What does it feel like to speak Japanese, fluently, natively?

こんにちは!
I’m curious about all the stages along the learning path where one looks down the mountain to realize how much he has accomplished, and later looks up to spot the peak🏔 and say, Let’s make it! Until you get finally there, and celebrate Hands-on-Hips instance.

But, what are the milestones🛣? Is it normal to become relaxed once you become fluent, but still not native, and therefore never get to enjoy the views of the peak (cause the ones 100, 50 meters below are already awesome)?

Cheers!

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You mean the hokey pokey?

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I don’t know if there is any experience that is particular to Japanese but with language learning, learners generally plateau once they reach a certain level. It makes it difficult to see progress and can be very demotivating.

Throughout my varied language learning experiences (French, Arabic, and Japanese–none of which I’m fluent in) basically it’s just a roller coaster. I’ll be trudging along and then suddenly I’ll make a breakthrough and things are awesome, and then I’ll be in a situation where I thought I’d be just fine but I find that my language skills are inadequate and I consider giving up. And this cycle repeats.

For me, I’m currently living in France and learning French–the milestones just sort of pop out. I had a job interview a few weeks back that was completely in French and I made it through. That felt pretty incredible. But then this guy at the store asked me something about his impromptu opera singing and I don’t think I understood a single word he said.

I’ve encountered lots of people with similar experiences.

You can’t give up when you hit those lows though–but a lot of people do.

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That would come after the solemn hands-on-hips haha

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Fluency isn’t really a defined point, and, in fact, it’s not really a thing (you could say you were fluent, but then not understand a thing talking to a Japanese mathematician).

For me, the biggest milestones now are when I learn a kanji used in a word I already know, and suddenly the word makes so much more sense. Stuff like learning kana was pretty big, and also getting to the point of being able to read kana without thinking about it. That was quite a big one for me.

I don’t know what it’s like being able to fluently speak any other language aside from English, but when learning other languages I try to flip it. You may think constructing sentences in your native language is a piece of cake, and constructing Japanese sentences is hard. That’s only really because you’ve read perhaps millions of sentences in your native language, but a maximum of a few hundred (or less) in Japanese. A year and a half ago, I was having a rough time constructing declarative sentences in Japanese (sentences that usually end in です), but now I’m normalizing verbs like it’s no one’s business. Conjugating adjectives and verbs is a piece of cake as well now.

The more you practice, and the more you expose yourself to the language, the more natural it will seem, and I think that’s the key to being able to fluently speak a language.

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Fluency and language ability is heavily dependent on location and to whom you’re speaking to. You have to remember that dialect is a huge thing. For example, the Japanese spoken in southern Japan (and Okinawa, for that matter) is often difficult (and sometimes impossible) for Tokyo Japanese people to understand. Much like Americans have difficulty understanding Londoners, and someone from New York might have difficulty understanding someone from the deep South. It’s all variations on English, but one’s fluency within the bounds of a particular conversation will vary.

My Japanese level is intermediate (at best) but I can generally hold a reasonably basic conversation with my Japanese family and friends. My neighbour (great guy) has a low voice and speaks very quickly, so it’s super challenging to understand him. So there are some days when I’m like “yeah, I’m hanging out and talking pretty solid Japanese!” and other days when I’m like “holy crap, I got one word out of that entire sentence!”

For me, most of the things that really felt like milestones were related to reading/writing. Probably when the kana and a fair number of kanji became automatic in my mind was the moment I felt a real sense of accomplishment. My first dream in Japanese was pretty cool too. :slight_smile:

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What does it feel like to speak English fluently?

Some decades ago,I lived in Japan for two years. I had a two month intensive course in Japanese before I went and the first few weeks were… interesting. But I was immersed in Japanese, using it daily in conversation and teaching. By the time I’d been there a year or so it was entirely natural. Toward the end someone asked me where in Japan I had been born - he couldn’t believe that a gaijin could be that fluent. I studied kanji, I picked up bits of dialect from various places, and when he told me where he was from I tossed in a bit of dialect that I’d run across from that area. Blew his mind.

How did it feel? It was perfectly natural, no more amazing than speaking English. It was just a different language.

Sadly, my Japanese is not as fluent as it once was as I’ve had no real opportunity to use it for many years. But I want to get it back, hence Wanikani. I want to be able to read newspapers and books again.

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You achieved native level in a year?

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More like a year and a half and it depended on the subject matter, though I was quite comfortable with Japanese after the first year. But for daily use, pretty much so. And I was a kanji jock so I was always on the lookout for new kanji and used kanji whenever I could while writing things. Anytime I met someone I made sure that I knew how to write their name properly.

It helped that I found Len Walsh’s “Read Japanese Today” while in my initial intensive course, so I knew a bunch of kanji by the time I got to Japan and knew enough radicals that I was able to use a proper kanji dictionary as soon as I found one - it was Rose-Innes’ dictionary which had old forms as well as Toyo kanji. I soon found Michael Pye’s “The Study of Kanji” in a bookstore in Tokyo as well.

I always used kana dictionaries, considering the romanji ones to be an ugly crutch. Basically I buried myself in Japanese. I found a little pocket kanwa jiten that I carried around with my Sanseido kanei jiten and I used that a lot.

Modern kanji learning programs like “Remembering the Kanji” and WaniKani are much more effective than what I was using then, but I did learn. A good knowledge of kanji and daily, intensive usage of Japanese was very effective.

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Considering most people never achieve native level even after spending their entire adult life immersed, it stretches believability to say the least. But you already said you’re no longer at that level, so no point in asking for proof. Good to know native level is just around the corner. Can’t wait to have that Japanese native accent.

