Has this ever happened to you?
You’re sitting and enjoying a bowl of ramen, when some guy starts speaking to you in Japanese.
Nervous, you set down your bowl and break into a run.
It’s totally natural to feel uncomfortable speaking a language you don’t know that well.
Alright, so maybe you’ve never actually fled from someone.
But you’ve probably wanted to disappear from a Japanese conversation once or twice.
That’s no way to learn — you should be excited when you have opportunities to speak Japanese!
To help you get psyched, we’ve jotted down some clever tips and actionable advice about how to improve your Japanese conversation skills.
5 Ways to Stop Running Away From Japanese Conversation
Before we discuss ways to engage in conversation and fight the urge to flee, let’s change the mindset that’s causing you to run scared.
The Best Way to Think About Japanese Conversation Practice
If you’ve never tried learning another language or living in another country before, then there are probably lots of things you take for granted. You probably don’t often take the time to appreciate being able to understand simple (but critical-to-know) sentences like “You’re supposed to drive in the left lane” and “There’s a fire in the building, we kindly advise you to evacuate.”
However, to nonnative speakers of any language, learning such simple sentences is very empowering.
As you learn more and more Japanese, you can eventually start thinking of the Japanese you learn as a set of abilities. One day you may suddenly discover, for instance, how to say a cool phrase like 「飲みましょう！」(のみましょう！- Let’s drink!). Congratulations, you now have the ability to get Japanese people to drink with you!
As you practice this in spoken form, you’ll keep finding that you have to come up with new things to say. You start to invent new sentences out of words and grammar you know already. With those newly unlocked sentences, you gain new abilities all of the time.
It’s certainly somewhat awkward, especially if you’re a beginner like me. But when you’re practicing conversation you’re becoming more creative with your language, better at pronouncing it and listening to it.
I find that the only time I really discover how much Japanese I know is when I practice it with language partners instead of revising on my own. This is because I constantly figure out new sentences to say and use, which I didn’t know I possessed.
This is one of the main joys for me when it comes to learning Japanese, and it’s motivation enough to keep me going. All of the words and sentences you know in Japanese are yours. You went through the trouble of learning them, so you can use them in any way you please. Each time you learn a new word, an untold number of sentences using that word are just sitting around and waiting to be constructed by you.
Why You Must Practice Japanese Conversational Skills
There are many ways to be bad at Japanese.
But you need to practice Japanese with Japanese people to pick up on some of them. Sure, you could, to a certain extent, claim that it comes down to personal style. But at the beginning of the learning process you won’t even know what style you’re speaking in. In order to understand how to speak, you need to understand different ways of speaking and how people think of them. This is an understanding that you can gain more easily from conversational practice than anything else.
Practicing conversational Japanese lets you experience how real Japanese people use the language. This is often different to what you see in Japanese movies or what you learn in textbooks. Most likely, some Japanese people you meet will poke fun at you for the way you use the language until you learn how they do it.
Most importantly though, as you speak with Japanese people you start to pick up on small differences in the way they speak compared to how you do. Learn and copy as much as you can. You shouldn’t worry too much about the mistakes you make in Japanese when you’re using it, but realize that you’re always learning.
Convenient, Smart, Simple Tips for Japanese Conversation Practice
So, as you can already see, improving Japanese conversation skills does require a fair share of work. The goal now is to start working smart, not hard.
Here’s a list of things that will be useful to you as you start to practice your spoken Japanese. Rather than unknowingly sinking your time and energy into minor details, use these guidelines to focus on key areas for improvement. These are the areas that really make a noticeable difference in your speaking.
By targeting these major points in your conversation practice, you’ll make much greater strides towards speaking fluent Japanese. As you read about them, be sure to keep in mind that these tips are mainly for your reference.
5 Ways to Stop Running and Engage in Japanese Conversations
1. Relax, and never stop talking.
All the ins and outs of proper Japanese are important to know, but you don’t have to suddenly interrupt a conversation when you’re practicing to say “Oh, I’m sorry, I intended to use a formal tense.” Nobody cares, just speak!
It’s very difficult to be creative while at the same time keeping an eye out for every little mistake you might make.
