There are far too many people who have passed the JLPT N1 and yet can’t carry on a simple conversation with a native Japanese speaker. This is pathetic. Don’t be this person! Use the resources found on this page to amplify your Japanese speaking skills.
- You have to speak up!
- Why Speaking Is the Hardest Skill
- 8 Proven Methods to Amplify Your Japanese Speaking Skills
- Speaking Practice Tips
- Check out my Insta!
Speaking is one of the two most important language skills; together with listening, the oral/aural language dichotomy is the foundation of all communication. It is the most basic way in which we share information with others.
When you finally go to Japan, you’re going to have to speak to actual Japanese speakers, in actual Japanese! If you want to be able to respond to them well, then you need to practice your Japanese speaking skills.
Why is it so hard to speak Japanese?!
Have you ever met that person who constantly brags about their Japanese chops? You know, the one who writes obscure kanji that no one ever uses up on the board for all to see? They regale you with long-winded tales on the minutiae of Japanese culture? And go around telling everyone and their mother that they passed the N1?
Yeah. We all know that person.
Now, have you ever seen this person have an actual conversation, in actual Japanese, with an actual Japanese speaker?
(But if you have—forget everything I’m about to say and just skip to the next section! (^o^;)>)
That’s because this person probably tried speaking in Japanese, got discouraged, and gave up. Instead, they chose to focus their talents on one of the other language skills.
There is usually one main reason why someone fails to speak Japanese. They failed to first improve their Japanese listening skills.
Whenever you learn a new language, the first thing you want to do is be able to say some words. Am I right? It’s no fun to just read them; you wanna be able to try out that new tongue! How do I sound? Am I sexier in Japanese? (あらま～！)
Speaking is the most popular skill for a lot of Japanese language learners. It is also the skill that most Japanese language learners have the most trouble with.
But kanji tho?
“What?” I’m sure you’re saying. “Isn’t reading the most difficult Japanese skill to master? What about all that kanji?” There are many people who think that reading is much more difficult than speaking.
However, I argue that reading is far easier. If you take my advice and knock out the kanji fairly quickly, you’ll be amazed at how fast your Japanese reading skills improve. Even if you don’t hardcore study the kanji, reading is a fairly easy skill to develop on your own. The most important variable is you and your background knowledge of Japanese. You can go at your own pace and look up things you don’t understand.
When it comes to speaking, however, another person—and another skill entirely—makes the whole situation a lot more difficult. When you’re speaking in Japanese, one would assume there is someone listening to you speak. And if someone is listening, that person can interrupt or respond to your speech with their own. You don’t know how fast or slowly they’ll speak, or what words they’ll use. You don’t even know if you’ll be able to understand their accent. There are so many variables involved in a live Japanese conversation that it’s a wonder anyone can communicate at all!
Speaking Japanese can be pretty hard
I would like to get on a level where I don’t have any problems in everyday life (which isn’t limited to shopping but also bank visits, booking stuff or at least the level of being able to ask and understand what clerks are trying to tell you). It would be amazing to have enough confidence in my Japanese that I would be fine doing anything without having a Native on speed dial or right beside me so they can take over in case I fail to convey what I need.
When I’m reading I can figure things out on my own pretty okay. If I’m speaking then I can’t really keep up. I have trouble if the conversation is going too fast.
If you haven’t practiced listening to Japanese—if your ears can’t wrap themselves around the nuances of different speech styles, if you haven’t built up a store of knowledge in your head—then speaking Japanese is going to be a lot harder. The speaking skill builds upon the listening skill.
Think of the children!
Again, this goes back to the natural order of things. Children listen to a language for months, if not years, before ever uttering a single word. Sure, they may babble here and there to try the whole language thing on for size. But they don’t just come out reciting Shakespeare. (Though my mother swears I did; she says she has video evidence. I see no proof.)
If you want to get good at speaking Japanese, then you need to be even better at listening to Japanese. If you haven’t done that yet, you might want to take a step back.
Alright, alright! I did the stupid listening shit. Now what?
