You just Utterly Failed your First Japanese Conversation

You’ve been studying at home for several months, getting down all the pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. You’ve been feeling good with your progress and can grasp more and more complex concepts. You enjoy a bit of Japanese TV and books. While still far away, you can start to taste that delicious Japanese ability. But you haven’t had a conversation with anyone yet!

You’ve read all your sentences out loud.
You often read your books out loud.
You shadow all the media you listen to.
You turned your inner monologue Japanese.
You’ve even started talking to non-human, inanimate objects in Japanese.

You’re ready. It’s time get into a talking frenzy. You sign up for that first video tutoring, or first live one-on-one tutor, and are ready to turn up the heat. You walk into the room with excitement, and happily shout out a こんにちは!You’re talking Japanese with another real person. And…..

FAIL.

You can’t understand what they are saying. You can’t say what you want to say. They are trying to explain things to you in English when you only want to use Japanese. Your frustration builds up, and you want to run away into the non-Japanese night. What have you been doing with yourself? How could this be? You want to scream そんなバカな! (No Way!) like a Shonen anime character that senses an immense power.

1. Take a deep breath and relax.
2. This is completely normal for your first (or several first) conversations.

Even if you’ve read here about how hard speaking mastery is to attain, and went into your first conversation fully prepared, you will be frustrated. Reading about it and experiencing it are 2 completely different things. Conversation is a completely new skill you are developing. You can practice a sport all you want, but before you actually have a match, you aren’t going to win.

There you are sitting with that other human being, and all that comes out of your mouth is わかりません (I don’t understand).

Here’s how it looks from your viewpoint:

Japanese speaker: @#*(RJH(*DJ(*UREFDSJQ@)()(UF88236&^#W&@*RYE
You: わかりません
Japanese speaker: djs*(#JOFJ3290jSJ**JER#(*J@WRFJD2h3984hj329we8hj
You: わかりません

Then he wants to use English to teach you or explain or translate what he just said. You want to shout out to him “No! I can’t use English, I’m in Japanese only mode. Stop!” But after embarrassing yourself enough, you can’t get those words out of your mouth, and hesitantly nod your head. You’ve now lost on all levels… proceed to run off into the darkness.

Hope is not all lost. Let’s look at how to fix this.

First, if you are starting to have conversations with a new tutor, exchange partner, private lesson teacher, etc., explain to him how you’ve studied (you can use English for the first introduction). You’ve had zero to minimal actual conversation practice, and have focused on other areas of comprehension. You can tell him you are limiting your English and switched over to learning Japanese in Japanese successfully.

Next, let him  know that you would like to keep the topics simpler at first. The best way to assure they are topics you can handle is to bring your own. If you want him to supply them, have him let you know what it will be several days before the lesson. Then you can prepare yourself on that topic, so you know things you can and want to say, and what type of responses you might get.

There is one other major thing you need to fix.

You can’t just say わかりません.

To a Japanese teacher, this sounds like:

“I have no idea what in the world you are saying.”

This often isn’t true (despite you thinking it is). The following reasons affect your ability to understand and continue the conversation:

1. He said the sentence too fast.
2. He said the sentence too slow (thinking it would help you, but changing what natural Japanese sounds like to you).
3. He didn’t pronounce the sentence clearly enough.
4. You understood the sentence but missed one or two important words.
5. You understood the sentence but didn’t know how to answer it.
6. The sentence was hard, and you needed a little more time to process it.
7. You need him to repeat the sentence (hearing it again can make a difference).
8. You want him to say the sentence in a different way, or use a different word.

But you said わかりません, which conveys none of this. Let him know what is actually going on. Then you can work from there.

But what if it really was a true “I don’t understand anything!”

Have him write out the sentence (if it’s a video lesson, have him type it out). You’re used to way more reading input so you have a much better chance of comprehending a written sentence. Still don’t understand it? Have him add in a visual (non-language) picture to help with the explanation. Most vocabulary and some grammar can be aided with a picture.

Even with all this, you still feel like a failure? Keep having conversations. Get used to how they work. Get used to the flow. Get used to different voices. Get used to speaking your thoughts. Get used to speaking your thoughts when you can’t say what you want to say.

慣(な)れだ! (It’s all about getting used to it).

In a few weeks to a few months, you’ll wonder what was the big deal in the first place.

Was your first live conversation a complete failure?

Everyone has unpleasant, weird, and awkward first conversations in Japanese. What was your experience like?



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

You just Utterly Failed your First Japanese Conversation — 12 Comments

  1. I hired a tutor to practice speaking, because I was too scared to try out in a native setting. They are being paid to listen to my boring basic conversation, so I don’t feel so bad.

