The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Speaking

By Meridian and Natasha | Updated November 11, 2019

Japanese Speaking 1

This guide is for those who want to speak and have a Japanese conversation but might be worried about inconveniencing others with your limited Japanese. Or you want to step out of the foreign or English speaking bubble you’ve built and challenge yourself to speak more Japanese. Our four-step series will cover how to improve your Japanese conversation skills, vocabulary, reading, and listening using free and easy to access Japanese learning resources; and tips and tricks on how to improve your studying habits and approach to learning.

This guide is designed to be something that you can refer back to as you progress from beginner to intermediate and even through advance if you want to take that step. We put our heart into this guide to be something I wished I had when I started. I think I would have been able to study smarter and save months to a year if I had had access to these materials and ideas.  

This article will be covering the following topics:

Japanese Conversation is Fundamental

When people learn languages, they tend to put themselves in a hole of learning grammar, rewriting sentences, and conjugating verbs. Then they come to a point where they have to use the language and they find themselves completely lost or overthinking trying to find the right word instead of the good enough word. Inadvertently, speaking is pushed to the side. Like every aspect of a language, Japanese conversation needs to be actively practiced to achieve fluency.

I feel speaking is the most nerve-wracking thing to do (multiply this by 20 if you are an introvert or self-conscious!) What I have observed with my friends who are learning Japanese -myself included - is that they get in their heads about making mistakes. I could write an entire book about being my own saboteur. I think we all could have conversations in Japanese so much quicker and much more enjoyable way if we weren’t afraid to get out there and make mistakes. To do this we need to build confidence in yourself and we do this by practicing with ourselves.

I find that a lot of articles about improving your Japanese conversation skills address the importance of speaking with others, but hardly touch on how to practice with yourself: it is possible and also as productive. This article will address some of your common fears and share tips on what we can do to improve our Japanese without jumping off into the deep end.

How to Practice Japanese Conversation by Yourself

It is important to practice with Japanese speakers, but if you do not feel ready at this time there are still plenty of ways you can practice alone. You’ll find a theme with these tips, and they all involve being silly and talking to yourself but the good news is that you can do it in the privacy of your home.

Practice Japanese Conversation: Singing

Pick a favorite song and sing your heart out! Singing is a fun way to improve your pronunciation and flow. You’re probably aware of the love of karaoke in Japanese culture. There are thousands of karaoke videos on sites like Youtube. Karaoke is also a great way to develop your speed in recognizing hiragana and katakana readings. If you want a challenge, pick something lyrical and fast like rap.

For beginners, try starting with this song with Japans favorite, Totoro!

Arukou Arukou Watashi wa genki Aruku no daisuki Dondon yukou let's walk, let's walk, I'm fine I like to walk so let's go on
Sakamichi Tonneru Kusappara Ippon bashi ni Dekoboko jari michi Kumo no su kugutte Kudari michi hills, tunnels, grass bridges, and bumpy gravel roads crawling under spider webs and downhill
Mitsubachi Bun bun Hanaba take Hinata ni tokage Hebi wa hirune Batta ga tonde Magari michi the honey bee buzzes in the flower field a lizard in the shade, the snake napping a grasshopper hops, the turning road
Kitsune mo Tanuki mo Dete oide Tanken shiyou Hayashi no oku made Tomodachi takusan Ureshii na Tomodachi takusan Ureshii na come out, foxes and raccoons let's explore deep into the woods happiness with many friends happiness with many friends
Japanese Speaking 2

Practice Japanese Conversation: Making Skits

You’ll often see skits in language-learning textbooks being used to reinforce vocabulary and encourage make-believe conversation in the target language. But who says you have to use it with a partner? Just play both roles.

If you are feeling a bit more creative, you can create your own skits. If you have some grammar or vocabulary you want to focus on, create the sketch with those objects in mind.

