Speaking and Vocabulary

So, I’m in the frustrating position were I’ve been living in Japan for the past 4 months and still I can barely speak Japanese, even after studying for a year before moving here.

I try to engage in conversation, but I can’t find the words to say. I’ve realised most of my self study was based around describing myself, or explaining what colour things are, or, the classic 'これはペンです!’ But nothing substantial to maintain conversation. It makes the whole concept of engaging in conversation beyond a basic ‘Hello’, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Good’, ‘This is tasty’, ‘Thank you very much’, ‘Oh I see’ very difficult.

My job also disallows me to speak Japanese as I’m teaching English, so my contact time with native Japanese I’m working solely with English grammar, language and phrasing in mind.

How do you learn and retain vocabulary effectively? I can write sentences fairly well, understand hiragana and katakana to a decent degree, and am learning Kanji, but i’m simply struggling to relate words to their meaning to come up with coherent sentences, or simply just don’t know what to say or what word to use when.

Any advice would be helpful, and as much of a boo-hoo sob story as this reads, I’m still loving my time in Japan, it’s just become a little isolated without knowing more Japanese. I’m itching to get out and talk to people coherently instead of awkwardly bumbling through conversations in broken Katakana pronunciation and the odd Japanese word I do know sprinkled in.

I’m using apps like Drops, LingoDeer, Duolingo, and the Genki textbook along with some phrase books and verb books to craft sentences and study sentence structure. Any other suggestions?

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Yes, I spent my first six years in Japan not being able to so much as count to ten in Japanese, because my job was teaching English and I had no chance to use Japanese. I also speak English at home. (Plus, just being rubbish at languages full-stop, and old as well, doesn’t help).

But you don’t mention your home situation. If you have a family and your home language is English, then you’re in a tough (but not impossible) situation. If not - then you have every free hour outside of work to practice Japanese.

I don’t do this, because I’m too shy… but effectively the whole city is your classroom! Do better than me! Ask random people in the street for directions, in Japanese. Ask girls (or boys, or whatever) out on dates - in Japanese. Talk to the staff in the supermarket. Break those taboos and ask them how they are doing! Sign up for one of those language volunteer classes at your local library or city hall, they are generally awful but you can push through it and make the most. Go to the meet-up website and find a language exchange. I don’t do all this, but know I should, so do better than me!

And when people talk to you in English - keep going in Japanese! Ask for help finding something in the bookshop/convenience store/electronics store/local library. Sit in the park and talk to whoever sits next to you on the bench. Ask an old lady if you help her carry her bags. Join a Japanese church if you are Christian, or go along to an event at a temple. You need balls of steel. You need to break taboos left right and centre. But this is Japan so speaking Japanese ought to be default.

All I need now, is to take a little more of my own advice!


Thanks for the pep talk! Are you still living in Japan?

I’m currently living on my own in a single bedroom flat. So, it’s just me, myself and I. My neighbours are JSDF or salary men and working housewives, so it’s hard to catch them passing by to even say hello. I guess the isolation is making it worse because I can only think and talk in English when I’m on my own.

I’m going to try that though. I’m going to ask someone where the library is, so I can get a book to study and see what happens. I have tried some meet up stuff, but I work Sat and Sun, and then have time off Mon/Tues, so most people are back at work. Still, I will try everything I can!

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I’m not allowed to speak Japanese in my classrooms, but at my Eikaiwa all the Japanese staff can speak English, plus I speak English to the other teachers all day, so I only have weekends to really speak Japanese.

I use italki to give myself someone to chat to while at home. I’ve also used apps/websites such at Tandem and Meetup to get out and talking to people. The longer the time between Japanese conversations, the worse my speaking gets, so I try to hit up a meetup or event at least twice a month.

My favorite thing that I do is during any vacation I have, I get on Airbnb and search for private rooms in someone’s place, and spend mornings and evenings every day chatting with the people I’m staying with. I always get a language boost after a short homestay.

I was terribly shy before moving here, but Japanese is a huge passion of mine so I force myself to go out to things, even if I don’t want to in the moment. I always have a blast once I’m there. I’ve found that being extra silly and laughing through my mistakes makes it easier to speak without worrying about how it sounds. Lots of exaggerated motions and shrugging when I’m trying to use a word I don’t know very well. People around will jump in with the right one, then you keep on rolling.



