Calling all conversationally fluent people!

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that I’m conversationally fluent - but what I can say is that I had basically zero speaking and listening skills until I started using those skills regularly with other people instead of just reading aloud and talking to myself.

I started off with an iTalki tutor once a week, until I had some basic speaking ability.
Then also joined Asao Language School via Patreon as a way to speak to lots of different tutors.
I did this because there were things I wanted to practise a lot to get more confident in like introductions, and talking about things like my family, job, and hobbies. But rehashing the same stuff with my Italki tutor every week felt boring.
There is a thread about Asao here

If tutoring is out of your price range, there are also plenty of great language exchange communities online that are free to join.

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There’s that word again: “fluent”.

How long is a piece of rope?

Forgive the presumption, but here are my rules for learning to have enjoyable, meaningful conversations in Japanese. Most of these are appropriate for everyday conversations with friends (less so if you’re running for office or if you’re in charge of public safety):

  1. Start learning to read Japanese first (nobody every “finishes”). There is no faster and better way to build your vocabulary and understand grammar than by reading proper Japanese. Reading lets you have many more “virtual” conversations in your head than you will ever have the opportunity for in a single lifetime. [I took the much harder road of not learning to read anything beyond kana until absurdly late in my lifelong studies — trust me: starting to get as much kanji under your belt as early as possible is the way to go.]

  2. Start having conversations as soon as possible, while you’re learning to read. Like everything, practice makes everything easier. Keep having conversations as often as possible.

  3. Do everything in your power to keep the conversation flowing. Accept that you will understand little at first and make constant mistakes. Often this simply involves keeping your mouth shut and just nodding along. Learn to use every trick in the book to keep the conversation flowing:

    • Nod and smile constantly even if you have no idea what was just said. With luck, they’ll continue talking and eventually say something you do understand.

    • When the conversation seems to have shifted in your direction with 相手(あいて) looking expectantly in your direction, just say something other than an apology for not understanding. Don’t hesitate to steer the conversation toward something you’re more confident about. If you suspect they are talking about politics or history or boy-bands where you lack vocabulary (or interest), jump right into baseball or whatever where you feel more confident. This can create some jarring transitions and strange looks, but it can keep the conversation flowing.

    • Can’t figure out the best way to say something? Don’t bother: just figure out a way, no matter how ridiculously long-winded and roundabout a path you need to take. A: “Looks like rain.” You: “Oh darn, I forgot my uh pole-stick thing with cloth portable protection equipment.” A: “Your umphrasquzzle?” You: Nod and smile, having learned that “umphrasquzzle” means umbrella.

  4. Listen to as much Japanese as possible. Learn the cadence and pronunciation and various oddities of the language (broad vs. short vowels, 促音(そくおん), etc.). Try to mimic each vocabulary word in your own head as you do your reviews (or even better out loud if you’re alone). Try to hear the context sentences as you read them, then try to mimic the sounds back. Try to hear your own voice as you pronounce Japanese words: if it doesn’t sound perfect, keep practicing.

  5. Above all, be patient with yourself and ignore your inevitable mistakes. Pay attention to children learning to speak their native languages: do they seem to care about their own mistakes and gaps in understanding? Be like them — they learn faster and better than any adult.

I’ve been conversing (poorly) in Japanese for over forty years. I’ve been accused of being “fluent” because I can usually follow the rough gist of a conversation, and tend to nod and respond with appropriate “fluent sounding” Japanese at appropriate times. (The estimation of my fluency is always in a direct inverse relationship with the Japanese skills of the person listening.)

My own estimation is that my Japanese skills are pretty horrifically lacking (especially with respect to grammar) precisely because I’ve been illiterate for so long.

The route @Vanilla, @Jonapedia and others have taken is far, far better in my opinion. I’m absolutely certain they are far more “fluent” in the language than I am, even though I’ve been enjoying Japanese conversations for decades.

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Yeah I never gave a shit about output until moving to Japan because it’s just less interesting and fun to me. But yeah, I mean with such a solid foundation it’s just incredibly easy to improve. Usually you can spot your own mistakes and once you do, usually you don’t make them again. Someone who inputs with anime and dramas for 6000 hours will also probably be wayyyy better than I was after 6000 hours of reading practice. So if shows interest you, I would definitely say to watch plenty of those. If you’re only interested in reading like I was though, reading will still get you plenty far.

