I’ve been doing Wanikani, Genki and now playing Animal Crossing in Japanese on and off for a while, and I feel like my reading, grammar and vocab is improving. However, I know I need to improve listening and speaking in order to really learn, so I tried an italki trial lesson.
During the trial, my tutor spoke almost entirely in Japanese, which I mostly expected. I could understand them for the most part, but when I had to speak, everything deserted me. I kept looking for words but I was so embarassed I couldn’t think straight. I feel like it was a disaster. It kind of played out like my worst case anxiety about how it might, in advance (I’m used to things going better than expected!).
I felt like maybe sharing this with a community would help me process it, so this is my story of complete failure today. I have another trial session with another tutor next week. I couldn’t even bring myself to do any other Japanese study today, so I hope I recover soon. Part of my right now wants to give up and say it’s not worth it, but I hope to get over it tomorrow.
Yeah, it sounds like it was rough. It’s okay to take a break and think about other stuff for a bit so you don’t get too down about it.
But just to be clear, how much practice do you have dedicated to speaking in your regimen? If it’s “not much at all” then that’s what will make the difference.
And you don’t need to have someone to speak with to practice speaking.
Basically, imagine if you watched loads of basketball games. Read all the rules. Learned the history of basketball… and then tried to play in a game without having practiced dribbling, passing, or shooting.
Of course it wouldn’t go well. Your mouth is made of muscles just like anything else, and you need to put it through all the rigors of practice before you jump into action.
Shadowing and talking to yourself are great ways to do that practice for the real thing.
So far this my speaking practice is:
- I do out loud all the exercises in Genki (I finished Genki I and started II)
- When playing Animal Crossing, I often read out loud what they are saying
It seems clear that I don’t have any regular speaking practice.
To be honest, pronunciation wasn’t the problem (though it might have been terrible). It was more recall. Thanks to WaniKani I have lot of ability to see/hear a Japanese word and know what it means, but the other direction is completely useless. I know I should know the word for, say, “to know”, but I can’t remember it. Or I remember the kanji, but not the suffix of the verb (I forgot the hiragana ending of 習う).
I’ll need to look seriously at my regimen and decide what I can fit in to improve this… talking to myself is a good idea.
For sure… just walk around and describe things. If you can’t, then that’s something to figure out and practice. In your native language, you’d be able to blabber endlessly about even mundane rooms.
While I’ve never tried iTalki, I had an incredibly similar experience when I first moved to Japan about a year and a half ago.
I was rouhgly level 27 on WaniKani, had completed all of Lingodeer’s content on the time (now labeled as Unit 1, I think), cleared Bunpro’s content through N4 (at the time, they’ve added more to those levels since then), and had even done Pimsleur’s Japanese course levels 1-4 twice each. I felt decent at reading thanks to WaniKani and Bunpro, and Pimsleur had gone fine both times through so I thought I’d be okay when I got here. I couldn’t have known how bad it was actually going to be.
I essentially couldn’t speak Japanese, at all. I understood maybe 30-50% of what was said to me, and I had an insanely hard time producing Japanese back to people even when I did understand what they said/asked.
It’s exactly what Leebo said, and then a little bit more even. It’s not only the muscle memory of using your mouth, but the production of speech actually uses a different section of your brain than listening/reading, which means if you don’t actively practice speaking that skill won’t develop. In theory, it’s entirely possible for someone to reach N1 level while simultaneously hardly being able to have even a basic conversation.
The bright-side is this: just like you had to start somewhere with reading kanji and even hiragana, you have to start somewhere with speaking. It just takes practice and time, and eventually you’ll get better and better. After having lived here a year and a half, my speaking has improved drastically because I’m having to use it every day at work, and in my social life on occasion. Having a basis in reading will help you progress immensely as rather than actually learning what you’re trying to say, you’re just reinforcing your ability to recall that information appropriately in the opposite direction.
Talking to yourself is a great tool, especially if you have any sort of commute in a car (by yourself, obviously), or live on your own. I would advise you not to beat yourself up over your ability to speak, and just keep giving iTalki (or whatever method you decide on) the time it deserves and I guarantee you’ll see progress.
