Self-taught Japanese…conversation?

By | October 27, 2021

The other day I came across a Twitter post from someone who had become frustrated with their lack of progress from self-studying Japanese and decided to get a teacher, at least for learning conversation. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting a teacher, but when I saw that comment part of me instinctively wanted to scream out, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be alright. You really can make progress in Japanese without a teacher!”

However, when I noticed the emphasis seemed to be on conversation, I paused and reconsidered for a moment. Indeed, learning to converse fluently in Japanese is one of the hardest skills to acquire, and to be honest my own conversation ability is far from ideal.

But why is conversation so hard? And is it truly impossible to learn to converse without a formal teacher?

Before I go into these questions, let’s take a closer look at what conversation is and what it isn’t. Here are examples of what I would not consider to be conversation:

  • Asking directions for a nearby store
  • Purchasing a ticket in a train station
  • Telling a stranger that they have dropped something
  • Asking someone for the time

One thing in common with all these scenarios is that there is a very specific goal in mind, and when it is achieved the talking stops.

Conversely, proper conversations generally involve a lot of back-and-forth between two or more people, and there isn’t necessarily an end goal or even a purpose. As a result, various topics may come up unpredictably. In what is called ‘small talk’, the entire point of the conversation is often to just pass time, or in some cases to get to know someone better. (Note: it is possible the person who wrote that tweet was talking about speaking in general, but for the purposes of this article let’s assume that it was more about involved conversations.)

Having to be prepared to respond on a variety of topics on the spur of the moment is definitely one of the reasons conversation in a foreign language is hard to master. But I think there’s a little more to it.

In everyday conversations slang is frequently used, and words or entire phrases may be abbreviated or implied (even more than is normally done in written Japanese). For example take the expression “そんな…” which literally means “That kind of…”, but has the implied nuance of disagreeing with or being surprised about something. Also, subtle differences in tone and pauses in speech can be important indicators to understanding what is being said, especially because many Japanese people (at least traditionally) tend to speak indirectly about uncomfortable subjects. Sometimes silence can mean more than words.

In addition to all the above, there is also the tendency to get embarrassed or nervous, in particular when someone has a low impression of his or her conversation abilities or is talking to a new person.

If you think about it, even when considering native conversations there is a great deal of variation in  how people communicate. Some people are shy, others overly talkative, and some people will adjust their speech heavily based on the other person. Some people will gloss over details and misunderstand fine nuances, and others will be extremely detail-oriented and never miss a thing. Part of learning to be fluent in conversation is finding (or creating) your personality in a different language.

So given the numerous difficulties of having an involved conversation in a foreign language, how can self-studiers improve their conversation skills?

First, remember that fundamental knowledge in core language areas strongly contributes to conversation ability. For example, having a firm grammar foundation will help us speak in a way that is easily understood, and also help us comprehend what the other person is saying. Speaking with common colloquial expressions is ideal, but if we don’t know any phrases that fit the situation we can always craft a sentence using grammatical rules like word order and verb conjugation.

Having a rich vocabulary is essential, since there is no time to leaf (or thumb) through a dictionary in the middle of a friendly chat. Cultural knowledge is also important, since everyday conversations can often touch upon modern culture, whether that is about sports, entertainment, politics, or other popular topics. 

Of course, pronunciation is also extremely important, since speaking in a native-like way will make it much easier for others to understand you (not to mention, working your way out of a misunderstanding due to mispronunciation can be especially awkward). Most of the time, no matter how badly you pronounce a word, the person you are speaking with will not actively correct you or directly indicate they don’t understand what you said. At best, they will figure things out from context; at worst, they will just try to find a way to end the conversation (or try to switch to English).

At this point, I feel compelled to call out the elephant in the room here: If you want to get better at conversations, have more conversations.

But while this may be an obvious statement, if you feel uncomfortable about having conversations in Japanese it can be very difficult (and dangerous) to force yourself to keep having them. Too much of that and you might even give up on the language altogether.

So here are some other ideas to help you gradually become more comfortable with conversations.

First, listening to conversations as a passive bystander can do wonders in terms of your ability to comprehend fast, everyday speech, and you can also pick up common expressions for your own use. Listening to interviews on places like YouTube can be helpful, but make sure you spend more time on those that sound more raw/informal, and where the people seem more like everyday people as opposed to celebrities who are acting. If you can find a handful of everyday people who are fluent speakers, you can ask them to have a virtual call when you just listen in passively, or even ask them to record a conversation and send it to you.

You don’t have to limit yourself to videos or podcasts where two people are talking together. Even those where a single person is speaking the entire time can be a good way to pick up various phrases and words, especially if the person is speaking in a natural, casual way. But avoid those that involve someone speaking robotically or unnaturally, as if they have a pre-written script. 

One thing I would not suggest is spending much time using dialog in books and manga in an attempt to learn conversation. Such dialog, especially in fiction pieces, can be quite unrealistic and doesn’t necessarily represent what everyday people would sound like when having a conversation. (If you search you can find counter-examples where conversations are extremely realistic, but I feel those are not that common.)