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In my personal experience, being able to carry out an initial conversation, being able to read signs and short sentences, picking up chunks of conversation during natural speech, being able to read a short text with the help of a dictionary, being able to watch a movie with captions and understand the overall plot, and so on.

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I can say that, fluency in English, a non-native language, is like a loop of relative fluency “Confidence” and disillusionment… much like tmahrt’s experience of below-fluency. Perhaps this is intermediate level syndrome, or probably Dunning-Kruger effect with more-than-one pre-mastery peaks.

My higher intermediate in English comes from multiple hits of disillusionment.

I think (relative) fluency entails 1. good listener 2. good speaker. Well, it doesn’t have to be prefect, but should be at least 80-90% effective… Phonology doesn’t have to be perfect either…

Also, I think in English when I speak English.

I have yet to reach relative fluency in Japanese. I really want to know how to do this with non-native language, as a adult…

I want to be confident, even as an intermediate level speaker…

May I suspect my fluency in my native language also? I might not be really good at expressing my desires and ideas in my native language. Nor might I be a good enough listener… Not to mention that I sometimes use weird phonology that resembles English more than my native language…

Even native speakers might not be fluent enough…

And some non-native speakers might just be talented?

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I personally have 3 huge milestones:

  • Watch an entire 26 episode anime without subtitles and little-to-no difficulty
  • Read an entire manga volume with little-to-no difficult
  • Play an entire text-heavy video game from start to finish

I am perfectly content that I’ll never be able to speak fluently really. I’m fluent in English and I still sport a thick eastern European accent, even after more than a decade of using the language every single day (granted, using it to read and write, not speak). Same goes for German, and I grew up in Germany! I was speaking it perfectly as a kid, but over the years I’ve lost the feel for it. Having an accent in a language where that accent can change the meaning of words kind of ensures that I’ll never be able to speak without issues.

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Ok, Lets be less vague with the wording I used, since these proficiency levels aren’t easy to define.

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. It provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. When fluent readers read silently, they recognize words automatically. They group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read. Let’s use the same definition when talking about speaking: smoothness or flow with which sounds, syllables, words and phrases are joined together when speaking quickly.

Native speaker has the same definition as above but seen from the boots of a local: it dominates his mind and is therefore the language he does his thinking in.

TBH, I doubt any of us will ever earn the native badge. Some of you are making your point about feeling the fluency of your mother tongue, which is out of discussion; it should be in reference to non-native languages. I would even say Japanese is in a completely different league; It’s far easier for Frenchies, Spaniards, etc. to learn English, and vice versa. *

So, let’s say proficient instead of fluent, and fluent instead of native. Fair enough?

* Let’s not include Arabic, Chinese, Pak Tai, etc. for the sake of my argument

I would suppose speaking fluently feels like being able to think in Japanese without effort.

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For me, I consider mysef to be conversationally fluent.
My reading and writing is still lacking severely, but at this point I feel completely comfortable speaking and having conversations.

Some milestones for me were

  • dreaming in Japanese during my year long exchange

  • having a two hour conversaton with my host mother and not needing a dictionary

  • realizing I did not think in English or translate from English while speaking anymore. This wasn’t a conscious effort, just something that naturally happens along the way.

Overall at this point I am able to discuss most topics, though politics, economics, and health related conversations still make me feel like an idiot, and I have reached that dangerous area of comfort in language learning. Going to drinking parties with my coworkers and having them speak with each other at native speed while intoxicated is still a challenge though.

I wonder if anyone ever feels like they are truly fluent though. Most days go by and I don’t even register I’m speaking in Japanese anymore, but there are still days where I feel like I will never reach the level I want to attain because there is JUST SO MUCH in one language. I haven’t even mastered English, which is my native tongue, so how the hell am I ever going to master this language? Everyday I come across unfamiliar words and nuances that I didn’t realize before. The more the learn the more I realize I don’t know. It’s a weird cycle.

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I am very far from this point in Japanese thus far, but I can tell how it felt, when my English went to be really fluent.

It started when I was reading a book in English for the first time and during the 500 pages I was able to understand everything in the context, which is a thing I’d love to reach in Japanese, because it meant that just by reading I would learn new words and didn’t need to memorize them. Nowadays my thoughts even sometimes change to English, without me specifically doing it.
But native level is still something entirely different. There are two things for me: In german, my native language I can talk about every special topic and know most of words that are specific to this topic. In English I will understand a text, but not necessarily be able to use those specific words in a conversation. Also the amount of synonyms I have for every word and the slight nuances in their meanings and uses I can apply, are far greater than in English. The second thing is dealing with accents. In German even mean dialects won’t mean much of a problem for me. But in English I had to deal with an Indian recently for example and his accent was extremly difficult to understand.

I hope to reach that point, which I have in English right now in Japanese one day, but to reach that native level I would need to go to Japan for a longer period of time and even then probably have special lessons and read books about scientific topic to just increase to vocabulary, while the grammar and everything should already be an instinct.

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Fellow 1-year’er here. WaniKani has been great (learned more kanji than I did in Japan), but no for speaking opportunities has been super lame. I found a local speaking group on Meetup and it’s been great! You should check for one in your area.

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Well since we’ve brought this thread back up. It’s funny really. There are times when I can talk as easily as I can talk English, but then there’s times when I struggle to come up with something that’s not gibberish.

And I really think this happens to anyone. For example, I was trying to explain about things like 二重国籍 yesterday and I was just going over and over in circles trying to say something to the effect of “Even if you can’t technically have dual citizenship, as long as you don’t make a big deal of it, it’s fine.”

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