Let me guess...
You've been studying Japanese for a while now, maybe even one or two years, and you are still tongue tied. The thought of striking up a conversation with a native speaker terrifies you.
Many of my students complain that although they have spent years deliberately studying the language, they still cannot communicate fluently with their Japanese friends.
They tend to form sentences by translating words and ideas from their native language, so they end up sounding unnatural.
Some students enjoy watching anime, but feel very disappointed because they can understand very little of what the characters are saying.
"How can I achieve fluency in spoken Japanese?" - they ask.
My answer is always the same:
With the little input you've received so far, it's only normal that you still can't understand spoken Japanese, or that you sound unnatural when you try to say something.
Your brain is like a 'box' in which you store information (sounds, meanings, images, etc.). How can you take out of that box what you didn't put in it?
Achieving fluency in spoken Japanese (as in any other language) is possible.
In this post, I will suggest two simple strategies and a few useful resources that will allow you to work toward this goal.
Is Input from Textbooks Enough?
In order to understand spoken Japanese, limiting yourself to the dialogues found in your textbook is not enough.
Textbooks contain dialogues that are tailor-made for language learners, so they do not necessarily reflect the way Japanese people actually speak.
To put it simply - You can’t understand what you haven't yet learned.
Spoken Japanese (口語 kōgo) is full of contracted forms. It is also a mix of registers (colloquial, polite, and honorific levels) and gender-related features (male / female speech).
Moreover, there are things you can say in a more veiled way depending on the situation and the type of relationship you have with the person you are talking to.
These features are often not presented right away in textbooks whose purpose is to provide you with only basic grammar structures and vocabulary.
In order to understand colloquial Japanese, you need to go beyond your textbook and start using materials containing large amounts of conversational texts.
Was It Difficult To Learn Your Native Language?
Give it some thought. How did you learn your native language? Did you ever study grammar? Was there someone who 'taught' you the language?
Absolutely not! You learned it naturally.
And how did you learn it?
You learned it by simply observing what was going on around you, listening to the sounds you heard, repeating words and phrases, and getting feedback from your parents.
It wasn't until you started going to school that you began to consciously focus on the written language and its grammar rules.
This is the natural process of learning a language.
Research has shown how our brains are already programmed to connect sounds and meaning in context and then naturally produce language.
What you need to do is simply make use of this natural tendency of our brain and mainly focus on observing and listening, before trying your hand at producing language.
Simply put, you need to bombard your brain with visual and auditory stimuli in the new language so that you can reactivate your natural ability to absorb it.
Unfortunately, simply exposing yourself to a foreign language is not enough.
For years you have prioritized learning through your rational brain (i.e. your head), so your unconscious brain (i.e. your gut) has been inhibited.
Although your brain is already set up to learn Japanese naturally, your ears have ‘shut down’ and have become accustomed to hearing only the frequencies of your native language.
In order to 'open' your ears and reactivate your 'device' for naturally acquiring Japanese, you need to go through the same process of immersion and absorption you went through when learning your mother tongue.
Now, let's leave aside the fascinating theory about language acquisition and get back to the question of how to achieve fluency in Japanese:
If you are done with a basic grammar book (e.g. Genki, Minna no Nihongo, etc.), then I suggest you start getting more focused input on spoken language.
There are two types of input:
- Passive input
- Active input
Let's take a look at both in detail:
What Is ‘Passive Input’ and How Can You Practice It?
By ‘passive input’ I mean exposing yourself to large amounts of Japanese dialogues passively (i.e. without doing any analysis of what you are watching or listening to).
A typical example of this activity is watching Japanese movies, dramas, anime, or videos that have English subtitles (or subtitles in your native language).
The goal here is to get your ear (and your brain) used to listening to large amounts of spoken Japanese while simply enjoying the content (comprehensible input).
Passive input is definitely most effective when your brain is engaged on only one thing at a time, so I recommend breaking it down into two steps.
STEP 1 - Watch or listen to your preferred material with subtitles and familiarize yourself with its content. The focus here is on meaning. The sound of the language will simply echo in your ears and your brain will be relaxing and enjoying the content.
STEP 2 - Watch or listen to the same material once again without subtitles. The focus here is on sound. You will probably be able to understand most (if not all) of what you are hearing, but don’t worry if there’s something you don’t understand; that's not your goal.
The key word here is interest.
Find material you would love to watch or listen to and expose yourself massively to spoken Japanese by alternating the two steps above.
Try to do this every day (for at least one or two hours). The more you listen, the more input you get.
You can also 'passively' listen to Japanese radio, news or any other material while driving or doing anything else that doesn't require your full attention.
You do not need to understand what you are listening to.