I’m still in a shyness stage. The best time I had was going to Sapporo on my own and talking to restaurant staff and store staff in a guitar shop. They were friendly and quite accommodating, but it was the limiting factor of not knowing what to say!

I’ll check it out! What part of Japan do you live in out of interest?

Thank you so much!

Hi, I’m also beginner but not living in Japan.

What are you hobbies? I am of the impression that there are many clubs and classes in Japan. What about reading/book club? Cooking class? Drinks mixing class? If you are passionate about something, what you learn would stick better, no?

When I was travelling in Japan, I found that older people are very easy to talk to and they usually have the time. I like the idea of sitting in the park and talking to someone sitting next to you.

Good luck !

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Yeah, Tandem worked out for me by narrowing down by city, then finding someone who lists similar interests. I ended up going to a cafe with a cool lady a few times for a language exchange.

I’m in Nagoya, so there’s lots of things going on, but I have weekends off so I think that helps when it comes to finding things to do.

If Meetup doesn’t have anything, which is sometimes the case, there are lots of events and things on Facebook. I’ll search for a cooking class or a craft workshop with Google Translate as my guide, bumble my way through and have a fun time.

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I’m a big reader. I’ve read a lot of translated Japanese literature, and love cooking. Only issue is where I live is quite a small town and it’s hard to know where to start or if something like that’s available or would be popular. However, I will have to have a proper dig around and see what’s available, even if it means having to take the train to Sapporo every other day!

Thanks for the advice! All the best with your study!

Sounds great. I am downloading it now. All the best to you!

I’ll offer some theoretical rather than practical advice which is more about language learning than the particulars of living in Japan. I think all the previous advice in this thread about “getting out there” is excellent. But, I also think it’s quite natural that you find yourself unable to speak Japanese in daily life even after studying it for a year.

I recently watched this video from the 80s by Stephen Krashen,

where he presents his theory on language acquisition. In a nut, he says that the best way to learn a language is through heavy exposure to comprehensible input. And he gives an example of a neighbour girl who moved to the US from Japan and didn’t speak a word for the better part of a year in spite of his efforts. But after a certain period of time, enough knowledge had been acquired that she did start speaking.

So, most people know that kids under a certain age have this ability to absorb a new language and learn how to speak it without any accent in a relatively short period of time. As we age, that outcome becomes less likely due to our brains not being in such an extreme growth phase as they were when we were children.

But I think it’s also that we as adults are very effective at shutting off situations where we are as helpless as children. So rather than staying open to learning a new language, we retreat to the language we already know. That’s human nature.

So, understanding your situation, that you need to focus on English only at work, my suggestion is to spend your free time absorbing as much Japanese as possible in a really focussed way. And maybe especially content aimed at children, because it will be more comprehensible. In your case, I’d focus more on listening/watching rather than reading, since the goal initially is more to be able to converse than to read a newspaper or novel.

But also, WaniKani is excellent at building your vocabulary. I’ve studied Japanese for more than a few years with varying degrees of success because my wife is Japanese. But since the beginning of this year when I started WaniKani, I’ve learned so much new vocabulary as well as obviously learning how to read way more kanji than I ever could before.

WaniKani does teach a lot of useful vocab, as well as a lot of less useful vocab. So a lot of people use other SRS systems like Anki or Memrise to learn more words, like maybe starting with the most common thousand words.

Shadowing (where you mindlessly repeat recorded Japanese audio) is also a useful tool for getting your mouth to learn how to make the right sounds, even if you don’t fully understand what you’re saying.

So anyway, to sum up, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s natural to be tongue-tied at first when you don’t have to vocab to carry on simple conversations, and it isn’t necessarily something that you can just push through immediately. You need to build up a sort of base of grammar and vocab. And since you’ve already spent time studying, you probably have a lot of that already. But the more you immerse yourself in Japanese, the better. Even if you’re mainly by yourself. Train yourself to consciously think in Japanese, (like as you make your instant ramen, think: “Now I’m going to boil water, then open the package, etc…”)

But I don’t mean you need to live like a hermit either. Getting out there is extremely useful even if you can’t say much in Japanese at first. Many foreigners in Japan live an insulated life. For years and years, even. The more you can push past shyness to making friends, the better.

