Close your textbook.
You’ve probably been at it for an insane amount of time anyway.
At this point, how much more input can your brain handle?
Now you crave output.
It’s time to enter the Japanese conversation 道場 (どうじょう – training place) that is Skype.
You want to feel all that studying pay off by speaking and listening to real Japanese with a real person. Because really, what’s to stop you from confidently waxing theoretical about ダウンタウン (だうんたうん – Downtown)‘s comedic edge with an opinionated tattoo artist from Osaka?
Why Your Japanese Conversations Aren’t Flowing Naturally Yet
Well, it could be 3 things that are prohibiting you from enjoying that depth of conversation:
1.) You’ve yet to meet that tattoo artist.
2.) You haven’t equipped yourself with enough functional Japanese to comfortably make it through your half-hour panic attack of a language exchange.
3.) You’re not a huge fan of Downtown…
In any case, you probably know all the lovely reasons to start yourself off on a Japanese language exchange, but answer me this:
Have you ever been right in the thick of a conversation, staring at an expectant native speaker, clutching wildly for absent words as your understanding slowly disintegrates?
If you haven’t felt this yet then rest assured — there is no need for you to feel that misery.
Today we’ll take a look at how to make a great language exchange happen.
4 Ways to Keep Calm and Carry On in Japanese Conversation Practice
Before you dive into your conversation practice, you can practice with someone who, well, doesn’t actually talk back. It’s a stress-free way to ease into conversation practice.
How? Just boot up FluentU.
Each video comes with a transcript and interactive subtitles, so just choose a video and talk with or respond to the video. Say the lines ahead of the video. Play a part in a two-person conversation video. How you practice is up to you but the important thing is to actually speak! This way, when it’s time to chat with a real person, you’ll be just a tad more confident in your skills.
1. Equip Yourself for Introductions
Go ahead and think of the first things you say when you meet someone new. Now translate those into Japanese and you’ve got a full-on kickstart to the conversation. You’re providing them with a little information about yourself and, because you’re now familiar with the structure of these introductory phrases, you’ll be ready to hear and understand what your partner has to say themselves! So here’s a little introductory kit:
初めまして！(はじめまして！) Literally, “we’re meeting for the first time,” but basically a first time greeting to the effect of “Nice to meet you!”
私は______です (わたしは ____ です) “I’m…/My name is…” might come in handy if you haven’t gotten a handle on each other’s names yet.
今、______に住んでいます (いま、_____ にすんでいます) “I live in …/I’m currently living in…”
趣味は、ギターと海外旅行です (しゅみは、ぎたーと かいがいりょこう です) “My hobbies are playing guitar and traveling abroad.”
私は大学生です／エンジニアです (わたしは だいがくせいです／えんじにあです) “I am a university student/an engineer.” You might want to look up how to say your job in Japanese beforehand, just to have something else to talk about.
よろしくお願いします！(よろしくおねがいします！) “Thank you!”/”Very nice to meet you!” Literally, “please treat me well” is one of the most important, standard greeting phrases in Japanese.
This last one makes a great closing to your introduction. It basically means that you’ve put yourselves in each other’s hands for your language learning endeavors. It’s a phrase that can be used at the beginning of any sort of mutually beneficial relationship. If your partner says this first, you can just repeat it back to them in the same way. There’s a great explanation of this and other conversational phrases in this post.
These phrases can be said all at once but, to avoid sounding robotic, you could just break these up during a Q&A while still being prepared to produce them confidently. Cultural tip: you might find a lot of people giving their age right off the bat as this is pretty common in Japan, but don’t feel that you have to reciprocate if you don’t want to!
2. Q&A All the Way
Now that you’ve introduced yourselves, keep the ball rolling by having a few basic question structures under your belt. If you get your partner talking, you can switch from speaking mode to listening mode, where you can relax a little and pick up some of the new vocabulary they’re using. Here are a few basic questions for a first time meeting:
出身はどこですか？(しゅっしんはどこですか？) “Where are you from?”
今、どこに住んでいますか？(いま、どこにすんでいますか？) “Where do you live (now)?”
日本は何時ですか？(にほんは なんじですか？) “What time is it in Japan?”
お仕事は何ですか？(おしごとは なんですか？) “What is your job?”
______に行ったことがありますか？(___に いったことがありますか？) “Have you been to (place)?”
______が好きですか？(_____が すきですか？) “Do you like_____?”
3. Get Yourself an Emergency Life Raft
Probably the most important part of your language exchange is preventing or dealing with conversation breakdown. This might be more familiar as the point where your partner tosses out a word in a sentence structure you’ve never heard before and you end up looking like a deer in the headlights as you both sit silently lost.
That might look something like this:
At times like these, some life preservers will keep the conversation helpful, productive and progressing:
すみません。。。それは分かりません(すみません。。。それは わかりません) “Sorry, I don’t understand that”
もう一度お願いします ／もう一度言ってください (もういちど おねがいします／もういちど いってください) “One more time, please/Could you say that again?”