Now it’s time to speak some Japanese!
But wait. What if you can’t find any Japanese speakers in your area? Or if there are no Japanese teachers in your small town? What if you’re the only Japanese major in your entire university? Then what the hell are you supposed to you do?
I taught myself Japanese without access to many native speakers, or even other Japanese language-learners.
You can teach yourself how to speak Japanese, too, even if there’s no one around to help you.
Here are all of the techniques I used to improve my Japanese speaking skills over the years. All of them have worked for me, though some were more effective than others. Choose from among them and add the methods you like best to your Japanese study routine.
The techniques are arranged from most to least beneficial; if you can get started with whatever’s at the top of the list, DO THAT. It will be the fastest way to amplify your Japanese skills.
Now, I know I said above that you don’t need anyone else around you to practice speaking Japanese; and this is true, but only up to a point. There are things you can do on your own to improve your Japanese pronunciation and rhythm; these methods are listed closer towards the bottom of the list. The reason why is because speaking is inseparable from listening, and you can’t have the one without the other. Speaking implies having a listener, a conversation where both parties will respond.
In the end, you WILL need to practice speaking Japanese with another real, live, actual person. If you’re out in the boonies, don’t worry; if you’ve got the Internet access to be reading this, then you have the means to find a living, breathing Human Bean to talk with in Japanese.
Put your Japanese speaking skills to the test
Navigating Japan will be the ultimate test of whether or not your Japanese speaking skills are up to par. Can you ask for directions? Make yourself understood at a bank? Confess your love to your Japanese-speaking crush? If not, then you’ve still got a long way to go.
A word of caution
I highly recommend going anywhere BUT Tokyo if improving your Japanese speaks skills is your goal. Tokyo is full of tourists and scores of foreigners who live there, but can’t speak a lick of Japanese. (And some of them have Japanese-speaking kids!) Tokyo is an international city. It’s designed to accommodate those who don’t have a good grasp of the Japanese language.
If you want to get good at Japanese, visit the country. Go to small cities like Kosai or Hamamatsu in Shizuoka. Even larger cities like Nagoya and Osaka offer more opportunities to speak Japanese than Tokyo.
If you’re dead-set on being in the most awesome city in the world, then make sure to be explicit and persistent about your Japanese speaking practice. Tell the people around you, very politely, that you are in Japan to speak Japanese and would love it if they could humor you. If a Japanese person talks to you in English, you are well within your rights to respond in Japanese. If they continue to speak English, you can just keep answering in Japanese! This way, you both get to practice the language you are desperately itching to use.
Lie if you must
Another quick fix (though I’m not sure how this is for a long-term solution) is to lie about where you’re from. If someone talks to you in English, tell them in Japanese that you’re not from an English-speaking country!
A good friend of mine uses this trick pretty often. He tells people that he’s from a small country in Africa, and that he doesn’t know any English. They’ve got no choice but to speak to him in Japanese. Like I said, just be careful about trying to use this as a long-term strategy. If you want to establish close relationships with people in Japan, it’s probably best not to start off with a lie. (Although my friend’s ancestors were from Africa, so technically…)
Find Japan wherever you are
If you can’t make it all the way to actual Japan, then the next best thing is to find a “Japan” that’s much closer to you. If your city has a thriving (or even an existing) Japanese community, you’re in luck! You might not need to make it all the way to Japan to find Japanese speakers to talk to.
This strategy is best suited for upper-intermediate and advanced learners of Japanese, because it usually requires extensive searching in Japanese to find out where the Japanese people around you are living. (However, if there is a huge Japanese community in your area, like a Japantown or Little Tokyo, and you already know where it is and you’re a beginner, by all means go and visit!)
A good place to start is your Japanese Consulate. This may be a great resource to connect you with the local Japanese community. Call or check out their website to see if there are any events going on, or if there is any way they can connect you to Japanese speakers in the area. Offer yourself as a volunteer tour guide, translator, or language exchange partner if you have to.
