprehensible Input and reflections on teaching

In mid-May I began publishing videos of my tutoring sessions as I acquire Japanese through the same CI methods that I use in the Spanish classes that I teach. Here is the link to the first complete session recorded (before I had some technical issues to overcome as I learned how to record via Skype).

If you want to follow along with me on this year-long project then perhaps you might first take a day or two and learn the basic Japanese writing system of Hiragana using this wonderful system. Or you can learn the characters in context… following the videos will give you that reading practice. When it comes to learning Japanese, I am not an expert. Talking to Japanese teachers has helped me recognize that I really am not yet sensitive to the issues that I am about to face.

As a language teacher, I think this video is fascinating. As I was watching the video after class I was amused that it took me so long to be able to hear many of the phrases. My goal was to get a maximum amount of comprehensible input through community storytelling methods. I decided to start with a series of One Word Images until I get comfortable with the basic questions that we use to create a character. In my Spanish classes I often move quickly from creating the first character to creating a problem and a little story around that character, but as we created our character in Japanese (a medium-sized sky-blue peach) I was feeling occupied enough with this static character. In the future I will explore the why’s behind the character’s details and develop a story (and I think our medium-sized peach has enough interesting details to deserve a story of his own when I am ready for it), but right now I am comfortable spending 60 minutes just describing our character.

Of course, the drawing provided a great touchstone for conversation in Japanese. In the video you hear me speaking a lot of English because I literally do not speak any Japaneseyet. I had made three OWIs with tutors before this video, so I had heard enough language to be able to tentatively say a few words, but really you are looking at a pure beginner. Let’s see how far I can go in a year!


  1. What are your plans for literacy? That is the key issue that needs to be decided up front for Chinese/Japanese/etc. That and plain vs desu forms.

    1. Do you have advice for self-study concerning literacy? My initial lesson plan is (1) make a drawing with the tutor in which we establish meaning using both Japanese and English, (2) the tutor talks repetitively about the drawing in Japanese asking me simple questions or asking me to identify the parts of the drawing that he/she is talking about, (3) tutor writes a text about our drawing (hiragana & katakana, but once I can sound out the kana as quickly as I sound out the roman alphabet then I will ask the tutor to start using some kanji), (4) reading practice in which tutor reads as I follow along, then I read aloud (I am not sure if me reading aloud has any impact on acquisition), (5) more listening practice as time permits, (6) after class I review video and read text (printed out).

      I think that this lesson plan for tutoring sessions will take me far as it allows tutors to use more and more complex language, to the extent that I can understand it.

  2. Great article and the video was fascinating! As a beginner TPRS teacher (2nd year of TPRS) of Japanese, this was very helpful. You certainly covered a lot of language in the one lesson although I’m not sure how much you had before this lesson. I would encourage you to have your tutor introduce some kanji as well, rather that only writing in hiragana & katakana. Good luck on your journey!

    1. Thank you for your comment! It was a lot more language in one session than I would have pushed on my newbies in Spanish. When I do a drawing with my level 1 kids at the beginning or the year, we might get to the third detail… not 12! I knew that I was going to review the video several times so I was not worried about fully understanding my tutor right in that moment. If you look at the first half of the video, I am actually pretty lost whenever he speaks Japanese without a translation. In my own classes I would have slowed down, written the English on the board and pointed & paused at the English as I slowly spoke the target language. But this is not a classroom full of adolescents who are kinda sorta committed to acquiring language. For self-study, I viewed the first 20 minutes or so as an extended “establishing meaning” period and I knew that I would get many, many more repetitions listening & watching the video after our session has ended. I have watched this entire video 3-4 times, in addition to the time I took to add the subtitles. It is still a lot of language, but I plan on following this template in the next several sessions until I can comfortably respond in one word responses & gestures to questions about these details.

      Thank you for the advice about the kanji… so much to think about!

  3. As a Japanese teacher I find this very interesting. My newbies do no writing for the first two weeks. It’s all talk talk talk and listen listen listen. Then we introduce characters for words they already know. I used to teach the characters first but now don’t. As a French speaker as well I’ll be curiously following your learning. Especially as you begin to experience the similarities and differences between a Romance and Asian language! たのしみ! (Fun!). Colleen

    1. Introducing only characters for words that I have already acquired sounds like the right approach… I didn’t think of that. If you see me heading down a linguistic dead end this year, please feel free to reach out and give me advice! 🙂

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