The Skill of Speaking Fluent Japanese

The Skill of Speaking Fluent Japanese

Speaking fluent Japanese is easy.  You only need three things:

1. A bunch of words

2. A bit of grammar

3. To think in Japanese

While the first two points get a lot of attention, the third point is equally, if not more, important.

Knowledge Versus Skill

Thinking in Japanese is not just about knowledge.  It takes skill.  Fluency requires the ability to stop your native language from entering into your brain.  In other words, to stop translating.  Okay, so that’s easier said than done.

It’s natural to want to use words from your native language as place-markers for unknown words in Japanese sentences.  For example, if you want to talk about how terrible your apartment is, but you don’t have the appropriate Japanese vocabulary, you end up with a sentence like:  apaato wa hellhole da. (My apartment is a hellhole.)  Similarly, it’s common to hear foreigners living in Japan insert Japanese words into English sentences, like:  “I’m going to the konbini for a nikuman.”  (I’m going to the convenience store for a meat-bun.)

Unfortunately, approaching Japanese in this way only slows the progress towards fluency.  Even people who have lived in Japan for years and studied tons of Japanese get stuck at this stage.  The only way past it is to force yourself to stop thinking in anything other than Japanese (when you’re using Japanese).  That means that if you don’t know a word, you either find another way to make the same point, or you simply don’t say it.  You don’t even think it.  Fluency is the skill of learning not to think in your native language.

Bilinguals and Polyglots

Bilingual learners have a well-documented edge in acquiring additional languages, and it may be due in part to having previously mastered this ability.  They’ve learned how to block out one language, so that it doesn’t intrude on the other.  Instead of using their native language as a crutch, they force themselves to find ways of expressing what they want to say using only Japanese.  Similarly, people who have already learned a second language, even if imperfectly, sometimes go on to learn other languages in a similar fashion.  They become polyglots, a term that refers to someone who can speak multiple languages, but sounds more like someone who has consumed a massive amount of Jello.  Polyglots have learned to think in one foreign language, without reverting to their native language, and once they’ve learned the technique for one language, they can apply it to others.

One Day You Wake Up Speaking Japanese

When fluent speakers talk about their own language learning process, they often describe becoming fluent as a sudden event:  one day they just woke up and could speak the language.  It’s not that they finally acquired a critical amount of vocabulary or reached a tipping point in grammar.  Instead, they simply learned to quiet the voice of their native language.  By making their native language(s) off limits, they forced themselves to think and speak in Japanese.

Your Declining Popularity 

How long this process takes varies with the individual and environment.  Certainly, immersion helps.  If you can surround yourself with people who speak no English (a situation which is becoming harder and harder to find in Japan), then you quickly learn not to rely upon your native language.  It also takes perseverance and a determination not to revert back to your native language no matter how easy that might make the situation.  There’s also a social component to as well.  If you speak English, you can speak with confidence and enjoy a degree of popularity.  You may find yourself far less popular if you insist on speaking in Japanese, where you sound like a five year-old.  It’s not uncommon for a language-dominance battle to develop, with a Japanese person insisting on speaking English while you insist on speaking Japanese.  You may discover that Japanese people who speak English fluently resent your persistent attempts at speaking their language.

How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent?

People who are fully immersed and force themselves to interact solely in Japanese seem to take between 6 months and two years to acquire the skill of fluency.  Learning core vocabulary and grammar help considerably.  Yet beyond that, a lot of learners don’t seem to be consciously aware that they’re trying to develop fluency as a skill.  Instead, they focus on the technical aspects of the language and sort of wait for the Holy Ghost to one day bestow fluency upon them.  Being meta-aware of the process—of stopping your native language and forcing yourself to think only in Japanese—can speed up the time it takes for fluency to kick in.