    It was tough at first, as the article says. I did as Adam recommends: initially explain in English that I was a strange learner, that I knew quite a lot but had done no speaking, that I wanted to just practice conversation (as opposed to working through a textbook or something), and that I wanted as far as humanly possible to stick only with Japanese.

    I also brought pad and pen. This was super useful: often I would know the kanji for something but not the word, the teacher could write things down, and we could both draw pictures to help.

    In addition to Adam’s tips I would also recommend that you try out several partners. I had to go through several before I met one that worked well. Interestingly they were the only professional and were a bit more expensive. I tried out with a couple of students looking to earn a bit of pocket money.

    The amateurs had several problems:
    They switched between full-bore fast slurred native standard Japanese and giving up and talking in English.
    If I was silent, either processing what I heard or thinking what to say, they would interrupt.
    If I got something in Japanese slightly wrong they would be entirely baffled.

    The teacher I settled on was much better. She was a sympathetic partner, giving me time to think, listening carefully and working with me to understand what I was trying to say. She was happy to slow down, rephrase things, and so on to help me listen.

    I just got back from ten days in Japan. I was so happy that I was able to have loads of conversations with ordinary Japanese people. The highlight was three hours chatting in Japanese with some Geishas in Kyoto, at a private tea house, organised by a Japanese businessman I met on a previous trip out there. I truly felt I reached a payoff point: just a year ago I would not have been able to have this experience.

    • “In addition to Adam’s tips I would also recommend that you try out several partners. I had to go through several before I met one that worked well. Interestingly they were the only professional and were a bit more expensive. I tried out with a couple of students looking to earn a bit of pocket money.”

      Sounds like my love life.

    • Wow, that’s an amazing experience you got to have. See, it all paid off :)

      And thanks for adding in those additional tips. I agree. Not all tutors, teachers, language partners, etc. are equal. Some are downright bad and/or bad for you. So if you feel like it isn’t working, a break up is in order.

  2. All great tips. Three things helped me to get better with conversations.

    1) Repeat conversations
    I was part of a Japanese-English exchange table at my school (1 hr English, then 1 hr Japanese). I would go up to one of the exchange students and individually introduced myself and go tot the edge of my Japanese knowledge. Then I would go to the next exchange student and repeat the process, and then repeat it again. Each round was practice for the next, and allowed for smoother conversations each time.

    2) Create situations
    I’m very good at reading maps and directions. Very good. And yet when I went to Tokyo I stood outside of a building and asked people directions to various places. We would have a conversation, I would thank them, wait till they’d disappear, then do it again. Again, repetition.

    3) Mimic
    I would watch variety tv (the ones with celebrities and such) and find one actress (I’m a girl) who’s voice or style of speaking I’d like and I’d mimic them. Or I’d talk to a friend and they say something a certain way and I’d like it so I’d repeat it to myself. Finding and practicing your Japanese voice like this will greatly aid in later being able to participate more fully in conversations.

    • I love these ideas.

      @1 Repeat conversations works well, because not only are you practicing what you can say again and again, what the other person will say will vary, so the conversation will always be different.

      @2 Sneaky… and great :P Asking for directions is probably the easiest way to start up a conversation with a random person while in Japan, and it often leads into other conversations.

  3. I liked the article. Technically, my first time speaking Japanese was a few months after I decided I wanted to learn Japanese. I got Rosetta Stone and studied whatever material they had for lesson one and two and then did the tutor experience they have setup for lesson one. I was 34 then, learning Japanese from nothing. That lesson was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I was obviously nowhere near as prepared as the ideal person your article describes. (They sound ready to tackle the JLPT N1 haha). I didn’t take another lesson for over a year. It was just too difficult for me. I can’t really say when the next Japanese conversation was – probably with the Japanese tutor at the community college where I took evening classes later on, and we probably built up to it mixing English with Japanese.

    I’ve been in Japan now for over a year. I have to say that as interesting as the people and its culture are, getting them to speak Japanese to me is a true battle. Although I’m fairly fluent, as the guy above said about college students who were teaching Japanese online, if you don’t say something just the way a native would, there’s many Japanese people who won’t understand you. They just don’t have any experience speaking to foreigners – frankly they’re a bit intimidated, especially if they’re short. A lot of them are really short. The few who aren’t are a lot less intimidated by me.