If I were to tell you every instance where I completely tanked when speaking Japanese we’d be here all day. Don’t feel bad! It’s a learning process, and if there aren’t moments like these then you’re not pushing yourself enough! Don’t be too embarrassed, honestly - you’re doing things like WK and italki because you want to improve, and that comes with a certain level of failure followed by improvement. Have a growth mindset - you can’t do this yet. And the only way you’ll get better at speaking is practice.
That being said, you may not be ready (yet) for direct, unstructured conversations with a native speaker. Leebo’s suggestions of shadowing and talking to yourself are things I’d like to echo. It really does help to just mutter to yourself - I started by simply reading things like my homework out-loud as I went through them, then I would repeat things I was hearing in anime (so I was basically muttering to myself all throughout watching shows). My TA at the time said that my pronunciation got much better when I started doing this, so it worked (at least for me). I don’t know how italki works, but maybe see if there’s a way to start at a lower level?
I’m sure you’ll get there! Don’t give up! Just take it slow (and don’t forget to have fun with it)!
For solidarity, here's just one instance of mine where I bombed it
When I studied abroad in Tokyo several years ago, I was feeling super confident going in. I had two years of Japanese study in college under my belt, I got this! (Spoiler alert: I did not got this.) Then, on the first day, I was trying to talk with the dorm mother and I panicked, completely blanking. I then mixed up ありがとう and さようなら. Don’t ask me how, I still don’t know what wires crossed there, but there was a solid 15 seconds of visible confusion on her face while I did my best to turn invisible, sink into the floor, anything. Luckily, we were able to laugh it off, and with her help and patience I was able to (slightly) improve by the time I left. But yeah, that eternity of silence comes back to haunt me every once in a while.
Thank you all for the solidarity and suggestions. Intellectually I know this is part of growth… just have to get over it emotionally!
a saying i’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of:
“you can never become good at something without embracing being bad at it first.”
Just so you know, I’ve been studying for over 3 years and have lived in Japan for 1.5, and I still sputter like a child when I speak longer than 3-word sentences. It’s really a matter of getting comfortable using grammar. WK has taught you more than enough vocab already. If rehearsing sentences in your head first helps you, go ahead and do that (it’s how I brace myself for any phone call or interaction with my supervisor hahaha)
Almost exacly the same thing happened during my first italki lesson a year ago!
I could pretylty much understand everything the tutor says but I didn’t know how to respond. It’s totally normal I think, since I had no Japanese speaking experience before that.
A year later I can chat with any tutor purely in Japanese on many different topics. Of course I’m still struggling with vocab and making a ton of grammar mistakes but at least I don’t “shutdown” when I don’t know a proper way to say something. I can now find a way to explain myself.
So, it’ll come with practice. If you can book many frequent lessons with different tutors. It’s ok to pick cheap community turors. You just need to get used to speaking in Japanese.
I’ve never used italki, but when you set up future trial sessions, could you emphasise to the prospective tutor that you really lack confidence speaking, and would like to work on that by building up from super basics? I agree with what others say that it’s just always difficult and not to beat yourself up over it, but it also sounds to me like this tutor just sort of launched into full-on conversation. It’s hard not to feel down if you’re in a conversation where one party is chatting away happily and then you occasionally get to input your short broken answers.
They could surely start you off more at the “what is your name?”, “where are you from?”, “do you like ramen?” level and build from there.
I also work on RocketLanguages.com Japanese. They have conversations where you can practice speaking. Anytime I know I’m going to be around Japanese people and want to practice, I go over and review the lessons I’ve already done. It helps in a big way to do that because it gets the words in my mind better and also gives me a good review in speaking. That hasn’t failed me yet. Rocket is a paid program like WK, but well worth it, as it has Reading, Speaking, Writing, Grammar, Culture, and lots of reinforcement activities.
