Want to learn to speak Japanese? You’ll need to close your textbooks… and open your mouth! And the good news is: You can do this without even setting foot in Japan! I discuss several tactics for improving your Japanese below. I also examine how you can use the service Preply, which can connect you with native-speaking teachers of Japanese, to make the most of these techniques and perfect your pronunciation – all from the comfort of your computer.
The Power of Speaking
Funny anecdote: in my earlier days of learning to speak Japanese, I often did Skype language exchanges with people in Japan. I’ll never forget a particular Japanese salaryman learning English for business.
He studied a LOT – hours upon hours a day! He understood everything he read or heard. As a result, he aced his tests.
But when it came to speaking? It was like talking to an encyclopedia.
I’ll give him credit, his English vocabulary was impressive! But one thing was evident: he lacked conversational skills. The reason? Living in a countryside town provided very little (if any) opportunities to speak English. And he was well aware of it.
He often criticized Japan’s English education system, a topic I’ve written in-depth about here. That ledhim to the decision to seek language partners online. Good move!
Use It Or Lose It!
There’s no shortage of research proving the importance of practical application. This means, no matter how much vocab you know or anime you watch, if you’re not using what you learn, conversation will continue to be a struggle!
To become fluent, there are four main competencies you should be able to meet: vocabulary, grammar, listening, and speaking. According to the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment, it takes 200 guided hours to advance in language ability level. To make the most of those hours, you need a well-rounded study program. However, depending on your environment, it can be difficult to hit all four points – especially speaking.
Why Is Speaking So Hard?
Most study methods focus on passive skills, such as reading and listening. Production (aka speaking) is an entirely different beast. Not only must you think on your feet (which can be challenging on its own!), you must recall hundreds of vocabulary, grammar rules, AND pronounce everything correctly! Phew!
Naturally, you’ll also be making a lot of mistakes. When asked why Japanese learners of English struggle so much with speaking, anxiety/self-consciousness was one of the main reasons cited. (Another was environmental challenges, such as lack of opportunities).
Some people even avoid opportunities altogether if they can get by without it! How many foreigners in Japan can’t speak Japanese due to an unwillingness to practice?
Why Speaking Is Important
Regardless, speaking is an important part of learning. It reveals your weaknesses, allows reinforcement of vocabulary you’ve already learned, and develops the “quick-thinking” part of your brain.
Speaking is like developing a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it grows. Mio, author of a Japanese blog for English learners, compares it to playing soccer: “If you want to get good at soccer, you don’t just study the rules forever… you learn the rules first, then practice playing.”
She recommends spending 30% of your time studying, and 70% practicing (which means actual applied use). But can you really learn to speak Japanese if you don’t live in Japan?
Learn to Speak Japanese… When You Don’t Live In Japan!
While immersion is a key to learning, the good news is, you don’t have to actually live abroad to do it. You can practice on your own, at any level!
Reading aloud is a great way to start. Learning from a textbook? Read examples to yourself. Studying vocabulary? Recite the words. You’ll also retain what you learn more effectively than reading silently.
Singing is a great way to practice pronunciation. Studies revealed a correlation between music and language, and even suggest that musicians may have a stronger ability to learn a new one. So whip out that karaoke machine and sing your favorite anime theme songs! (You may even want to record yourself to check your progress).
Learn to Speak Japanese… with TV!
You’re probably already watching dramas or anime if you’re learning Japanese. That can be conversation practice, too! (For this, I recommend dramas over anime. Conversations are more natural. Plus, you can observe facial expressions and gestures).
Repeat lines from favorite scenes, emphasizing pronunciation, and intonation. (Bonus points for replicating expressions and gestures).
Roleplay with the cast! Put yourself in the scene. Respond as if they were talking to you. Be creative! If your vocabulary is more advanced, change the script. If the dialogue is “Why didn’t you pick up your phone?” don’t repeat “I was at work”. Make up your own excuse: “Because I was on a hot date with that cute guy from Japanese class!”
(Need some options for how to watch Japanese TV when you don’t live in Japan? Check out our recommendations.)
Learn to Speak Japanese… with Real People!
Hands down, the best way to learn to speak Japanese… is to speak to real people! And thanks to the internet, you can do this from your own home.
There are many language exchange websites and apps that will pair you with native speakers. Preply is a great example. It’s one I wish was around when I started learning Japanese! You can schedule live video chats with native Japanese speakers, from structured grammar lessons, to test-prep lessons for the JLPT, to simple conversation. Pick a tutor according to your budget and time zone – there’s guaranteed to be someone for everybody.
Making the Most of Your Lessons
There’s an expression that goes something like, “the best lessons happen outside of the classroom”. That goes especially for language! Speaking shouldn’t only happen during a lesson.
Jot down new words and expressions, and things you struggled with. Make it a point to review them (and repeat them aloud!) throughout the day.
And don’t be afraid to look silly! If you want to learn to speak Japanese, the most important thing to master, even before vocabulary and grammar, is… CONFIDENCE!