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I’ll have a chance to speak Japanese to a native in a couple of weeks. I’ve been practicing words and sentences I think I might use or hear. Hopefully by the time the event arrives, I won’t sound too stupid.

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Thank you! This is super helpful - I guess I probably just need more input in general. When I’m listening to a drama, I can pick out a word or two, but can’t translate a whole sentence unless it’s one that happens to use words I know haha.

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The language school sounds super interesting, I’ll definitely have look into it. It might be good for practicing conversation with specific grammar points I’ve learnt if the teachers are keen for that!

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I used Hello Talk and Tandem to make japanese friends.
I must say Tandem worked best for me though.
I had a lot of phonecalls with people, and made some friends too.

One particular friend I had could have a quite good conversation by text in English but couldn’t speak or understand any by ear. So everytime we spoke on the phone it would be in Japanese and that’s definitely when my brain unlocked the ‘communication mode’. I couldn’t understand every word he said but I could get to a point where I could get the general meaning of what he was saying and what I really didn’t understand I would have him explain in simpler words.

Also, I traveled around Japan alone. And there’s no such thing when you want to learn how to speak a language than having no choice but to speak it.
It is scary at first but you quickly get used to it, even when you’re very introverted like me.
It also makes people wanna talk to you when they see you traveling alone.
I would speak only japanese, sometimes broken but it didn’t matter, people liked the effort. Even when they were hesitantly trying to speak in English just a simple 日本語でもいいです, and they got instantly so comfortable they woukd start a whole conversation with you.

You don’t have to understand every word at first, just try to get the general meaning of what they’re saying, what you really don’t know politely ask to explain.
They know you don’t understand everything, just don’t look too lost and they will naturally try to work their way through simple phrasing conversation.

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may people give their experiences with talking speed (with both listening and speaking!) ? Is this something that just generally gets better the more you practice / learn the language ? when i shadow the japanese audio on my course i feel like this:

normal-day-lame

famously japanese is the fastest recorded language (7.84 syllables per second!!) but do some non-native speakers stay slow? is it okay to stay slow? do you hear native speakers speaking slowly ?

I guess I’m just curious !

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I would say speed comes when you get used to the patterns. Think about how fast you can say stuff like arigatou gozaimas. Now think back to when you first learned to say it. Saying it slow now might even feel unnatural to you.
Listening is also a function of getting used to the patterns. I remember the first few audio things we listened to at the beginning of our Minna no Nihongo based course. I thought it was WAY TO FAST to listen to it. If I listen to it now I would probably need to set it to 2x to not feel like I will fall asleep any minute.

Generally, I would say japanese has really high variability in talking speed. If Japanese want to explain something or are asked about opinions, they sometimes talk really slow with long thinking pauses in between. On the other hand If its more daily interaction, which has quite a bit of routine for the average Japanese person, they can be on the incredible fast side, slurring or cutting whole words for the sake of going faster (gotta go fast!). Every language does that to some degree but in japanese the difference can be suprising.

So if you want to feel natural I think getting the daily stuff/set phrases to an acceptable speed is quite important. Otherwise your listening partner might get annoyed. On the other hand if you are stretching your capabilites and want to express something complicated it is perfectly acceptable to go slow.

Generally Japanese are really courteous (as you probably know) so they will be really patient with you.

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I can relate lol.
When it’s a longer sentence, I also frequently have a hard time keeping the whole thing in my head, as I tend to forget the beginning while I reach the end. :sweat_smile:

I think it’s really just practice, practice and practice.

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When you’re learning a language, your brain doesn’t have all links polished yet, so it needs to think about the next step of the sentence, how to phrase stuff etc. Talking slowly is more comfortable since it gives your brain time to finish their linking. It’s completely normal for a learner to talk slowly, especially when using new grammar/vocab and when in the beginning stages

As you get accostumed to the language, the linking process becomes more automatic, almost seamless, which means you’ll speed up naturally. Practice really is the key here

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I agree with this completely.

Reading is my biggest weak point, but I can speak Japanese pretty well. I started with songs and anime. When I would find a fun phrase I would repeat it, and I had a habit of writing out in romaji the Japanese songs from a young age and continued doing so into formal study. I also kept singing more and more. After learning Japanese officially in college, I would start talking to myself as well in Japanese only or to the point that I could in Japanese. Also when safe, singing karaoke in Japanese gets you to a reading level and speaking level very fast. Being familiar with the sounds helps you put into use what you have read and studied.

