Comprehension and now ability to respond or carry a conversation

Grammar, Kanji, Vocab, and Reading are four points of the language I can confidently take pride in considering the amount of time that I’ve been studying. (roughly 2.5 years with a half year hiatus)

Since August of last year I have been living in Japan through the JET Programme. While I have certainly made progress in most areas of my language ability and will be taking N2 this July, I still find myself struggling with speaking and conversing in Japanese.

There is a significant gap between what I can comprehend vs. what I can actually produce. If given the opportunity to write, text, or email, I can express myself very clearly. But If am forced to speak, my head goes completely blank. This is especially the case in impromptu interactions.

A majority of what is spoken at me is understood, but I simply do not know the proper ways to respond or formulate my sentences in a natural way. Because of this, I hesitate or stutter. I cannot properly employ fillers or aitsuchi… And while I know I should I feel embarrassed attempting to fake my emotions or trying to add emphasis on something I am not actually passionate about.

I get really overwhelmed with wanting to express my thoughts to the extent that I can write them. Because I freeze up and get anxious, or take too long to respond, or answer a question in an unnatural manner sometimes, my coworkers think I cannot understand a lick of japanese so they avoid interacting with unless they have to.

I take speaking lessons for conversation practice 2-3 times a week on Italki and with a tutor I can usually converse 30-60 mins no problem. But those teachers tend to have a firm grasp of the materials that Japanese learners tend to use, therefore they can guide the conversation within certain parameters and make you feel comfortable (while not necessarily utilizing the most natural Japanese .

Basically, I’ve mastered textbooks thinking I was doing myself a service, but I cannot actually express myself or match my mouth with the content I have studied. Because my speaking level does not match my comprehension level, I am unable to get proper speaking practice to fill my gap due to my partners not understanding my ability.

Does anyone else struggle like this? how do you go about tackling this problem?
I want to communicate more with people I meet going out, my coworkers, and my elementary school students, but at the same time, I have no clue how to continue a conversation with them.



But I also run into similar problems even though I have clearly demonstrated my ability to speak and speak clearly when given a chance in a dozen different ways, though I have also demonstrated my ability to garble what I want to say equally as many times, to a greater or lesser degree. My ability to speak grammatically fluctuates depending on how stressful the situation is (e.g., limited time, only one expected answer, unexpected question or prompt, asking a question that they think is a simple yes or no that isn’t and debating internally whether correction is worth it before having to make a snap decision, teachers switching brokenly between English and Japanese in a misguided attempt to be accomodating AHHHHHHH) or what my goals are (fast response or careful wording).

So I just don’t know what to tell you, at least in the work setting. You can try to single out someone you think is interesting. Invite them to a movie or something. Even with a lay person, one-on-one time tends to help. Bring a notepad and a pen with you so they can write down their thoughts if they aren’t coming across well. Or use your phone to look up words, and show them the screen to check. You could also try to bring another JET with better Japanese than you, or a Japanese friend with more English, to help with the speed of conversation, though I think that could be muddy the waters and make things more stressful too. It sounds to me that you will have a lot more success conversing when everyone is relaxed and time pressure isn’t an issue. I think Japanese people tend to respond to your energy, so even if not a lot is communicated after all, if you are engaged and cheerful I think the other person most likely won’t be discouraged by the attempt.


Congratulations on getting to such a level and studying for 2.5 years :slight_smile:
I’ve also been studying for about 2.5 years.

While I don’t live in Japan I have a Japanese girlfriend in Japan (she came over to my country to study overseas, we met that way) I’ve been to Japan two times, three weeks each and my Japanese level really improved a lot thanks to her and her family.
Having my Japanese girlfriend really made a huge difference for my studies and my life in general. :blush:

Do you live alone? Maybe living with a host family could help you practice more Japanese with people who can understand your situation a bit better.

I can’t comment on the people avoiding thing. I haven’t experienced that but I am Asian. Looks probably have a lot to do with how people judge you.


I think the content of the initial post changed so my original response may be slightly off.

Maybe you should study aizuchi? The gist of it is that…though it seems rude…you just kinda reflect back, as the other person is talking. It would be repetitive to an English speaker to hear “i got it” every other sentence, almost as soon as the sentence is finished, but that’s kinda what they do with hai or un, un. It’s how they show they are listening. (Though responding like that also decreases my own ability to listen properly soooooo - I am very impatient when recieving instructions that do not fill me in on the information that I actually need quickly enough, and sometimes I realize I have stopped listening though I am still responding with aizuchi.) I also use いやあー with a thinking tone when I am trying to figure out a response and I am having trouble deciding what to say, because ええと tends to convey more “anxiety” about asking than having conceptual problems turning the answer over in your mind during the “thinking.” Which may make me sound like an old man sometimes I guess. I DON’T CARE. The point of aizuchi is to make the other person feel at ease and aware that you are taking their thoughts seriously. Beyond that, they convey very little, so a sprinkle here or there and whenever you find them looking at you expectantly / worriedly is fine.