The key is to 'soak your brain' in the sound of the Japanese language on a regular basis, just as if you had moved to Japan.
Resources for Passive Input.
There are tons of resources you can use to expose yourself to large amounts of content in spoken Japanese.
In addition to YouTube, Netflix, and other similar platforms, some of my students pointed me to these two great resources which I’d like to share with you here:
I'm sure there are many other resources out there that you could use, but these examples should give you a good idea of the kind of material I'm talking about.
If you know of any other resources suitable for this activity, please leave a comment below.
Now, let’s have a look at the second type of input:
What is ‘Active Input’?
By 'active input', I mean exposing yourself to large amounts of conversations in Japanese, analyzing them, and understanding them in all their nuances.
It's like taking a magnifying glass to look at the details.
Don't just look up individual words, but focus on aspects such as:
This last aspect is very important, since Japanese people express ideas in a very different way from us Westerners (click here to read a previous post of mine on this topic).
Some things that are quite normal to say in your native tongue may come across as rude to Japanese people; there is a certain 'etiquette' to be observed in certain situations.
Only by exposing yourself to massive amounts of conversational examples can you develop the right sensibilities and repertoire of phrases that will help you express yourself in a similar way.
You cannot speak unless you first know how Japanese people express themselves. Nor can you express yourself based on your own worldview - that of your native tongue.
Understanding how the Japanese think and based on what cultural elements they express themselves in the way they do is key.
Grammar is simply a reflection of that way of thinking and the culture behind it.
Two Cool Resources You Can Use For Active Input
The ideal way to get input in spoken Japanese is to find materials that contain large amounts of authentic conversations (i.e. texts typically not meant for language learners).
Again, all you have to do is a quick search on Amazon and I'm sure you'll find a variety of materials (those created by Japanese publishers are so far some of the most useful I've seen, though).
I will offer just two suggestions here:
Nihongo Nama Chukei (日本語生中継) - These are three volumes chock full of dialogues divided according to different categories and functions (accepting an invitation, apologizing, complaining, etc.).
Taken together, these three volumes cover a great deal of situations and conversations characterized by different levels of politeness and registers.
(If you want to take a look at their content, someone uploaded the audio and screenshots of the texts to YouTube. Use nihongo nama chukei as your keyword).
The only drawback to these is that they don't come with a translation, so my advice is to get someone to help explain obscure expressions or grammar points.
Shadowing - Let’s Speak Japanese (シャドーイング・日本語を話そう) - This is a two-volume series that guides you to learn many phrases through the technique of 'shadowing' (i.e. repeating as closely as possible what is said in the attached audio recordings).
These two books are great fun and full of useful phrases you can use right away, for all levels of learning. The phrases come with English, simplified Chinese, and Korean translations.
Goals of Active and Passive Input
The goals of these two types of input are:
I suggest you practice these two types of input for a long enough period of time (six months or longer) to start seeing tangible results.
This strategy will allow you to fill your brain with large amounts of spoken Japanese until it seemingly overflows.
As you continue to practice, you'll be able to not only understand more and more of what you hear, but you'll be able to produce sentences that sound more natural when you start speaking.
How to Practice Output.
After the input phase (at least six months or longer), I recommend you start speaking.
To do so, you can find a Japanese language exchange partner or a tutor.
Italki is a good platform to find someone to practice with.
In this regard, the question I often get is "How do I practice output?".
Well, the purpose of your language exchange is to practice speaking and get feedback, so make sure that your interaction with your partner or tutor is almost entirely in Japanese.
Some of the tips I often give my students to take full advantage of these interactions are:
If you combine passive and active input with regular speaking sessions with a language exchange partner or tutor, you won't have to wait long to see results.
It just takes patience, perseverance and a lot of dedication, and within a year or so, your ability to speak Japanese and understand what you hear will have made great strides.
Wrap Up - How to Achieve Fluency in Spoken Japanese
In this post, I have provided an answer to those of you who complain about not being able to speak fluently or understand what you hear in Japanese after years of learning the language.
As pointed out here, this phenomenon is quite normal when using traditional learning approaches in which very little input and almost zero output is done in the early years of learning.
You cannot understand spoken Japanese or speak it fluently for very obvious reasons:
The strategy I have outlined here is to combine passive and active output in the first phase (at least 6 months), and integrate it with speaking practice in a later phase.
Massive exposure will allow you to really get into the language and understand how the Japanese use it to communicate in various situations.
Deliberate practice of the spoken language, on the other hand, will allow you to develop your ability to express yourself naturally and spontaneously.
Motivation and perseverance will naturally lead you to the desired results.
So, what about you? What are your struggles with spoken Japanese?
If you found this post helpful, feel free to leave a comment below and tell me about your experience.