If you live in any of the cities listed below, then there’s a Japanese Consulate that you can get in touch with. (If you don’t, don’t worry; that consulate might serve your area. The Atlanta Consulate serves many of the states in the southeast, including Florida and South Carolina.)
You might also try going to Google and searching your city name plus 日本語、日本人、日本語会、日本人会 or any other variation you can think of. For example, when I search アトランタ日本語会 I found the Atlanta Japanese Baptist Church, several Japanese language schools, and the Japan-America Society of Georgia which hosts a monthly 日本語英語会. Figure out which community looks promising to you, and reach out to them in whatever way you can to see if you’re welcome.
Give and take
After I got to college, this is the method I used the most to develop my Japanese speaking skills.
A Japanese-English language exchange involves—you guessed it—a Japanese speaker and an English speaker exchanging languages. You and a Japanese speaker agree to meet at a certain time every week, or every few weeks, to speak in both English and Japanese.
The format can be whatever works for the both of you. You can choose to just free talk in Japanese or English, switching between the two languages until time is up. You can do what my speaking partner and I did and talk for half an hour in Japanese, and the other half in English. Or, you can alternate between a Japanese-only session and an English-only session.
Online or off
Language exchange can be done in person or online. I used both. When I was studying Japanese on my own, I looked online for ways to talk with Japanese people over the Internet. Two of the sites I used and still highly recommend were MyLanguageExchange.com and iTalki. It’s pretty much Craigslist for language exchange; you scroll through the listings, find someone who seems interesting to talk to, and reach out to them.
Language exchange is extremely beneficial for beginner and intermediate learners, because there will definitely be times when English is spoken, which can help ease your mind if speaking in Japanese for so long is still too overwhelming.
As a young girl, I pretty much only reached out to other women (as I’m sure you females can understand). In any case, BE SMART about connecting with people online, yada yada yada. Take whatever steps you need to make sure you’re staying safe (if that means audio-only chat, then do that!). They may be a world away, but airplanes can make that distance much shorter in just a few hours.
You will use English
For advanced Japanese learners, you may get frustrated with language exchange and the requirement that you switch back to English at pre-determined times. When considering this form of speaking practice, try to keep these things in mind:
You don’t have to.
If you only want to speak Japanese, you may not want to even bother with language exchange. Focus your efforts on finding a Japanese community to be a part of. If you need to, cultivate your own Japanese-speaking community. Don’t force yourself to speak English if you don’t want to.
Try to remember how much you’re helping.
Your speaking partner wants to learn English just as badly as you want to learn Japanese. Each of you possesses knowledge that the other desires; try to feel good about the fact that you are helping someone else achieve their dreams, and moving a little closer to your own in the process.
Recognize that this will become more natural as you progress in Japanese.
Code-switching, or using two or more languages in the same conversation, is extremely common in bilinguals. Having two operating systems going on in your brain means that one is going to be better suited at certain times than the other.
In the future, when you speak with Japanese-English bilinguals, you’re going to be using both languages to talk to each other. Get used to this now by practicing code-switching with a language exchange partner. Don’t abandon your native language; it will always be a part of you. Find a way to integrate Japanese into your life, while maintaining your native English-speaking roots as well.
No natives? No problem.
While it’s not impossible to learn a second language from a non-native speaker, you definitely want to try and find a native Japanese speaker to talk with at first. If you simply cannot locate anyone in your area, and you’re a bit wary of chatting it up with some strangers online, then your next best option is to find non-native Japanese speakers to talk to.
If you’re in school, and your school has Japanese classes, this should be easy. Even if there are no Japanese classes, Japanese pop culture is popular enough that there should be some sort of Japanese club on campus. If there is, join it. If there’s not, start one! You’re bound to find other people who are learning Japanese, and bam! You’ve got yourself a speaking partner 😊
Meet up with Meetup
If you’re not in school, it might be a bit trickier. After I graduated, I had trouble finding other Japanese language learners to surround myself with. Having someone who I could talk to and who understood the struggles of the Japanese language journey was invaluable to keeping me motivated and helping me improve. So I went to Meetup.com and searched for Japanese language groups in the area. I was happy to find there were a few! It’s nice to have a dedicated community of Japanese learners to be a part of.