You don’t need a big aizuchi vocabulary as most of the information here you need is conveyed through tone. A snappy はい, a quiet はい, a slow considering はあああい。。。 (for uncertainty), a questioning はい?, a lilting, happy はあああい!with a big smile on your face… Just think how many tones there are to say “yeah” in English. Tons, right?


The easiest solution would be to get a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend although it might not be ideal depending on you and your situation.

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I think that usually happens in any language you learn.

I would recommend you to not be afraid of making mistakes. Don’t try to sound native, because you won’t, and finally, try to use simple answers (words) even if it’s not exactly what would you say in your native language


This sounds eerily similar to my situation. I recently moved to Japan permanently a few months ago after studying Japanese for 6 years in school and self-study. I also plan to take the N2 this July. My reading and listening and writing is more proficient than my speaking and I am more confident writing versus speaking (reading the kanji helps my comprehension, thanks WK).

I’ve had and will continue to have those awkward conversations of trying to express myself with a “dummy” level of Japanese, but those experiences help my confidence. I think what has helped me the most is having Japanese friends. They are patient enough with me to correct me if I ask, or re-say what I just said in a more eloquent way, and also have more realistic interactions than what you said with a tutor leading the conversation. (I, however, would love to find a tutor eventually, so I have someone that corrects me every time I make a mistake speaking). More specifically, having Japanese friends who don’t know much English forces you to speak Japanese. And it just gets easier over time. You can download language exchange apps (I met a great friend over HelloTalk) or go to MeetUp events geared towards language exchange or “Japanese Only” events. Or you can go out to a bar/club and just force yourself to interact with Japanese people. The more you force yourself to speak, the better you’ll get even if you sound like an idiot along the way (that’s me). Meeting a lot of new people helps practice the same kind of conversations too hahaha. I’ve been told I sound like a man sometimes, but hey, I’m learning!

Also, I watch shows in Japanese on Netflix with Japanese subtitles. The subtitles help my comprehension and that way you can hear natural Japanese interactions (aizuchi and common phrases blah blah blah). I’ve watched a lot of J-dramas, but my favorite is Terrace House.

I believe in you! There are days where I can speak so well and other days where I can barely order food at a restaurant. You can do this!


I teach English as a second language to people of all levels and I can definitely understand where you’re coming from. I see it in my students, who can easily answer the material in our textbook perfectly, but when we have conversation practice there are students who just stutter and worry and let their anxiety get the best of them.

The advice I give them is the same advice that I’ll give you: don’t worry so much about making grammar errors. Spoken language doesn’t have to be perfect to be understood.
The best thing you can do is speak, and speak often. Just like in the beginning of learning a new language you might be slow at reading but with practice you will get faster and more accurate.It’s only a matter of becoming comfortable with the language.

Some ideas:

  1. Talk to yourself. Narrate what you’re doing, or have pretend conversations with yourself. Not only will you practice what you know in a comfortable, non-stressful situation, you can also train your tongue and your brain in the language. The tongue is a muscle, and so muscle memory applies to it too! The more you speak, the more unconscious your ability to form certain words. This has helped my students who stutter or trip over their words.

  2. Speaking of tongue muscle memory, tongue twisters are great! It doesn’t matter if you can’t go quickly, as long as you can say them correctly it will help to accustom your tongue to the sounds of the language.

  3. Start a short journal. Not something you spend a tong of time thinking through, just one or two quick sentences. Again, don’t worry about the grammar as you are writing it. Maybe go back to previous entries and correct them later. The point of this exercise is to help you use the language in a spontaneous way.

Out of all these tips, talking to myself has helped the most. That’s how I taught myself English, outside of watching American television haha


I will be now comparing my JPN and ENG learning progresses to share my thoughts. It is 4 years of me learning Japanese, and my spoken language is ugly as hell, which frustrated me much until I recently went to the CAE (English C1) exam. Speaking part was a breeze - like talking to a nice aunty about whatever. On the contrary, my partner was visibly struggling, reverting to using the simplest language to feel secure. He was seemingly brilliant during the other parts, completing those faster than anyone.
So first, for many people speaking skill lags behind and that is normal even if you perform good with writing and listening. Whew, I feel a bit better now :sweat_smile:
Second, I tried to recall how on Earth I progressed with English then since my only exposure was to textbooks and other students? You know, that were late 90s, so no italki or native speakers around :sweat_smile:
The answer was rather dull: I was learning texts (or topics as we called them) by heart. Dialogues too. Until they were burned into my brain, those typical phrases and situations.
I would also vote for the talking clubs in your location. Where you speak half in English and half in Japanese. Your colleagues might be just shy to experiment talking to you while club members would not be so reserved. I cannot visit such club in my city which I regret a lot tbh.
So well, may be my exp would be of some use.
Good luck!