(And I apologize in advance to all the Japanese residents here who may say that my advice is BS and I should try it myself if I’m so smart. Yes you’re right. I know. I’m sitting in Toronto thinking what I’d try to do in this situation.)


Your advice is BS… bloody superb! Thank you!


Most of my accidental “better figure it out, because English isn’t an option” conversations have been with friendly people in izakayas. Find one that puts people all around a common table or horseshoe shaped bar, and just go there often. People are naturally curious or just outgoing, and it’s polite to talk to your neighbor. Couple of drinks helps with the fear factor, too.


I didn’t get a sense how you practice conversation. If this is just daily interactions, that isn’t enough. It can even get dangerous. I believe everyone needs a “conversation laboratory” to experiment and practice like conversation partners/classrooms/tutors…these are safe places to try your new word/vocab without consequence. For me, if I try out something and it works, I get an emotional memory that is pretty strong and can use again. Otherwise, no shame in making a mistake, just try again. Also, come prepared with new items that you try out in your conversation laboratory. For me, this has helped my confidence even though I can easily get shy.

A common problem I hear (and one I needed to work through myself) is that people try to directly translate their own English into Japanese…for beginners it usually comes out a babble that is a frustration for the speaker and confusing for listener. If you are talking with strangers, no shame in being simple and concise even if it doesn’t have your full thoughts, it’s better than being misunderstood. Just try to find the grammar point for next time. Lastly, try to be solid on basic fundamentals (verb endings, counters, clear pronunciation…all the less exciting stuff we can easily gloss over). This is essentially the same advice I was given that has helped me out and I try to work on.


Nice video! Reminds of elements of the the Suzuki method that attempts to mimic natural language acquisition methods into musical training such as a low anxiety environment with emphasis on listening on the beginning stages.


Your situation sounds really frustrating, but I think many people can relate to your situation namely because many people are in a similar situation when they come to Japan; the Japanese they’ve learned upon getting here is not necessarily enough to help them a) understand the people around them and b) express themselves in a way that is enough to break their isolation.

I’d like to encourage you! First off, you’re in a good position! There are far more people who come here who’ve never studied and they don’t have a foundation to work upon, which makes trying to learn here a huge hassle. You seemed to allude that you’re not in a big city which means your chances of using Japanese are more than those who live in larger cities.

I have admission to make; I was one of those people who came to Japan without extensively studying the language. I was placed in a countryside city working for a company that banned the use of Japanese in the workplace. Some years later, I feel confident enough to do most anything by myself. What I did was practice output in addition to listening to my surroundings for input.

One of the best decisions I made was joining HelloTalk and chatting it up with people on there exchanging messages. On there I always used Japanese and eventually most of my conversation partners would get lazy and just respond in Japanese. I made note about how they would phrase certain things in Japanese, and I would emulate those patterns with other users. When I got bold enough, I found people I could trust on the app, I started arranging weekly conversation sessions via Skype. To make things clear, we determined what language we were going to speak beforehand and stuck to it. I also went to the community classes in the neighboring city every week. It was inconvenient, but I was determined to learn, which became another outlet for me. While there, I refused to speak in English there as well. If I didn’t know how to say something, I tried to talk around it or just said I didn’t know how to explain. Lastly I got involved in activities that put me in direct contact with Japanese. Again this meant leaving my city to be involved because there wasn’t a place like that in my city. Over time, once you get more consistent at seeing the same people and going to the same places, people will start to open themselves to you. It takes time. Four months isn’t that much time in the long run.

One piece of advice for your workplace; listen all the time. If your job is anything like mine, everyone but the native teachers will be using Japanese all the time (which defeats the purpose of forcing the teachers to only speak English). Start paying attention to the small things at first and bring those observations to your private conversation exchange places.

As some of the others have mentioned, replacing the English in your home environment will be necessary to help you get those words to come out. Talk to yourself in Japanese and watch things in Japanese. Read books! Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary. If you don’t believe me, try to think of people who with a small vocabulary that are avid readers. The words you learn from reading aren’t to be always used in conversation, but a way to help you understand the words that people drop in conversation.

