It may seem obvious that one of the best ways to improve conversation skill is by practicing conversation and yet it’s the one activity that usually gets the least amount of attention. There are many reasons why people neglect to learn to speak Japanese by actually speaking Japanese including shyness, embarrassment, and the practical difficulty in creating opportunities for practicing Japanese.
Here, we will look at strategies and techniques for creating such opportunities and having productive conversation sessions.
Finding Conversation Partners
Taking a Japanese class alone is woefully inadequate for providing the many hours of practice you need in order to become proficient in speaking Japanese. Most of the already short time in class is taken up by lecturing and listening to other classmates answer simple questions without any real interactive conversation or discussion.
On the other hand, most of us are not in Japan and do not know many or even any Japanese speakers, especially ones with the patience to help others learn and practice conversation skills.
The most important skill you need for finding conversation partners is being proactive. If you are taking a Japanese class, engage your teacher in conversation before or after class or during office hours. Explore any clubs or activities that may involve Japanese speakers. Check out meetup sites like www.meetup.com for Japanese meetups and find conversation partners there.
If you want to practice online without having to leave the house to meet people face-to-face, you should check out www.language-exchanges.org to find conversation partners on Skype.
Use your assets such as English skills to offer something in exchange for getting help with your Japanese conversation skills.
Conversation skills and techniques
With the large number of Japanese speakers on the internet, you should be able to find one or more conversation partners relatively quickly. But how should you proceed from there? You don’t know what you should talk about and more importantly, you think you have no idea how to say anything in Japanese!
Relax and remember the whole point of practicing is to make mistakes and learn from them. There would be no point in conversation practice if you already spoke Japanese perfectly. Let’s look at a couple of strategies you can employ to make sure you have a smooth and informative conversation session.
Make sure there’s a way to communicate
This means that if you just started learning Japanese, find a conversation partner that can speak your language fairly well. The better you get at Japanese, the worse your partner can be at your language. This ensures that there’s at least some method of communication so that you can actually learn from each other.
Make a list of potential topics
One of the most common situations that occur is when neither party knows what to talk about. You can easily solve this problem by thinking about and preparing potential topics before you start the conversation session. In the beginning, you should start with the usual get-to-know-each-other questions such as “What is it like where you live?” and “What do you do?”
Here’s a short list of topics for you to get started.
- Movies or music
- School or job
- Places you’ve been or lived in
- Reasons for interest in the language
- Local customs and food
- Interest and hobbies
- Personal philosophy about lifestyle and people
Bring a notebook or save your online chat log. Having a record of the things you learned will greatly increase the value of each conversation session and help decrease the amount of things you forget. In addition, writing new words and phrases encountered in your conversations by hand can also aid memorization.
If you don’t know how to say something, don’t just say nothing! Ask your conversation partner how he/she would say it. The best way to learn is by asking, “How would you say this in Japanese?” Sure, we all want to be clever and original but when you’re learning a language, you’ll first need to get familiar with how most everybody else would say it. Also, it’s important to follow up with questions so that you understand why it’s said that way. In this manner, you can also learn new grammar and expand on what you’ve just learned.
Japanese people are also often too polite to point out your mistakes without being asked for corrections. If you’re not sure what you’re saying is correct, make sure to ask. Also, make it clear from the beginning that you would like as much corrections as possible. For your part, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to make mistakes nor should you feel frustrated or resentful at being constantly corrected. Mistakes (especially the embarrassing ones) are the best ways to learn and being corrected early will help you avoid bad habits before they form.
In other to stay in your target language, you should eventually learn how to ask commons questions like the following in Japanese:
- 意味 【い・み】 – meaning
- 何 【なに／なん】 – what
- 日本語 【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese (language)
- どう – how
- 言う 【い・う】 (u-verb) – to say
- もう一度 【もう・いち・ど】 – one more time
- ゆっくり – slowly
- 正しい 【ただ・しい】 (i-adj) – correct
What is the meaning of [X]?
How do you say [X] in Japanese?
Please say it one more time slowly.
Is saying [X] correct?
Take your fair share
Sure you want to help the other person learn your language but that doesn’t mean you should spend most of the time helping them learn instead of you. Make sure you spend at least 50% of the conversation time learning what you need to learn. If your conversation partner always answers in your language and not in Japanese, point out that fair’s fair and you’re not doing this just for him or her. Personally, I’ve found it easier to switch each session between learning Japanese and English so that it makes the boundaries easier and completely fair.
This should be fairly rare but if you happen to have a conversation partner that doesn’t seem willing to actually help you learn Japanese, you should politely move on to another conversation partner.