I didn’t learned english in a formal classroom setting, as a result of that my reading and listening abilities were way ahead of my conversational skills.

So, when I was first confronted with an opportunity to have a conversation in english I just froze, I knew the words, I could understand what the other person was saying, but I couldn’t respond to them.

In my case this was mostly out of being nervous, maybe fear of saying something wrong, or with a weird accent.

So I started on basic interactions, like going somewhere and ordering a coffee, and then to build up on that. After drinking bitter coffee, now try to have some sugar too? Go have a haircut ! Or try not to get a weird haircut. Ask someone if they know where the closest drugstore is. If things get weird, try to see where you made a mistake and then get it right next time.

Don’t feel bad for speaking on a very basic level, see every opportunity as practice, and slowly the doors of the language will open up to you and your speaking ability will catch up with everything else!


Ah, I’ve been at this language for years, and I still don’t have the hang of aizuchi. It just feels… weird.

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Have you tried drinks after work? Even if you don’t drink alcohol, it’s usually a much more informal setting and people are more likely to be relaxed and more helpful. It helped me quite a bit when I was in China, but then again, I’m probably a reprobate :wink:

I’ve actually just picked this up from listening to Japanese speakers. I didn’t know it was an actual thing with a name. It could be easier for me since there’s a similar thing in my native language.

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I think many people identify with this issue, especially those who live in Japan, because it is something that can really affect your confidence and ability to communicate. I’ve worked in an office environment where I had to use Japanese: my coworkers didn’t know English, and we needed to work with each other – for example, exchanging information, asking questions, making requests, and such. So I understand the feelings you’re grappling with.

As you suspect, it’s likely that your coworkers believe that you have little to no Japanese ability for the reasons you listed in the OP. Another factor I’ve noticed is that a lot of people ascribe to the all or nothing line of thinking. What I mean is that essentially all of your non-English-speaking coworkers have studied English academically in school. Whether they remember anything from that time is immaterial if they feel that they are unable to speak smoothly, clearly, and without any mistakes. This is why some people will speak to you using native-level vocabulary and speed or else you get the broken English treatment. For some reason, some people don’t see a middle ground (using simpler vocabulary, giving more time to respond, using slower speech, etc). This is indicative of people who are not used to dealing with and/or empathizing with language learners when they’ve been in that position themselves.

Couple this with the belief that many have about Japanese being exceptional; that is, there is no language harder to speak, read, or write. This is reinforced by our predecessors who either never bothered to learn Japanese or quit learning because of burn out or other reasons. This exceptionalism is a projection of their inability to use English at a level they are satisfied with. “Reading and writing is difficult for all foreigners so there’s no possible way you could do that if you can barely speak!” even though many Japanese people are in that boat themselves.

These conclusions come about because no one’s told them how they can successfully communicate with you.

Beyond the useful advice others have recommended, I encourage you to become your own advocate. This means being proactive to approach your coworkers to speak with them (if you haven’t been doing that already), conveying when you don’t understand something (and why), and clarifying how they can successfully communicate with you (without giving the impression that you’re a know-it-all). More often or not, if you’re not telling them that “in this situation, I’m not sure how to respond” or what’s actually going on with you then they’ll fill in the blanks with their own interpretation, which is likely influenced by their Japanese understanding and not by reality. By doing this over time, your coworkers will begin to understand your language ability.

I’ll give a concrete example of what I mean from my own experience. In the office, I often have to concentrate on my work because I’m communicating with people via email in English while my coworkers may be having a discussion or random conversation. At times, they would randomly throw a question my way, when I’m not expecting it/listening. When that happened, I used to get flustered and be unable to answer smoothly or at all, which affected the flow of the conversation. So, one day it happened again, and I said “because I’m focusing writing something in English, I wasn’t able to listen to the conversation at all. Do you mind filling me in on the conversation?” After that point, they realized that my stuttering or inability to answer wasn’t just because of my lack of skills, but because I was focused on doing something in English. From that point on, whenever that would happen, my coworkers would always take a moment to mention the topic and what they were asking again.

It’ll take time because you mentioned that you need to work on your speaking ability. So implementing some of this will probably come after you’ve become more communicative verbally.


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