In my time studying Japanese I’ve been fortunate enough to have several pen pals and conversation partners who have corrected my grammar mistakes, and in some cases pointed out more natural phrasing. Unfortunately, experiences like that are few and far between, not only because it can be tedious and time consuming to correct someone’s language mistakes, but also because explaining why something is incorrect can be quite difficult. Add to that the fact that correcting someone mid-conversation can disturb the flow of the discussion, leading to frustration on both parties.
The farther you travel on the road to true fluency, the more you realize that self introspection and self correction are really two of the most important skills required. Its always amazing how children acquire language at such a breakneck pace, but if you watch them carefully you’ll realize they made all sort of mistakes from wrong pronunciation to bad grammar. This is one of the secrets behind their accelerated learning – they use a relentless process of trial and error to polish their language skills. I’ve even read in some books on education that its best to not directly correct children by saying “That is wrong!”, but instead simply repeat the proper phrase back to them nonchalantly and they will figure it out for themselves eventually. This is the linguistic version of the common proverb “teach a person to fish…”.
Besides diligently going over my Japanese emails with a fine tooth comb to look for mistakes and awkward phrasing, I found it’s also good to try and keep a mental note for things I said that I was not comfortable with. Usually what happens is I manage to communicate with unsure or unnatural phrasing, but then later on I end up hearing a similar phrase that is the natural way to say what I tried to convey. At that point in time something clicks in my head, and I can easily remember the proper phrasing, so that next time I need to say something similar I just repeat it back.
The most important thing is that you aren’t afraid to try and say whatever comes to mind given your limited knowledge, even if it’s unnatural, grammatically incorrect, or just plan wrong. Without the “trial” step, when you hear the proper phrase spoken by someone you probably won’t care as much and odds are it won’t stick.
If you’re still young, or linguistically gifted, then you might already be doing these things without any problem. But as we get older, we loose some of the plasticity of learning new languages, and need to compensate by keeping good habits like this.
I find that pronunciation is one of the more difficult things for me to refine since I don’t pay as much attention to it while I am speaking. So occasionally I try to record my speech and listen to it carefully. It’s usually quite embarrassing at first, but in the end it gives me more confidence about what I am doing right and pointers to where I am going wrong. Often when I am reading a novel or manga book I’ll also read dialog lines out loud slowly, focusing on clear, natural pronunciation.
And by all means, keep up the search for those who will do detailed correction of your Japanese. Just don’t expect most people to be able to put in the requisite time and thought required to do it properly. If you have a pen pal whose English grammar you are correcting in exchange, you’re more likely to get detailed feedback on your mistakes.