I recently got a question from one of my readers about how to increase conversation fluency in Japanese (会話力) without having someone to actually practice with.
I don’t mean to dodge the question, but in all honesty without a conversation partner (話し相手）it is very difficult to reach any level of fluency. Before I go into my suggestions for this tricky situation, let me tell you how you can get a language partner.
Assuming you have an internet connection, you can use Skype or some other voice chat tool to talk to anyone around the globe, whether it’s another person studying Japanese as a foreign language, or a native Japanese person in Japan. Doing a little searching around came up with a few websites such as this, this, and this, with many more waiting to be found. However, I have not personally used any of those sites so cannot vouch for them.
In my early stages of learning Japanese I found a few Japanese penpals on sites like this, and after developing a relationship with them over Email I would eventually suggest trying out text or voice chat. As part of my conversation-partner searching efforts I even put up flyers in some nearby grocery stores, and discovered two or three Japanese natives living in the area to sit and talk with me for a small fee (roughly $7 an hour if I remember correct). Of course, the feasibility of finding people locally depends on what country you live in and how close to a big city you are. In America, it seems the closer you are to the West coast the more Japanese people there are, although there is a good bit of them in New York as well.
You can also meet people who can eventually become conversation partners on Japanese social sites like Mixi, where I met my wife-to-be. I was maintaining a blog in Japanese for the purpose of meeting new people (as well to brush up my writing skills), and she stumbled upon it and realized not only was I American, but living within driving distance of me. The rest is history.
If you do live in a city with a relatively large Japanese population, you may be able to find Japanese-speaking people at Japanese restaurants, and you can offer to pay them a small fee to talk to you in Japanese. If you are opposite sex they might become hesitant, so consider meeting them in the same restaurant after they get off work as opposed to a different, unfamiliar place. I haven’t done this myself but in think it’s worth trying out.
If you are going one of these routes, I suggest keeping things small and simple, sticking to only a handful of people at any one time. The more deeply you get to know someone they more they will open up, and the less chance they will have of just disappearing or loosing interest in you. Having a pretty large number of penpals over time, I know that often the beginning of the relationship is the same stuff over and over again (reason to learn Japanese/English, hobbies, etc.), and it’s not until you really get to know them that you are able to branch out into different topics. If you are concerned about safety, the longer you exchange emails with them before jumping to voice chat, the more confidence you can have in them being an innocent person.
Ultimately, if you really want to find a Japanese language partner and put in enough effort, I am positive you can find one.
Now, back to the real question – what if, for any reason, you just can’t find a conversation partner now?
There is a bunch of things you can do to prepare yourself, at least set things up so when you do find someone you can hit the ground running. All conversation is two-way, including both speaking and listening, so improving your listening skills will have some benefit to your conversation ability. The key here is to find the right materials – try to aim for anime, TV dramas, or movies which have a setting close to real life, not some far-future story on a distant star, where giant robots run rampant. As a general rule, stories that are less fast paced and less domain-specific (meaning it isn’t a show about doctors filled with medical terms) will probably help you learn more words that you can use in your own conversations. One good example is the movie “Like Father, Like Son” which I blogged about here. You can also try Podcasts, which I talked about here.
Reading can also improve your vocabulary, including common phrases, and give some benefit to your conversation skills. Again, picking proper material is key here – reading a book full of snappy lines from a famous detective isn’t necessarily going to give you much useful information. For a good example, the Manga “Nana” comes to mind. I remember one of my friends (who had lived in Japan for one year) telling me “the Japanese in this manga is like what you hear in real life”.
Make sure you don’t force yourself to read something you don’t like just for the sake of learning – a story that doesn’t hold your interest means you’ll likely quit partway through. If you have the time, just read anything you can get your hands on (and is within your reading level) and you’ll gradually pick up little bits to use in your own speech.
There are some techniques you can use to practice speech without a partner, including talking to yourself in a mirror or recording a monologue into a voice recorder. There is some value in these, especially for learning the formulate sentences quickly and getting your mouth to shape the right sounds, but the results you can achieve with them is limited. There are two major reasons for this. One is that when you are speaking a real live person in real time, there is a sense of tension or nervousness which makes it harder to say what you mean, especially if this person is a stranger. There are other emotions which may come into play – like worrying about whether they are understanding your speech or whether you’re making a fool out of yourself. I’m sure this differs person to person, but practicing in front of a mirror doesn’t help me overcome this sort of thing. The only thing that helps is real experiences speaking.
The second thing is that, except for the simplest of conversations, you never know what the other person is going to say. You can memorize 1000 different phrases, and ways to answer certain questions, but something unfamiliar is said you get lost. Listening exercises will help you get over part of this, but the act of processing what you heard, determining it’s meaning, determining what you want to say (conceptually), and then formulating the right word order is a difficult process that also requires real practice to become good at. Tools like Skype won’t give you the full experience of actually speaking to a person in front of you, but it’s close enough.
I want to emphasize it’s good to do all these things – listening practice, reading practice, and real conversation practice – in frequent alternation. In other words, don’t read for a few months and then switch to conversation practice. The reason is that during a conversation, words you heard or read in the recent past will start bubbling up to your conscious, and when you try to employ them yourself (even if the usage isn’t perfect the first time) you’ll remember them better and pay even more attention next time you hear the same word. If there is a large span of time between your conversations and other study activities you’ll less likely to easily recall what you’ve learned. Because of this, even if you have an abundant supply of conversation partners (for example, if you live in Japan), I recommend to make sure you get a good daily dose of listening to others’ conversations.
And for myself? I’ve gotten pretty good at basic day-to-day conversation through speaking with my wife and son in mostly casual Japanese. However, my conversations with strangers, or friends I see infrequently, still leaves much to be desired. So I am always looking out for opportunities to practice speaking with others.