Tips for navigating Japanese learning online

Learning Japanese is hard. Unlike English there are multiple alphabets plus character sets. Online learning can make what would normally be challenging seem overwhelming. Don’t despair, a few tips gleaned from experience can reduce the stress of learning Japanese. The default technology, Zoom, is far from a friction free learning environment. Let’s start by taking a look at some easily overlooked basic settings that can be toggled on or off.

Virtual background — Stop using it. Zoom uses a Photoshop-like masking feature that “attempts” to define negative and positive space around your face and silhouette. The program then masks or blocks what it thinks is your background (your messy room) and substitutes it with a background of your choosing. I’ve seen everything from cute dogs, to outer space scenes.

The problem with this is threefold: 1. The latency of the program combined with student’s motion makes the silhouette pixelated and blurry. Faces also appear to be melting into the background. This distracts both teachers and fellow students. 2. Many times, because of this latency you can’t see the students’ mouth when they are speaking, which is important in learning pronunciation in Japanese. 3. Many students seem to change their virtual background as often as they change their clothes, which makes it harder for the teacher to quickly recognize the student.

My solution: Move your computer to a place with just a wall or door behind you. If that’s not an option, just cover the area behind you with a blanket or sheet. Problem solved.

Microphone on/off — Many students turn off the microphone when they are not speaking. It may be counterintuitive, but you should leave the microphone on. Consider for a moment the interruptions, and also what I call the “Zoomed out” effect. I can’t count how many times I have heard the teacher say to a “Zoomed out” student, “Please turn on your microphone to answer.” Multiply the 30 second delay by 30 students every class and imagine how disruptive that could be.

My solution: Keep your finger on the microphone and take your finger off when you’re answering questions. The conversation will more closely resemble being in the classroom, plus it will force you to be more attentive.

Camera on/off — Keep the camera on! Communication is reduced by having the camera off during the whole class. If you need to take a break put a post-it on the camera to cover it. Small group breakouts are fundamental to teaching Japanese in the classroom.

Do you really want to talk to a person who does not show their face? The Zoom interface shows all students’ faces, including your own, simultaneously. Handling small group breakouts on Zoom can be intimidating and can lead to feelings of embarrassment. It helps to remember that linguistic misunderstandings are universally humorous, and they occur all the time. When I was tutoring, one of the students confused “oishii,” which means delicious, with “tanoshii” and said “tanoshii tempura,” which means “fun tempura.” Other students chuckled imagining shrimp having fun dancing. Making mistakes is one of the most effective ways to learn a new language. Try to bring your sense of humor.

Yuka Higashino currently lives in San Francisco, a former banker in Tokyo, she is a Teacher’s Assistant (remote) at Columbia University in New York, while concurrently enrolled in the master’s program of teaching Japanese at Columbia. She is also a TA at Soko Gakuen in San Francisco, and a former tutor at City College of San Francisco. She has experience tutoring students of all ages and abilities. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.


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