The best argument to keep talking is that if you don’t talk, nobody will speak to you. You’ve got to keep the conversation going so you can reap the benefits of speaking and listening practice. As it turns out, you’re much more likely to learn something by seeing someone else using it correctly rather than seeing yourself doing it wrong. If you consistently see that people do things a little differently than you, then apply what they’re doing to your own spoken Japanese. It’s as simple as that!
2. Avoid the common pronunciation mistakes for English speakers.
The Japanese language does not have that many sounds. Compared to English, it’s a very easy language in terms of pronunciation. There are, however, a few things which native English speakers will find difficult because they aren’t used to paying attention to the differences.
The kana ら, り, る, れ, ろ start with an R-like sound. This sound is very different from the English R, and is more like that of the Spanish language. If you know how to roll your R, then this should be straightforward for you, just try to only roll it once. It sounds partway between an English L and R when you do it correctly — it’s really no wonder Japanese speakers almost always mix those two up when they speak English. At least whenever people pick on your accent, and you feel like you want to tease them back, you can just ask them to say the word “dollar.”
Did I lose you with all this kana talk? If so, swing by this blog post for a more in-depth discussion of learning kana.
Generally with vowels you should try to pronounce them without too much intonation. Japanese is mostly very flat, and it can be difficult not to work accents into the language if you’re used to using them. An example is the long O in “Go” which is not found in Japanese. The Japanese O is more like the U in luck, in terms of duration.
Now that you know some of the common differences in pronunciation, try to listen for them when Japanese people speak. At first, just identify the different sounds and listen really hard to how the Japanese pronounce them. Later, you’ll start to incorporate all this into your own speech without even thinking about it.
3. Think about when to use formal versus informal Japanese.
Say you’ve learned Japanese from watching anime or movies. It’s a good thing to do, since it’s entertaining and motivating. In terms of teaching you proper Japanese… let’s just say you’d be hard pressed to get away with anime Japanese at a job interview.
The Japanese language has politeness built right into the grammar. It’s something we’re not used to in English, so it can be rather difficult to tell when to use which tense. It’s a common mistake to assume that you have to be polite when speaking to any Japanese person. Especially as a beginner learning Japanese, you’ll typically learn to use verbs in their polite form from the get-go. There are forms of speech more polite and more casual than this one, so you’ll fall smack dab in the middle of the politeness scale.
This is because, as a non-native in Japan, most of your encounters with Japanese people will be formal. If you’re there for business, that’s a whole different ball game. It’s really good to learn the formal ways of speaking, but you can get around without them. It depends on what impression you want to make on people, and there’s a fine line between being friendly and being too friendly. So the default option is to use formal language in Japan.
Usually when you talk to people with whom you have a formal relationship you should use the polite form. Don’t use the polite form with people you meet casually — you’ll just seem like a weirdo. Especially if you’re male. Which brings us to…
4. Modify the way you speak based on your audience.
Who you speak to determines a great deal of how you’re going to be speaking in Japanese. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t say whatever you want during a job interview. You dress yourself up and you dress up your language for such occasions. In English we use correct English in these situations. For instance, not confusing the words “less” and “fewer.” We also tend to eliminate curses, slang words and sillier phrases. In Japanese you can speak perfectly but still incorrectly in the given context by not understanding your place in it.
As a foreigner you’re not really expected to get this right, but the Japanese do respect a good and honest attempt. If you ever happen to go to a job interview, you really should give it your best shot. Basically, how you speak depends on how you want to be seen. Especially if you want to be taken seriously as a professional this becomes important.
The different forms of 敬語 (けいご – honorific speech) are 尊敬語 (そんけいご – respectful language), 謙譲語 (けんじょうご – humble language) and 丁寧語 (ていねいご – polite language). Usually Japanese people are trained in 敬語 when they enter a company.
丁寧語 is the form you hear most of the time when dealing with strangers (it’s the one I told you that you’d learn from the start). You’re probably going to be using it a lot if you go to Japan. 謙譲語 is typically used to describe your own actions when speaking with a client or customer. お待たせいたしました (おまたせ いたしました – sorry to have kept you waiting), which you hear all the time in Japan, is an example of this. 尊敬語 is used to refer to your superior in a respectful tone.
