How to Become Conversational in Japanese
Five Tips for "Fluency"
You've started learning Japanese. You memorize new vocabulary words, use flashcards, practice honorific rules, study new grammar topics, and then comes the moment of truth: you meet a native speaker. Excited and nervous to show off what you've learned, you start to speak and...freeze. You stumble over words. How do you say that again? The verb comes at the end of the sentence, right? Am I even speaking? Can they understand me? Who knew a simple conversation could be so difficult?! If you've ever studied a foreign language before, you're probably no stranger to this situation and to the difficulties of conversations. Reading, listening, and studying vocabulary and grammar is one thing. But when it comes time to actually speak, it's a whole new ball game.
Fluent, Conversational...Or Both?
When asked what their Japanese language goals are, many learners don't even hesitate to respond: "To become fluent, of course!" What few learners realize, however, is that what we think of as fluency is in reality a very unrealistic goal. After all, to be fluent means to speak perfectly like a native speaker, right? Not necessarily. There are a few things to keep in mind:
- First of all, very few native speakers even speak their own language perfectly (feel free to watch any American political debate for evidence).
- Second, it's not easy to define what it even means to speak Japanese like a native speaker or to speak "perfectly."
If we take a moment to stop and think about what we really want, it's probably something like this: to be able to speak in Japanese comfortably and without hesitation. With this definition in mind, fluency can actually occur at any language learning level, whether you're a beginner or an advanced speaker. It's simply a matter of practicing what you do know and knowing how to talk around things that you don't know. This is a very common practice of well-travelled "worldly" people. In order to be able to visit a country without distractions and blend in, they learn just enough to be able to get by. Then they practice their new vocabulary, and practice it some more. By the time their trip is over, they're able to trick locals into believing that they're native. In other words: they're fluent, with just basic vocabulary and basic notions of grammar. Let's call this type of "fluency" being conversational. Being conversational is a matter of being comfortable in your foreign language and not needing to search for words when speaking. It's about not letting your insecurity get in the way of your skills. It means focusing on the practical words, phrases and skills that are useful in the majority of interactions and practicing them until you dominate them. Doesn't that sound like a much better goal than the vague notion of becoming "fluent"? In order to achieve this goal, there are some great ways to practice and improve your conversational skills and learn to be confident when speaking Japanese. Let's take a look at five great tips:
1. Stay Motivated
It's no secret that motivation is crucial when learning a new language. This is one of the main reasons why anyone is able to learn a language regardless of age, education and experience. Motivation is more important than any one of the excuses you may have for not learning Japanese. Staying motivated is the number one reason why many have language learning success, and is also the number one reason why some fail. There is no understating how important it is at every step of the learning process, whether you're starting to learn Japanese or polishing up your skills. Stay motivated. Focus on why you want to learn Japanese, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from it. Learning Japanese is always worth it. This mindset is helpful at every stage of the language learning process. It also really helps to fuel your conversation practice.
2. Create Your Own Japanese Phrasebook
Make your own Japanese dictionary and phrasebook. This could be online, on your phone, or even in a cute little notebook from the Dollar Store. Every time you hear a new Japanese word or phrase that you think will be useful, write it down in you phrasebook. Later, when you've got some free time or forget a word or phrase, you can turn to your own portable, personalized Japanese dictionary for help. Here's what's so great about this:
- It allows you to build up useful vocabulary and phrases that will help you to become more conversational in Japanese.
- Your phrasebook is your own personalized dictionary and guide to the words that will be useful to you.
- It's a way to organize the most practical information from your studies in one place for future use and to focus on things that you will really need when speaking.
- Finally, not only is it helpful for keeping all of your useful words and phrases in one easy-to-carry location, but the very process of writing down Japanese words and phrases helps you to memorize them.
It's a great tool for anyone studying Japanese at any level, and you can even use it to improve your native language!
3. Learn Connectors and Fillers
So, when we speak in our native language, we fill our conversations with small or seemingly insignificant words. These words help us to form connections between ideas and fill empty spaces. Well, as a matter of fact, these connectors or fillers actually help contribute to our language fluency and keep us from sounding like textbook-reading robots. That being said, there are ten categories of connectors that are useful to learn in a foreign language:
- Fillers (Well...actually...so...)
- Elaborations (More specifically...in other words...)
- Openers (That's a good question...I was thinking...so)
- Closers (Overall...Basically, that's it...in the end)
- Apologies (I'm sorry, but...I've got to be honest with you...)
- (Dis)Agreement (Definitely...I completely agree..I don't really agree...)
- Passing (What about you? What do you think?)
- Qualifiers (To be honest...to tell you the truth...actually...in reality)
- Quotes (Recently, I heard that...They say that...)
- Switches (By the way...Oh, I forgot to tell you...) By learning these connectors and making them a part of your speaking, you accomplish two great things:
- You sound more fluent and feel more confident in being able to speak Japanese how you think,
- You buy yourself more time to think by using the appropriate fillers!