もう少しゆっくりお願いします／もう少しゆっくり言ってください (もうすこし ゆっくりおねがいします／もうすこし ゆっくりいってください) “A little more slowly please/Could you speak more slowly?”
書いてくれますか？ (かいてくますか？) “Could you write that down for me?”
_____はどういう意味ですか？ (_____は どういういみですか？) “What does _____ mean?”
Try to use a dictionary app only as a last resort and, if all else fails, use your gestures. Arm flailing goes a surprisingly long way.
4. Use Conversation Padding
So now you have your introductions, your questions and your emergency kit to keep things going. Want to go the extra mile in making smooth relations? Use conversation padding. This is when you use little phrases to indicate that you are a) listening to your partner and are b) interested in what they have to say. Let’s check out some fillers to respond with to keep that conversation flowing smoothly. For example:
いいですね！”That’s great!/That’s nice, isn’t it?”
それはすごいですね！”That’s amazing!/That’s really something!”
Or, when you need time to think:
ええと。。。(pronounced “ehh toh”) “Um…/Uh…”
Or when you’re laughing:
Or with a curious face:
おもしろいですね。”That’s interesting, isn’t it?”
Tips for Keeping Calm and Carrying On
We know all too well that the thought of striking up a language exchange with a total stranger from a different culture can be a bit intimidating. But, as with any language, no matter what your level, you’ve got to start somewhere.
What’s great about a language exchange, as opposed to a formal lesson, is that you’re both more or less in the same boat. Your Japanese partner may have studied English in school, but he or she is very likely to be just as shy about speaking English as you are about speaking Japanese. On the other hand, you might find yourself with a brilliantly enthusiastic speaker with glowing confidence who is hell-bent on making you fluent. Both put you in pretty great position!
Just a few words of wisdom to keep you steady through rocky terrain:
- Prepare topics beforehand. You can keep the practice on track by having a few topics of interest (music, movies, sports, shopping, etc.) written down to help you out when there’s a break in conversation.
- You’re talking to another human. You might be insecure about your Japanese. Just remember that, although you have different native tongues, that’s just another person — a fellow language learner, no less — in front of you. They can certainly understand how you feel. Try to relax and tune in to body language.
- There are no negative consequences for making mistakes. Your partner will correct you and you’ll learn a new word, or you can laugh about it together if it’s a particularly funny mistake (one of my best early blunders was confusing せんせい (teacher) with せんそう (war). Needless to say “I am an English war” was returned with some funny looks).
- Make sure you’re both benefiting. Neither of you wants to dominate the conversation, so make sure you’re keeping the balance.
And, just as the post title, wartime motivational poster and endless hilarious t-shirts denote, just keep calm and carry on (with the conversation)…
Where to Find Your Japanese Language Partner
Here are great sites where you can find your language partner.
Language Exchange Sites
Conveniently, there’s no shortage of well-established language exchange sites for enthusiastic learners such as yourself. These sites are for finding native or non-native speakers of your target language who are also interested in practicing your native language. To find a site that works for you, here are a few of the more popular ones out there:
This website has a warm, friendly interface and, in addition to their free language exchange community, they also offer Japanese lessons with professional native teachers (for cheap!). It’s ridiculously simple to create a free account and, once you write a short introduction on your profile page, you can easily seek out Japanese speakers to connect with. Similar to Twitter, you can “follow” someone who sounds interesting and message them to find a time that works for you both. Another great feature is their “notebook” in which you can practice your written Japanese and receive corrections from volunteers on the site. You can help other learners with their English writing too, if you feel so inclined.
Also a popular site, this one allows you to choose your method of exchange. You’re given the option of meeting in person, texting each other on LINE (an incredibly popular messaging app in Japan), using Skype, writing each other via any other chat software or just sending written correspondence by email. It’s quite easy to use, and you can quickly scan for people whose interests match your own.
This one has a lot of specification options for finding your perfect language partner, and has an interesting focus on group exchanges. While it offers good suggestions about how to prepare for an exchange, they suggest that you be at least at the intermediate level before you speak, or that you prepare first by using the “pen pals” option if you’re a beginner. This might be a good primer if you’re hair-clutchingly nervous, but your goal here should be to start speaking right away without leaning too much on text. They also offer group voice chat where you can jump in if you feel like it.
This is a fantastically versatile website. It’s basically a site devoted to finding like-minded people close to home who share a common interest (in this case, Japanese!) and who want to practice together. There are all kinds of face-to-face meetups in many major cities and towns, and if you can’t find a meetup to suit your needs, make one yourself! Reach out to people who want to boost their Japanese skills in your area, and you’ll be sure to find people who’ll come running. Some of these groups have been operating for years and have well-established systems for helping you get exactly what you want to accomplish. If you’re at all worried about the “creep factor,” you’ll be glad to find that most of the larger groups have stringent rules that members must follow and are highly regulated. Find one that’s right for you and get together!
What’s stopping you now?
Got 5 minutes?
Sign up on an exchange site and swan dive into conversation!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.