Take the lead
Again, if you can’t find a Japanese group near you, then start one! You’ll be surprised at the number of people who are just waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself. Don’t be one of those people. Take your language learning into your own hands. If you need people to talk to, then go out and find them. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
It’s super easy to set up a Meetup group. The only catch is that it costs $15 a month to HOST a Meetup. That means, if you’re going to be in charge of bringing people together, it’s going to cost you a little bit. However, in the grand scheme of things, that $15 is worth every penny if it brings you the Japanese speaking people you’re looking for.
Trust me, it’s worth it
Eat out one less time a month. Ask your parents. Do an extra chore around the house. Trust me; if you build it, they will come.
You’re probably not the only person in your area who wishes there were other Japanese language learners nearby. Be the savior that unites them and turns their dreams into a reality.
The magic of mimicry
The shadowing method is a great way to improve your Japanese pronunciation. This is because the goal of shadowing is to do everything you can to sound exactly like a native Japanese speaker.
I started doing this on my own very early in my Japanese studies. From what I’ve seen from other language learning blogs, it’s a method that a lot of people have developed independently.
The basic drive behind this discovery was to sound more Japanese. In the desire to appear native-like, myself and many others simply started repeating after every Japanese person we heard.
Sound like a native
When you “shadow” a native Japanese speaker, your goal is to repeat what you hear, as fast as you’re hearing it, as accurately as possible. This means, if you’re listening to native-speed Japanese, then you’ll want to be repeating back every word that speaker is saying as fast as they’re saying it; you’ll be speaking at near-native or native speed.
You’re kind of like the speaker’s “shadow,” copying everything they say exactly as they say it.
Obviously, your Japanese listening skills need to be ON POINT for this to work. You have to be able to parse native Japanese speech, pick out every consonant and vowel, mimic every pitch and change in intonation, and match the rhythm as closely as you can. If you can’t even hear all the elements of Japanese speech, then how can you expect to repeat them yourself? How can you say what you can’t even hear? If you need to—and be honest with yourself!—go back and continue improving your Japanese listening skills. Only when you feel confident that your ears are catching everything should you try shadowing as a speaking practice.
If you’re a beginner or early-intermediate Japanese learner, you may feel that shadowing is a bit too difficult for you to try. I’m here to tell you that you can use shadowing from the very first day of your Japanese learning journey.
In the Ultimate Guide to Japanese Listening Skills, there are lots of resources that contain slower Japanese speech. If you really want to get started shadowing and working on your pronunciation, then it’s absolutely fine to use those resources to practice with. Get your tongue used to the rhythm and sounds of Japanese, and gradually work your way up to native-speed material.
Note that you don’t have to understand the material that you’re shadowing; you just need to be able to HEAR it, recognize the sounds, and produce them back yourself.
Yes, out loud
Talk to yourself out loud. Or to your imaginary friend. (Don’t lie! I know you have one!)
This is another thing I did for a long time. I always had a penchant for talking to myself out loud. When I started learning Japanese, I naturally just translated those thoughts into the new language. I would talk about what I was thinking, how I was feeling, what I was going to do that day, and whatever it was I was doing right then and there. It was great practice for getting thoughts out of my head and into Japanese on the fly.
Don’t be embarrassed!
If you can’t bear feeling like a crazy person, here are some places to talk to yourself that won’t make it seem like you’ve lost your marbles:
In front of the mirror.
People do this all the time. If anyone asks, say you’re prepping for an interview.
In the car.
These days anyone driving by will just assume that you’re talking to someone on the car phone anyway.
While you’re “on the phone.”
Plug in your headphones or put your phone up to your ear and chatter away. Imagine there’s a Japanese speaker on the other end who just can’t wait to talk to you.
Break out those vocals!