Practice Japanese Conversation: Recording Yourself

I think 99.9 percent of people hate hearing their own voice, but it’s the most accurate representation of how your pronunciation sounds. If you feel like people aren’t giving you accurate criticism about your voice, then the recording will be a stark realization. But don’t be too tough on yourself, your voice isn’t actually that bad.

Practice Japanese Conversation: Using AI

We have tested a couple of AI apps and unfortunately we don’t have any we would recommend; however,  there was one called SELF that did catch out interest. You can download it from the app store but it is only available in Japan. It’s not exactly suited for practicing your Japanese speaking; it’s more useful for practicing Japanese reading. Low intermediate to intermediate users would probably get something out of it.

Another possible way to utilize AI is with Siri, or "Ok Google" for Android. You won't exactly be having a conversation but if you ask a question and the AI can respond and understand it, you did a good job!

Pronounciation

Like I said before, we get in our heads about speaking - mainly because we think we will sound funny. We don’t want to sound like the silly foreigner trying to learn a language but just like getting over that you have to read children’s books, you have understand you are the foreigner trying to learn a language. Especially for people whose first language is English, French, Spanish, etc. We are going to sound silly because Japanese is so different from our mother tongue! I know when I was a kid, I liked to speak in gibberish just because it sounded so unique. If we can tap into that kind of childlike curiosity, speaking languages moves away from being anxiety-inducing and becomes exciting. Easier said than done but trust me.

If you want to sound like a native speaker, you should listen to native Japanese speakers. I don’t want to discourage you from lessons by non-native speakers, especially if they have years of study behind them. However, to achieve the native-like quality, you’ll want to listen to Japanese (check out our guide on listening) and follow a Japanese speaker's pronunciation. In general, people who study and work abroad language skills shoot up because they are immersed in the environment. Before I went on my exchange, I studied Japanese in university. I found that the first couple of months in Japan improved my speaking quality so much just because I was surrounded by native speakers.

If you are a complete beginner, I suggest mastering the base sounds of Japanese. Which would mean going over hiragana charts until you have everything memorized (check out the part on shadowing.) Advanced learners should focus on perfecting that authentic native sound (check out how to correctly pronounce the infamous sounds below.)

Japanese Conversation 3

The Notorious "R" Sound

If you listen to a Japanese person learning to speak English, you’ll often find that when they pronounce R, it sounds more like an L. For us foreigners, when we try to make the R sound we find ourselves asking “Is it an R? Is it an L?” That’s because, in the simplest description, the Japanese R sound we have so much trouble with is stuck between an R and an L. To acquire this rather specific sound, it will take time and practice.

When you using this sound, try to consciously listen to what you are saying and adjust the sound. You don’t want to create a bad habit which will be hard to break - this applies to beginner and advanced learners! Also, be conscious of the position of the tongue as it’s the greatest factor in perfecting this sound. Check out the video below for more information about the Japanese ‘r’ sound. It covers the difference between the English and Japanese ‘r’ sound and talks about the importance of the tongue position.

The "Tsu" and "Su" Sound

The next most notorious sound in the Japanese language: ‘tsu’ and ‘su’? Notorious being that they sound so similar! This is another case of the importance of tongue positioning. Learning the subtle difference takes a lot of practice, and close listening to native speakers.

The video below offers a very helpful explanation on how one should pronounce each sound, and what differs them.

Practice Japanese Conversation by Shadowing

You can greatly improve your Japanese conversation skills and pronunciation through shadowing.

Shadowing is a language learning technique that involves listening and repetition; it’s also very simple to do! All you need is audio recording in Japanese (at your proficiency level), the transcript to that recording, and a pair of headphones.

Basically, you’ll want to listen to the text multiple times - until you are confident enough that you can understand it (almost the point of memorization) and repeat it at the same speed as the recording.

Some of the key points you’ll want to remember when you using the shadowing technique is to practice while walking outdoors, maintain a perfect upright position, and articulate the text in a clear, loud voice.

How to Practice with Someone Else

Courage or not, at some point you will have to practice with someone eventually. Here are the best ways to do so.

