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 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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