You can successfully order food at a Japanese restaurant, but how are your Japanese conversation skills?
If they need some work, or if your entire knowledge comes solely from textbook conversations, then you have a lot to gain through a Japanese language exchange!
It’s time to put your aizuchi skills to work and learn real Japanese by speaking with a native. These six secrets will show you exactly how to get the most from your Japanese language exchange.
Why Start a Japanese Language Exchange?
Japanese is a unique language for a number of reasons. It’s what linguists call a “high context” language, which means that social context makes a big difference in communication. Through my personal experience wrestling with the language for the last decade, I’d say that social factors and inferred meanings play a bigger part in communicating in Japanese than anything grammatical.
This is why language exchange is so important for studying Japanese. Your challenge is not to learn Japanese grammar, which is relatively straightforward compared to other languages. The challenge is learning when to say what and to whom. This is what you can learn through language exchange.
The Benefits of Japanese Language Exchanges
A Japanese language exchange will teach you the real language as it’s spoken. Real Japanese is very different from textbook Japanese. I came to Japan armed with about two years of formal Japanese classroom study, as well as time spent on my own drilling vocabulary and kanji. I discovered almost as soon as I got off the plane that what I’d learned in my classes was not nearly as useful as what I’d learned through language exchange.
There are some other benefits as well. Through language exchange, you can make friends and connections. You have friends you can visit and if, like me, you decide to move to Japan, your new friends can help you get settled.
You can learn about Japanese culture in a direct way through language exchange. If you’re interested in any aspect of Japanese culture, you have a direct line to it. I exchanged music with my language partners and learned a great deal about Japanese rock.
Finally, it’s fun and fun is a major motivator when you’re trying to learn a language.
Are You Ready for a Japanese Language Exchange?
If you start your language exchange right out of the gates, you may experience some trouble. You won’t have the vocabulary you need to make the most basic conversation. I discovered this when I started my language exchange many years ago. The Japanese part of our conversation was extremely short because the simplest natural phrase blew my mind completely. You may want to start studying first and then begin the exchange a few months down the road.
Another option is to chat or exchange emails with your partner rather than trying to speak. If you don’t have the vocabulary to carry on a basic conversation, it’s going to be slow and painful. With chat or email, you have time to look up words and form sentences. You can also practice your reading, which is another difficulty of Japanese. Once you’re ready, you can move to actually speaking.
For a great way to practice all your Japanese skills at once before you dive into a language exchange, check out FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
6 Secrets for the Best Japanese Language Exchange
1. Find the Right Partner
There are many Japanese folks in Japan who are desperately looking for an English language exchange partner and not finding one. Sure, there are many English schools and private English teachers in Japan, but for people who prefer the free route or who live in isolated areas without access to native English speakers, the internet is the perfect choice.
Here are some tips for finding a great Japanese language partner:
I strongly advise finding a language exchange partner who is the same gender as yourself. My best partner back in the day was a young guy like me. The reason for this suggestion is because there are differences in the way Japanese males and females talk, and you’ll end up imitating your partner’s speech patterns to some extent.
I think it’s much more motivating if you can find someone with common interests. This way, you have something to talk about. It’s also good to be in a similar place in your life. You don’t want to be a middle-aged guy learning teenage girl slang.
A Good Teacher
However, similarities aren’t everything. My first and best language partner was a guy who I had little in common with, but he knew how to help me improve my Japanese. You need someone who is a good teacher. This is difficult to gauge from a person’s profile on a language exchange website (unless they happen to be a teacher), but you can always have a few trial conversations to see how it goes.
Look for someone who is available when you’re available. Remember that if you’re in the Americas or Europe, Japan is on the other side of the earth from you and there’s a major time difference.
2. Structure Your Exchange
You can get together with your Japanese language partner and just blab until you’re both too tired to go on, but I recommend structuring your lessons. With my partner, we split the lessons between Japanese and English. For about a half hour, I sweated bullets and tried to make utterances that might be comprehensible to a Japanese person. Then, for the remaining half hour, we spoke English. This is how we both got the most out of our lessons.
3. Learn Survival Phrases
It may be tough for you to speak only Japanese for half the lesson (and vice versa for your partner). If you have to look everything up in your dictionary, this slows the lesson down a great deal. But if you learn some basic Japanese survival phrases and teach the same to your partner, it’s much easier. These would be things like:
Please speak more slowly
Can you say that again?
How do you say _____?
What does ______ mean?
For each lesson, I recommend choosing a topic beforehand. A topic might be something like describing your family or school, or talking about where you grew up. At first, these should be simple everyday conversation topics. If you choose a topic beforehand, both of you can prepare by learning vocabulary and phrases to use during the conversation.
4. Practice with Patterns
Because the structures of Japanese and English are so different, the best way to learn Japanese is through phrase patterns. It’s almost never the case that an English sentence translated word-for-word into Japanese means the same thing in Japanese. This is why online translators don’t work.
Instead, you should learn phrase patterns, and then substitute different words into the template. Here’s a simple example:
Studying Japanese is fun. – Nihongo wo benkyo suru no wa tanoshii.
The Japanese is more or less completely backwards in comparison to the English. So, to practice this pattern, you would simply plug in different words to make various sentences of the same structure:
Driving a car is fun. – Kuruma wo unten suru no wa tanoshii.
Writing a book is hard. – Hon wo kaku no wa muzukashii.
Skiing is easy. – Suki suru no wa kantan.
5. Ask for Corrections
Since this is your chance to speak real Japanese with a Japanese native speaker, ask your partner to correct your utterances. With other languages, this would probably involve quite a bit of grammar correction. With Japanese, it’s more likely to be correcting word choice and making phrases more natural. As I said earlier, real spoken Japanese is quite different from what you learn in your textbook.
6. Study Outside of Your Language Exchange
Take good notes during your lessons by writing down new words and phrases, and then drill them later at home. Don’t use language exchange as a substitute for studying. In order to learn new words, phrases and grammar, you need to study outside of your lessons. That’s how you grow and improve. I recommend following a regular course of study and then supplementing it with language exchange so that you can practice.
When I think back now, I can still remember specific words and phrases my language partner taught me. When he said “Kaeru” (I’m going home), it was the first time I’d ever encountered the word. I remember that “a-ha” moment. To me, that moment is what makes language exchange so fun and interesting.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.