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…..
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
Japanese speaker: djs*(#JOFJ3290jSJ**JER#(*J@WRFJD2h3984hj329we8hj
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?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.