When you actually start getting involved in conversations, if you are particularly sensitive or shy, I would suggest being very selective about who you speak with, at least initially. Ideally choose people who are friendly, open, and roughly in the same age group as you. Also, picking people who have similar interests will go a long way. Just like how conversations can fall flat in your native language due to a lack of common ground, the same thing can happen when speaking a foreign language.

If you are fairly inexperienced in Japanese conversation, I would suggest trying to practice with a small handful of people initially instead of striking up conversations with a random person each time. Once you get used to how a certain person speaks, and the type of language they use, it will become much easier to communicate with them. Also, as you get to know that person better you will be less likely to get nervous, and more likely to take risks to express yourself.

Using textual chat (Skype, Line, etc.) is another way to hone some of the same skills that are used during verbal conversations. Sure, there is no listening and speaking involved (and you have to worry about which alphabet to use), but thinking on your feet and creating sentences in real time are skills that apply equally to spoken conversation. Starting textual chat with a person and then eventually transitioning to doing a verbal conversation can be helpful, and you can always write things in text if you don’t know how to properly pronounce something.

Another idea is to create a blog where you talk about yourself and topics of interest in the foreign language in question. This will help practice describing how you feel about certain things, and the language you use can be carried over to real time verbal conversations. Just being able to comment in more detail on a topic than simply “I like it” or “I dislike it” can go a long way. You can even write about topics you expect to be asked at some point, like “Why did you start learning Japanese?”  When writing an article, first I suggest trying to do your best with your existing knowledge, but then on a second pass you can use a dictionary to try and find more appropriate words, and learn new terms for future use. If you have time, you can even read some articles on the topic, or watch some videos to improve your vocabulary in that area.

One technique that can help you from hitting a wall in the middle of a conversation when you are confused is to see if you can pick out at least one or two words from what was just said to you, and try to say something that is at least vaguely related using one of those words. Even if you said something out in left field, the other person can try to rephrase things and continue the conversation, whereas if you say nothing (or say “I don’t understand”) it can really put a stop to the conversation. I admit this is a technique that I use fairly often.

If you are still stuck and not feeling uncomfortable enough to gradually get into conversations, there is nothing wrong with hiring a teacher. But I would argue that it would be a better use of your money to do as much studying as you can on your own, and focus on just getting someone you can talk to on a frequent basis. I think it’s reasonable to pay a native or fluent speaker just to have a conversation with you as opposed to trying to actively teach anything (I did this several times during my early years learning Japanese, and I feel that it helped immensely).

Even if you can find a teacher that will practice conversation with you, ideally you want someone who will have ‘real’ conversations with you, simulating what it would be like to talk with a (non-teacher) native speaker. By this, I mean that the teacher should not frequently switch back to English in order to explain something, or allow you to do the same. Having segments where teaching and explanation are performed in English is OK, but I think there should be blocks of time where you are forced to express yourself as best as possible only using the foreign language in question. That’s because the ability to somehow communicate based on what you currently know––regardless of how weak certain areas may be––is a key skill required for real conversations. If you must ask a question about how to say a certain word in the middle of the conversation, at least try to say it in the foreign language itself (ex: “〇〇って日本語でなんて言いますか?”).

Ultimately, in order to make significant progress with learning conversation in a foreign language you will have to accept that you will make many mistakes, and even maybe make a fool of yourself. The fact conversations often have no clear goal is a two-edged sword; it creates the challenge of dealing with a wide array of topics in real time, but on the other hand there is really no way to ‘lose’. Even if you end up with a handful of badly-formed sentences and don’t really learn anything significant, you’ve still managed to communicate on some level and connect with another person. 

One great thing about live verbal conversations is that the immediacy of it really gets your brain engaged, compared to something like writing an email where you can just sit back and relax without getting too involved. When a real person is on the other end, whether present virtually or physically) there is a certain natural motivation that kicks in and can get your adrenaline pumping. You are more likely to remember words better from live conversations where you are fully engaged, which means that your time will be better spent (as opposed to memorizing dry vocab cards that you’ll soon forget).

In closing, while certainly everyone has their own learning style, I think the majority of people should be able to achieve basic conversation skills by learning on their own, without the help of a teacher explicitly teaching them how to converse. However, unlike reading which can be done alone, any meaningful conversation requires another human to be available in real time, and fostering such relationships is an important part of language learning. Having effective conversations requires a concerted utilization of a large number of skills, not to mention a great deal of effort, but the satisfaction of connecting with another person usually outweighs any difficulties encountered.

In the future I will see if I can post some more articles on this topic, perhaps with other hints to help with conversations, such as useful phrases.

If you enjoyed the post, please consider checking out my book “Language Motivation: Tips and inspirations for language learning”, where I touch upon over 20 topics related to language learning.

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