Japanese Conversation 4

Practice Japanese Conversation Online

The simplest way is to connect with someone. Online, you can find hundreds of communities of Japanese learners. There are many people who are looking for a language partner and may sites which carter to this.  Language partners are a fun and free way to connect with someone around the world! I’ve found with language partners, however; that you have to come into the partnership with the intention that you both will get something out of it. If you feel uncomfortable with Japanese, without even realizing it, you might resort to speaking English the whole time.

What you could do is hire a teacher online with sites such as italki. With this, you are guaranteed to be speaking Japanese. However, this is a paid option and if you come into the arrangement not knowing what exactly you want to study, you’ll be wasting money trying to figure out what level you are, what you should focus on, etc.

If you are in Tokyo, consider checking out our language school Japan Switch. Online is a great resource to use where there is no one else around you, but it is harder to develop a strong relationship like you get when you learn face to face.

Check Out What's Happening in your Community

Even if you live in a small town, check out what’s happening. More than likely, there will be some people interested in learning Japanese - especially with how popular Japanese culture is around the world. For example, in a very small town I lived in, there was an origami club which met at the library every week. I never went, but I imagine that you would find someone with similar interests with you there; and maybe a potential language partner.

Still Nervous to Speak?

Don’t worry I know how you feel. I still get butterflies when I order at a restaurant in Japanese. Something that I keep in mind whenever I have a conversation in Japanese (and it has helped) is to imagine if that person was in your situation. What if they were in your country and they were trying to learn English, Spanish, or whatever your mother tongue is. Would you judge them for trying to learn your language? Would you think about how they fumbled a word? Or would you be happy that they are trying?

Even if you struggle, Japanese people appreciate the fact that you made an effort to have a conversation in Japanese. Maybe you’ll find the rare person who isn’t patient with you, but from my experience, I haven’t had this encounter. If you find a Japanese person who can speak English, there might be a tendency to override you and speak in English. But if you ask nicely, they should try to help and if they ignore you, then they are probably not a good candidate for a friend.

If you lucky enough to be living in Japan, there are some places I would recommend to go to practice your Japanese conversation skills. Convenient stores and restaurants are good to go to for simple interaction which will give you that boost of “wow, I'm speaking Japanese.”

If you like the izakaya environment, try going to one every week. If you are surrounded by regulars, you’ll eventually find yourself making conversations with them.

Now to the opposite end - bad places for practicing Japanese.

Ramen restaurants...Libraries...Graveyards

Places where you will not be inconveniencing others. Even though I mentioned restaurants above as good places to practice, you have to be specific with which one you pick. Establishments like ramen restaurants, or the small ones you see in the subways, are typically not well suited for conversation. People go there for quick meals - especially during lunchtime - and don’t want to talk start a conversation when they are standing at the bar, slurping down hot noodles.

If you do find someone you’d like to talk to but are at lost for conversation topics, try asking questions about them. Not to sound too much like Dale Carnegie, but people like to talk about themselves. For instance, you can ask them if the kanji in their name is significant to them. Japanese people are also happy to explain something about their culture to foreigners such as if you have any questions about certain holidays or festivals. But remember, this is all if the person is willing to talk. If they look like they are minding their own business, you shouldn’t try and practice your Japanese conversation skills with them.

Speaking with Others

As a beginner student, I would try to speak to people one on one. If you talk to a group of Japanese people they will speak at a faster speed or they will talk to each other. Because of those situations, I found it hard to follow. To understand conversation at regular speed, you need to be at an intermediate level. If you want to communicate and understand in most groups, you need to be at a higher intermediate level.

As a beginner student, leading the conversation will help you to understand more. When you lead the conversation you know the topic so you have a higher likelihood of understanding. If the other person leads the conversation you might not understand what the topic is and have more trouble following the conversation

Final Remarks

One of the toughest parts about learning a language, and also arguably the most important! There are many ways you can practice by yourself, but you can’t talk to yourself forever. I hope these tips helped and gave you the confidence you need to practice speaking Japanese.

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