If talking out loud to yourself still seems to weird, then try singing instead. Singing out loud is natural and many people enjoy it. You can sing out loud to practice speaking Japanese, because the steady and predictable rhythm of music gives you a structured way to get used to the sounds of the language.
You can shadow the vocalist by singing after them with a delay of a couple seconds. Highly recommended; there’s no better feeling than being able to rap in Japanese. I promise.
Yes, this is an option
If you’re wary about talking to a Japanese person on Skype while showing your face or using your voice, then you can always just chat through a messenger.
Why I recommend this
Chatting is a lot like speech. When you’re chatting over text or on a messenger app, you’re not writing completely structured sentences. You’re typing the thoughts as they come. If the person you’re talking to were with you in person, the conversation in the chat box might appear much like what you would have said out loud. Thus, chatting can give you speaking practice insofar as it helps you to translate your thoughts to words in Japanese on the fly.
Why I don’t recommend this
As you’ll learn in other guides, reading can be seen as a form of listening (due to sub-vocalization). Similarly, writing can be seen as a form of speaking, especially when chatting. This means that chatting is going to require a reading component that speaking doesn’t have. If your chat buddy uses a kanji or grammar phrase that you don’t know, you’ll have to know how to type in Japanese asking for clarification. If your reading and writing skills aren’t there yet, then you can’t use this method to practice your speaking.
I used the Skype boards to find Japanese people to chat with over Skype, and ChatPad.jp to talk to random Japanese strangers whenever I felt like it. If you’re up to it, give ‘em a try.
A bit of a stretch, but still plausible
I placed this method at the very end because it requires a completely separate language skill to be able to do it. It’s also not entirely a speaking practice.
As I mentioned in #7, listening/speaking are tangentially related to reading/writing. Because listening and speaking are the most natural way we learn a language, when we “read” and “write” we can sometimes “hear” ourselves “talking” in our heads. This is called sub-vocalization, and it’s why I included reading and writing as methods to practice speaking.
Twist your tongue
When you read out loud in Japanese, the physical act of speaking helps your tongue get used to complicated words and grammatical patterns before you have to try them out in person. However, written Japanese will be much more structured than spoken Japanese, and so this method will only help you with the actual pronunciation of words, not with the complexities of a real-time conversation. t The chat method is better in that regard. Thus, this method is on the list, albeit at the very most bottom.
I’d like to leave you with a few things to keep in mind as you practice speaking Japanese so that you can continue to improve your Japanese skills.
Whether you’re conversing with someone, shadowing audio, or talking to yourself out loud, always write down what you need to learn next. When someone in a conversation says a word you don’t know, ask them for the meaning and then write it down. If you’re shadowing some audio and don’t understand the grammar, look up the pattern and study it.
Want to say something, but not sure how? Write it down. Then, make sure to go and find the answer later. When talking to others, always be polite. Ask if it’s okay to stop and take notes. Let them know it’s to help you improve your Japanese speaking skills.
Never let a conversation go by where you just don’t understand anything at all. Don’t be afraid to politely stop the other person and ask for clarification! We do this in English all the time, so you might as well get used to doing it in Japanese. Let them know you didn’t quite understand and ask them to repeat, explain, elaborate or simplify their words.
Your conversation might go smoother if you know in advance what you’re going to be talking about. This way you get a chance to review necessary vocabulary or brainstorm some go-to phrases before conversation time gets here. Here are some topics to talk about with anyone who speaks Japanese.
Trust me: don’t be the kind of person who can pass N1 but can’t hold their own in a spur-of-the-moment conversation with a native Japanese speaker.
Take your language learning into your own hands. It’s your responsibility. No one else is going to make sure that you succeed.
So tell me: how are you going to practice speaking Japanese? My favorite method is talking to myself, which is why I record videos of myself speaking Japanese on my Instagram!
You can check it out at @thatjapangirljaya. I challenge you to post your own Instagram video of you speaking Japanese. Use the #imspeakingjapanese tag and mention @thatjapangirljaya so I can like and comment!
Are you ready to skyrocket your Japanese skills?
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