Apart from using the correct forms of the verbs, sentences have to be constructed differently. It’s a broad topic which I won’t go into detail with right now.
Now, if you study the honorific forms, you’ll actually find some really cool usages of the Japanese language. By knowing when it’s inappropriate to use them, you can express more intense feelings (like resentment) to people in subtle ways. For instance, in a disagreement with his father, a son might decide to address him with undue politeness. This is a way of declaring that they’re on strange terms.
Check out this post to learn more about how to sound more humble when you speak Japanese.
5. Have fun with speaking Japanese.
Play around with it!
What fun is it to learn a language if you’re not going to interact with people? Allow yourself to try out some weird or uncommon uses of Japanese. Remember that you have an excellent excuse: you’re still learning. 私はまだ日本語を勉強中です (わたしは まだ にほんごをべんきょうちゅうです – I’m still learning Japanese) is probably a good phrase for you to remember. Enjoy it while it lasts. It’s basically a free pass to say all kinds of crazy things.
I have a lot of Japanese friends. I sometimes come up with some strange constructions that I’m not sure will work or not. Instead of asking them, I just try them out on them and wait for the reaction. They almost always laugh at me because of course it’s gotta be wrong, I was just using my imagination. There’s no guarantee I’ll come up with something smart or even grammatically correct. But it’s fun, and it always teaches me about the language.
If you, like me, are one of those people who learn through trial and error, I only have positive things to say about this approach to learning. You might intuitively think that it’s bad for your Japanese, but this is false. While you’re trying all sorts of things out, you’re going to remember what’s correct very easily, while you’ll forget almost instantly what didn’t work.
Conversely, there are other people who learn through making mistakes. The bigger the mistake, the better it sticks. As long as you bear in mind that your golden standard is the way your Japanese friends speak, you’ll be fine. So don’t worry about having some fun on the way.
6. Be confident.
I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t have confidence in yourself then your experience with Japanese conversation practice is going to be short-lived and painful.
While you’re speaking with people in Japanese you’re showing them a weakness, a vulnerability. This can be intimidating when speaking with the native or fluent Japanese speakers around you. It takes some courage to start a conversation in a language you’re not fluent in. I get that for some people that’s difficult. Luckily, confidence is something you can learn over time.
Why’s it so important? Because it’s important for you and the people you practice with to get the most out of your conversation. If you confidently show that you’re not afraid of making mistakes, then people around you can relax and enjoy talking to you. If you, on the other hand, become nervous and need your listener to encourage you to speak Japanese, then it quickly becomes tedious for them.
You should also understand that you won’t be able to learn anything if you aren’t able to relax.
To some of you, boldly putting forth so much confidence may sound like it’ll make you seem arrogant to others. It’s not like that at all. You cannot possibly learn a language if you worry about how people think about you.
An eccentric who goes by the online handle Khatzumoto has also tackled the issue of how to attain language fluency. You might want to give his blog a read, it’s entertaining if nothing else. Khatzumoto recommends language immersion above everything else. According to him, to learn Japanese you have to become Japanese. Beyond that, you have to keep having fun with the language and doing things in Japanese.
Finally, do read Adam Robinson’s What Smart Students Know. The thing is, I’ve often been called a smart student. I don’t say that to brag. To be honest, I don’t consider myself smart — I just apply myself efficiently and know how to motivate myself. Adam Robinson explains why this works well for some people and why it doesn’t for others. His main goal is always to show how you can learn efficiently and quickly, even if you’re just a regular dude like me.
Even as I write this, I cringe at my own choice to use the word efficiently because it implies some machine-like behavior. Really, the most efficient way of learning involves a lot of fun.
Can computers have fun? I think not.
But computers can help you find where the fun’s at. There’s so much fun stuff to do online these days that it’s becoming increasingly easy to learn languages at home and on-the-go.
For example, you can easily use FluentU to learn a foreign language online!
Take advantage — and use your experiences as further Japanese conversation starters!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.