Just. Don’t. Stop. Talking.

This as well! I talk in circles in English to begin with and I can’t even begin to imagine getting to the level of conversational Japanese I’m at now without being able to explain things in a roundabout way. There’s no being embarrassed because you’re putting yourself out there and explaining something in a foreign language. That’s cool as heck!! Also it helps introduce you to more Japanese as a result and you get to hear a native explain things in roundabout ways and it becomes ~ENDLESS KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICE~

Just keep going!

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This is definitely true, conversely, of Japanese learners of English, who often can read a fair amount and have a general understanding (in their heads by translating into Japanese) but can’t produce complete simple sentences in English!

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I came to think that the ability to speak a language should be better thought of as a subset of special skills that needs special training (like writing) rather than of something that develops automatically along with reading and understanding. Or at least in my experience the hope that my spoken Japanese gets better with every book I read and with every conversation I have is a misleading one :sweat_smile:

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There are linguists who would argue that writing and reading are the subset of a language, and that the spoken language is the real deal… BUT I know what you mean! And it feels like with Japanese the task is even crazier because the written subset has three writing forms!

On the one hand, your understanding and the foundation you need to develop speaking does have some help by knowing that reading, but @Vanilla’s story above is a perfect example.

That training takes time. And it isn’t going to develop without that training.

In my case, this is actually one of my dilemmas in learning/acquiring Japanese in that I actually don’ want to speak much Japanese at home because I want my family to learn/acquire English (and we live in Japan)… Eventually, I’m going to need to work a bit harder at this… but in the meantime, I don’t mind only focusing on my receptive skills!

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i dont know at what point to say im fluent as im still worlds away from where i want to be but i can converse all day covering all sorts of topic in japanese without english. . . plenty of mistakes scattered here and there but still a good time

things that helped me:

regularly have japanese conversations (im super shy so only like 2-4 a week)

talking to myself/thinking in japanese 24/7/365. this has been super important to me. constantly showing me areas where i struggle so i can research and fix. helps strengthen memorization and production. seemed super difficult at first but becomes second nature especially if you daily ingest lots of japanese materials.

listening practice everyday 3+ hours. audio rips from drama, youtube, and listening to streamers on twitch are my favorites. this became a focus of mine as my listening is naturally atrocious but lately listening has become stronger than production so i guess listening practice has been successful.

ive noticed that my listening and production is super vulnerable to lack of sleep, malnutrition, weather changes, stress, etc. so if i have days where i just super suck at conversation, dont stress about it. remind myself it always comes back if i take good care of my head.

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I came to think that rather than speaking a lot and solidifying the mistakes (because nobody would ever correct you) I am going to make the following training:

  1. find a drama with a main character in my age and in a speech style I would like to be able to talk in
  2. listen to it and at the same time writing down the whole script and then memorizing the whole thing by watching and reading along multiple times.

I am quite sure this would help to improve things a lot but at the moment I am still at stage one. It is difficult to find that exact drama and I got some strange recommendations from Japanese people so far that contradict the whole idea…

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This is what people basically already do with shadowing, except they use authentic native speech rather than scripted drama lines. Usually they find someone they wanna talk like who matches their age, gender, personality, etc. And will just listen to them on repeat, copy what they say, and try to remember how they phrase certain ideas. It’s good, but your listening skills has to be up to par obviously

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I spent about a year and three months in Japan as a missionary, which forced me to use Japanese every day all day and that made the biggest difference!! Honestly, immersion with a decent amount of regular study on the side will do wonders.
To create some of that immersion without actually being in Japan, try to listen to simple Japanese podcasts, make Japanese friends, and just use it at every opportunity you get. Don’t worry about being correct all the time or comprehending everything as those will come with time! Our brains are surprisingly good at learning stuff when it comes down to it.

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I am not familiar with shadowing other than some guides I found in a quick internet research, it sounds like the most logic step to do in order to be able to speak a language that is very different in terms of structure than your own once you find out that learning vocabulary is not enough.

Thinking about practically how to find such a “role model” I could not imagine anything else than watching a drama with a lot of direct speech and a character that goes through many different live experiences.
If there would be someone willing to be wiretapped 24/7 and shadowed by me, I would be very happy and pay a lot of money for it. Maybe I don’t understand the concept of shadowing enough.

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