Hopefully that helps a lot for you! Don’t give up! The process is laden with frustrations, but you’ll get to a point where you’ll notice your ability to communicate.


I don’t know Drops – I’ll check it out. LingoDeer is good. Duolingo isn’t generally well-liked among Japanese learners, though it’s great for European languages. (I’ll add that personally I went through the Japanese module all the way, but I think there are better choices.)

I like Human Japanese as an app-based textbook. It costs something, but not that much. I think it has good explanations of grammar points. You can look at the first few chapters for free and see if you like the style.

Japanese Graded Readers are good comprehensible input if you match your language level to the level of the reader. It’s a whole series with several levels and they come with Audio CDs so you can listen to the stories being read, and practice shadowing. I found them a useful bridge to get over the intimidation of reading Japanese.

There’s also an app I like called PIBO which allows you to read children’s picture books and listen to the audio. As far as I can tell, they only use kana in the stories. The app has a large library, but you can only listen to/read a limited number of books each day for free.

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I can see how this could happen, people in Japan are quick to try switching to english as a way to ease the interaction (whenever they can anyway), so if your not forced to use japanese for surviving, the option of english it’s all too tempting.

So far I’ve only been travelling in Japan, and most of my conversations are happening in the context of me buying something, and mostly related to services, so there’s that. I can quickly get the idea that moving through this country without much hassle is possible.

Then reality strikes in… those are the times I’m crush by not having more conversational skills, specially when talking to girls here :sweat_smile:… besides the “日本語は上手!” related dialogue, things don’t go much further in the conversation :tired_face:… that gradually it’s becoming my next goal with the language (so far reading has been the motor for my learning). It’s much better motivator than any vocab list of kanji count that I can think of :grin:.

About the input theory, I have to agree; all the listening I’ve done so far and the vocab aquired through reading it’s proably the thing that has helped me the most to make this 14 months of studying japanese into something useful in Japan when talking to people… all the shows and the passive listening have helped to catch some phrases that were nowhere to be found in my textbook, yet all too common when casually speaking here.

Turning the iddle moments of your routine into japanese could be something to help in your situation… Netflix, TV, books, social media, “don’t exist if not in japanese” policy seems a good standing ground for your current dilemma. It’s what I can think of your situation anyway… but as @Sezme stated… could be BS advice too… I’m going back to the confort of my spanish / english routine in a week, so what do I know :man_shrugging:


@Ncastaneda @Sezme @LucasDesu @s1212z @ctmf

Thanks for all your advice!

I’m starting a new routine to try and get as much study in as possible. I’ve got Japanese Netflix so I can listen and watch things and they don’t even have English subtitles options. I’ve downloaded all the apps suggested and that video @Sezme you linked was great! (Also, Drops is good as it gives you 5 minutes a day to memorise things and then offers prompts to help you remember later and goes over it on your next session.)

I’m turning all my apps and social media into Japanese, and am translating the kanji to help build up vocab. Probably going to start putting up post-it notes on things with the Japanese names for things to make sure that I memorise words and relate items in Japanese rather than English. Also, I’m going to stop listening to my IPod out and about as most of my music is from British and American bands.

I wish you all the best, whether you’re travelling in, living and working in or simply watching Japan. Maybe I’ll be able to have some positive updates soon! :smiley:


Sounds good. Give us an update in a while on how it’s going.

I downloaded Drops. It looks interesting, though by chance in the first lesson I opened up, it tried to teach me hotel as ほてる [in hiragana] which would be a highly unusual way to write ホテル. So I’m not sure how trustworthy it is. I do like the concept of pairing words with pictures, though. I’ll give it another chance when I have more time.

That’s odd. There are two versions of Drops. One that’s the general app, that’s like got the purple and yellow backdrop, and a Japanese language specific one, that’s white with a red dot in the drop.

The Purple Drops app allows you to learn a ton of other languages, so it’s very basic. The one I have (white with the red dot) is much more intensive with the Japanese, and hotel is shown as ホテル)

<This is the one I use. :slight_smile:

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