Another solidarity story:
When I first started out, I joined a Japanese speaking practice club held in a café. Got there, started chatting (in English) to one of the other members and two Japanese girls walked passed, whom he immediately invited to join us. The tutor arrived and we started with 自己紹介, and I was supposed to go first . Anyway after a initial “what the hell is 自己紹介”, I sat there blankly for a while, internally monologuing something like “s***, I can’t even do this in English, and I don’t even have an example in Japanese to copy”. The Japanese girls naturally loved it and started shouting はずかしい！かわあい
I’m not sure they ever actually realised it was my first time ever trying to speak Japanese… Thankfully I’m pretty thick skinned so I stuck with at and managed to get some speaking in on less open ended topics, but I left rushing so hard on adrenaline that I couldn’t stop shaking!
From my experience with over 10 different tutors, all of them start off thinking you’re pretty bad at Japanese. They use very simple vocab and speak slowly. And then they adjust based on your level.
Not necessarily. My first ever tutor was desperately trying to get me to speak at least something but I had this mental block. He tried to do some basic practice with adjective antonyms if I remember correctly. And I knew the vocab, I just couldn’t put it into a sentence
I mean, I can’t really add much to the above, hoping it’s all painting a picture for you: no exposure to talking frequently in Japanese is going to lead to the experience you have had. And so many of us have been there and are walking that path with you. Remember, most other countries teach English at school, they get to practice it every day with people who are learning the same language. Most of us do not have this luxury!
My first lesson on iTalki, sensei asks me, “Tell me what you know in Japanese. Speak in Japanese, describe yourself”… 私は。。。ええと。。。erm… er…
I would book Japanese lessons DREADING them, but the more time I spent facing that demon head on eventually it became easier. And I found that this process helped me to think Japanese sentences better in general. So just grind it out, it may feel embarrassing but that that embarrassment is what drove results for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still have the mountain to climb, but at least I have the boots equipped!
So ganbatte my dear friend, I know you can do it so I hope you keep slugging this one out
Yes hang in there, it will get better! I remember how hard it was just to say “thank you” at restaurants for the first few months after moving to Japan. It’s all about practice!
As others have said already, reading, writing and speaking uses different parts of the brain. It sounds illogical, but just think about how many kanji you can read. And if I gave you a blank sheet of paper, how many could you write?
And it’s the same with speaking. It’s already amazing you understood so much! Congratulations on that! I often panic when hearing Japanese, even though I have been studying for years. But I am still most comfortable when I see the kanji written out.
So just imagine what your brain had to go through: Listening, understanding and then switching to producing sentences. That’s some hard work.
So it’s all about practice. What I did to get it started was repeating scenes while watching Japanese shows. Anime I liked, or games I liked. I just repeated the sentence I could fully understand (also grammar vise). And even when not playing the game. While cooking for instance, I would just randomly say sentences. And then start to slowly change the verb. Or say out loud what I am doing. Just sentences like “I go to the bathroom” or “I have to cook”. It’s about feeling comfortable to speak Japanese and also get used to it.
One night I spoke Japanese in my dream and that’s when I knew that my brain finally accepted it!
Thank you everyone, I’m reading all these messages and they are helping a lot. I am taking today off study altogether to rest but tomorrow I want to start the day by describing my morning routine out loud as I do it.
It’s great that you have a tutor! Just try to keep in mind that they are there to listen to you. It’s incredibly difficult starting out speaking another language with random people-- even friends-- because you feel like you’re just wasting their time.
So try to keep that in mind! Take your time and speak slowly. They’re there to hear you speak, so you don’t have to feel like you’re bothering them.
What’s always been rough for me is how fluid fluency really is. One day you’ll be able to hold a long conversation about current events with your Japanese coworkers, and the next, you can’t even answer perfunctory questions to the guy at the gas pump. One day, you’ll be out the whole day long speaking Japanese with a friend of yours, then the next you’ll forgot a super basic greeting. It can be rough!
thanks for bringing up this topic, i’m sure it’s something many of us will struggle with. do you listen to Japanese music? when i was learning Spanish, listening to spanish music helped me a lot with pronunciation and articulation, just singing the songs that i liked over and over again. i feel like it helped with catching all the little nuances of pronunciation as well. when i start getting into grammar, i will probably start listening to japanese music for this purpose. it’s also definitely like everyone is saying, practice makes perfect! we all support you, be patient with yourself