    Also, just being western is a big handicap. I spent some time with a girl from Korea. She had just arrived in Japan. She can understand it pretty well but speaking it not so much and she can’t read kanji yet. All of the store people talked to her instead of me. Always. Even when I spoke Japanese to them. They even talked about me to her – to them, there was just no way I could understand them. They didn’t say anything bad about me – just the opposite – but it was frustrating for me. I really felt like the outsider.

    I’m getting close to N1 and I have a pretty good vocabulary now but I don’t always understand everything being said around me. I have to say that depending on the person I’m talking to, if I don’t want them to switch to English, then it’s best not to ever admit that you don’t understand. Some people will explain stuff but most Japanese people will just switch to English if you don’t understand something. Even if your Japanese is better than their English. I think it’s the western face. Now, not everyone is like that but it happens often enough that you’re likely to get frustrated by it if you have studied a lot and travelled to the other side of the world to speak Japanese.

    Now Adam says to not ever say わかりません in a conversation because it doesn’t convey what you don’t understand to the other person. But I’ve said: I’m sorry I don’t know that word yet and the result is the same. English. For a little while I had a Japanese tutor (college student) and when we started I made it clear that I didn’t want any English explanations, I wanted him to explain all new words in Japanese. He looked shocked. Such an idea had never occurred to him. But he did it and it wasn’t nearly as hard as he thought it would be. Mind you I had passed the N2 at this point so my Japanese was better than a lot of learners.

    I still think the biggest hurdle is just having a western face. People see westerners and want to speak English. They see an Asian face and they want to speak Japanese. My friend from Australia who only speaks a little Japanese keeps speaking Japanese to my friend from Korea even after I told him she’s not Japanese. I guess it’s human nature?

    • Well first, the advice in this article is geared towards a tutor, or conversation partner, or someone who you are meeting and sitting down with. This wouldn’t work with some random person you meet, because they won’t know/care how to respond in a better way regardless of how you point out why you didn’t understand what they said.

      Your other topic probably needs a long thought out essay from someone to answer (and even then it probably wouldn’t satisfy), but how someone talks/interacts with you depends on a lot. What part of Japan you are in (city, town, country-side), who you are talking to (ex. store clerk, acquaintance, co-worker, etc.), their age, their international experience, their own experience with learning a foreign language, whether they are an extrovert/introvert, whether they are in a hurry/or want to start up a chat, their experiences with other foreigners in their life, your perceived friendliness, and the list goes on and on and on.

      Everyone will have good/bad conversation experiences while in Japan. It’s about focusing on the good, and trying to find a way to increase them.

  4. Sorry if this post gets a little long. I just wanted to share my thoughts on this subject as I most definitely failed my first real interaction. I think the biggest thing most people have going against them is a lack of exposure to real life Japanese. The problem with using things like anime to practice (which I think is an essential learning tool btw) is that every word is spoken clearly by a professional voice actor. People don’t speak clearly in real life. They mumble, they don’t pronounce words properly and use a lot of slang.

    If you record a conversation between you and your friends speaking English, you’d probably be amazed at how rough everyone sounds. There is plenty of good material out there for hearing everyday Japanese. Some dramas are really good (especially ones with mumbly protagonists) as are reality shows like ‘Terrace House’ for example.

    I personally used private cafetalk lessons, which were conversation only to increase my listening and talking when I first started trying to communicate. This greatly increased my listening and talking skills over a period of year.

    Either way, it’s ok to fail in conversation! My grammar when I talk often falls apart, but now I have more exposure I can at least understand the words that are spoken to me. My own speech failings can be fixed by me, but exposure to everyday Japanese is in my opinion the important part of being able to communicate.

    • Yes, that exposure to real conversations is key and is the only way to get used to all those nuances that real people have when they talk. No textbook in the world can teach that.

  5. Today, I was searching for ways to speak with Japanese people on the internet (chat roulette is a BAD idea!) and I found http://www.conversationexchange.com. It’s a really basic website with free signup and no premium memberships or anything like that. I searched for people willing to use skype, sent out 10 messages to people who had been online within the last 24 hours, and within an hour had two responses. I had an hour and a half conversation with a 51 year old man in Tokyo. It was about 80% English and 20% Japanese (my fault). Every time I tried to say something in Japanese I choked. At first, he tried to teach me basic grammar, but once I got a few sentences out he quit trying to teach me and just spoke to me.
    I know that all this passive anki knowledge is waiting to coalesce into Japanese speaking mastery.

    • When I say choke, if you’ve ever caught a catfish and watched it lay on it’s side gasping and croaking, then you know what I mean.

    • Nice. You made the effort, and while your first chat didn’t go exactly as you wanted, it’s a great start. You’ll look back on this and laugh one day in the near future.

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