Here are some common interjections and fillers that you can use in Japanese:
Seriously, give it a try! Remember, though: don't try and learn them all at once. Pick the most practical and add them to your speaking little by little. Oh, and don't forget to write them down in your phrasebook!
4. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Once again, we return to the old cliché: "practice makes perfect." Never has it been more true than when learning Japanese. Here at Rocket Languages, though, we like to think of it as "practice makes fluent." Imagine you dedicate two hours a week to studying Japanese online, and then you turn off your computer (and brain) and leave your Japanese aside until next week. If you're like us (and most normal adults), everything you learned the previous week will either be lost or require a long review. This pattern can be repeated the next week, and the next week, and the next week until... Well, give it a good 10 years and you'll be able to order a second beer on vacation in Tokyo. Just because you have limited time to dedicate to learning Japanese doesn't mean that you don't have time for practicing Japanese. Here are some ways you can practice:
- Tell your family or friends about what you learned after your class or study time.
- Practice with a native friend or coworker over coffee or lunch.
- Read some Japanese news articles or watch Japanese videos to keep up to date on what's going on in the world.
- Talk to yourself in Japanese. Repeat words, sounds, phrases and sentences in your mind.
- Label the items in your house with post-it notes in Japanese and read them out when you pass them.
Overall, there are so many ways that you can make practice a part of your daily life. If improving your speaking is your goal, try to practice speaking at least 2-3 times per week (although once a day would be ideal!). Before you let this idea scare you, let's take a look at a few excellent ways to practice speaking:
- Speak with native speakers. Don't let their perfect accents scare you. Even thought it might not seem like it at first, native Japanese speakers are almost always more than happy to help you learn their language. If you meet a native Japanese speaker, don't be shy. Greet them in Japanese and watch them light up and complement you on your Japanese!
One idea is to invite your native friend for a drink or dinner in exchange for practice. It's a cheap way to get great, live practice, and you'll probably end up learning even more than in a classroom! If you're not sure how to find native Japanese speakers near you, search for local groups at the library, schools, language centers or online.
- Speak with other learners. You're not alone, so don't be a Japanese-learning loner. Sure, maybe you're the only person you know who's studying Japanese in your city, but you definitely aren't the only person in the world. Odds are that if you're reading this article, you're no stranger to the internet and all the resources it provides for learning new things and meeting new people.
Search for others who are learning Japanese in your area. Start by checking out the local schools, universities, language academies and libraries and start a study group. Of, if you prefer, search for other Japanese learners online and set up weekly Skype, Hangout or phone chats. Meeting and interacting with other people who are also learning Japanese can help make your learning more fun, keep you motivated, and provide you with conversation partners who can teach you things you can't teach yourself.
- Talk to yourself. Believe it or not, you are your own best Japanese practicing buddy. It's easy to forget how much time we spend in our own inner dialogues in our native language on a daily basis. This dialogue can be turned into wonderful practice simply by translating it into Japanese!
Talk to yourself--either out loud or in your head--in Japanese as much as possible. Do it in as many different situations as possible. It'll help you to put your Japanese knowledge into use and will better prepare you for conversations with others. It really works!
- Imitate speeches and songs. This is a great little trick. To practice your overall Japanese fluency and pronunciation, go online and find a speech or a scene from a movie or series in Japanese. First, watch it to become familiar with its meaning. Then, little by little, play the scene and pause it while imitating the speech. Repeat what the actor or speaker says word for word.
Before you know it, you'll be speaking with the rhythm and pronunciation of a native and learning new vocabulary and phrases while doing so! The same can be done with singing, which is a great excuse for you vocally gifted people to get out and belt out your favorite Japanese tunes at your local カラオケ (karaoke) room. Overall, the key is to practice Japanese as much as possible with as many people as possible. This will help you to adapt to a variety of different dialects, accents, and speaking styles. It not only will make it easier to understand different people, but also to communicate with them in a variety of different situations.
5. Record Your Conversations
Our final tip is another interesting conversation hack: recordings. By using your phone or a recording device (or even a camera for you adventurous types) you give yourself the valuable opportunity to review your Japanese conversations and learn ways to improve. There's a few ways you can use these recordings:
- Look up words that you weren't able to remember during the conversation,
- Discover good ways to introduce fillers and connectors into your speech,
- Improve your pronunciation,
- Ask a native speaker to help identify your problems and tech you to fix them,
- Fine-tune your overall conversational fluency.
On another note, recording yourself speaking also helps you to become less nervous when really speaking. After all, very few people enjoy being recorded or filmed, and the very thought of it usually makes us uncomfortable. If we get used to it, however, speaking Japanese with a native speaker seems like a piece of cake! Overall, learning Japanese and becoming fluent is easier than you think. After all, starting is half the task! All you need is to be confident in what you do know and comfortable in using it when speaking. There are many ways to improve your fluency and conversational skills in Japanese. With motivation, dedication, and plenty of practice, you'll be conversational in no time! さようなら! Sayōnara!
Sayaka Matsuura Rocket Japanese