What I Discovered about Japanese Speaking

Karaoke bar in Takao, Japan
Karaoke bar in Motohachiojimachi

This post is going to be specific to those who want to learn to communicate using spoken language, and the tips here may not be appropriate for those learning to translate or write formal documents.

Well, I have a confession to make. I’ve always been better at reading Japanese than I have been speaking Japanese. Books and written language are patient. They will let you take your time to consult a dictionary and look up Kanji. Written also doesn’t particularly care if you respond at all to it. But here I was in Japan, being confronted by spoken Japanese, spoken by real people, expecting real responses right now.

It made me nervous. As I mentioned in the previous post, people have a tendency to speak consistently all the time to most people. Us non-native Japanese did not grow up speaking and hearing Japanese, so there are a lot of sounds and colloquialisms that are alien to our ears. Not to mention the heaps of vocabulary that is still unfamiliar to us.

There is also another challenge facing learners. Most course study revolves around the study of books and written tests. Of course there are oral components, but these often make up a smaller ratio of the work done in many courses. When we are in real situations, we may hear a lot of words that our eyes may know, but our ears do not.

So how do we deal with this challenges. Well the first and most important step is this:

It is fine to not understand everything!

Many language learners will get frustrated with their abilities because they want to understand everything they hear. When we don’t, it is easy to feel that it is a futile battle learning a language. But really, it is okay to not understand everything. One of the first phrases you should learn in any language is “I’m sorry could you repeat that?” or “Could you say that again slowly?”. This should be followed by “I don’t understand”.

Next important thing that a language learner needs to come to grips with:

Your language will not be perfect all the time.

This is particularly important for those who have learned in a classroom situation. Yes it is important in some situations to use the correct language, grammar, and politeness. But for the average person, they will be in casual situations, and the people they will be speaking to will not be using that language that was learned in the classroom.

Which leads to my last important point for today:

Stop worrying, just speak

If you think too much about the correct grammar, correct uses of words, etc.. it will increase your anxiety when speaking. Stop worrying about translating what your thinking. The best thing you can learn to do in a foreign language, is get good at describing complex ideas using longer simple sentences. For example if you don’t know a word like “library”, you can instead say “I went to the place with lots of books”. Using this strategy will enable you to take part in far more conversations.

I still have a lot more to say about what I discovered about learning Japanese when I was in Japan, but that will be the subject of future posts.

Feel free to leave a comment below about what you have found helpful when faced with learning a foreign language, and tips you have about overcoming speaking anxiety.


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