Not All the Time

It’s important to note that it’s not necessary to do this 24 x 7.  You don’t have to walk around thinking in Japanese all the time.  To do so would be onerous and a waste of time, particularly if you haven’t yet acquired a solid working vocabulary.  You only need to think in Japanese when you’re speaking Japanese.  It’s like a switch.  You think in English until you need to use Japanese, and then you turn English off.  Again, this is a skill.  It takes practice.  And like any other skill, the more time you can spend practicing it, the better you’ll get at it.

 



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19 Comments

  1. As a beginner Japanese learner, I really enjoy reading your tips and hints on learning! I think you’re totally right about trying to think in Japanese as much as possible, but as a beginner, I think that it helps me to sometimes try to make Japanese sentences as much as possible (even just in my head or to my boyfriend), even if I have to substitute a few English words in there. It helps me remember structures and to memorise the vocab that I do know at least. Hopefully as I increase my vocab knowledge I’ll be able reduce and reduce the amount of English I need to think in!

    • Using substitution is a natural part of the learning process, and very useful as well. It’s a great bridge between the languages. The basic idea is that, as you acquire more vocabulary and grammar, you gradually replace more and more of the English with Japanese. For beginners, this is especially helpful.

      Further along, however, that translation approach runs into some difficulties. I’m sure you’re discovering that there are a lot of words, phrases, and even entire concepts that don’t translate into Japanese very well (and vice versa). Even the cultural value systems come into play. What is normal and correct behavior literally depends upon whether we’re speaking English or Japanese. I found a 100 yen coin on the bus the other day (about $1), so of course I went and handed it to the bus driver. In my Japanese brain, I couldn’t think of any other course of action. Reflecting on it later in English, I was like, What the hell was I thinking? For real, I can’t imagine finding a dollar bill on a bus in the U.S. and turning it in to the bus driver. Here you go, sir, please take good care of this dollar bill for me. But in Japan, I’ll bet that driver carried the coin all the way to the Bus Center and turned it over to the head office.

      But I digress. Where I’ve seen a lot of foreigners get stuck is in the middle-ground. They don’t speak Japanese better than the Japanese people around them speak English, so they keep reverting back to English. And Japanese people know a lot of English. It’s easy to get intimidated into just using English. But the more you can put yourself into that uncomfortable space where you’re struggling to express yourself, the more you learn.

  2. Great post.

    Normally we tend to think a sentence in English and then try and translate it to Japanese. I used to do that but lately, have been thinking in Japanese. Although I’m bilingual in another language (teo chew)

    When I speak teo chew, English does not pop into my mind at all and it’s just “teo chew”

    I think it’s good if you have a good immersion environment, that often helps you to think in Japanese. Doing Japanese things, stuff like that. I guess pretend you’re a “Japanese person” and not a foreigner or any sort.

    I wonder how many people have become fluent in Japanese between the 6months-2years. I know the 2 years is possible but 6 months? Never heard, would be nice to know how many people have become fluent between that time period.

    • Thanks for always reading. Regarding how long it takes to become fluent, I have a 2-part answer.

      Part 1: You know who learns Japanese really fast? Immigrants to Japan who don’t know how to speak English. There are a number of foreign laborers here, some of them illegal, from countries where English isn’t spoken. They’re often poor and don’t have a lot of education. For them, Japanese isn’t a hobby, and Japan isn’t some wonderful country full of sushi bars and anime. They are treated badly, but at least Japan is a better country than where they came from. For them, Japanese isn’t an option. They have to speak it or starve. Hunger is a great motivator. They’re also not teaching English for eight hours a day and then hanging out with their buddies at the gaijin bar after hours. They’re carrying bricks and scaling fish. I certainly don’t envy them, but they learn Japanese lightning fast.

      Part 2: Your comment brings up the point of what constitutes fluency. There’s clearly a difference between being fluent and speaking correctly. You can have a huge vocabulary and perfect grammar and still not be fluent. By contrast, you can have a severely limited vocabulary and abysmal grammar, but be able to manage a conversation well. It’s that knowledge versus skill thing again. The truth is, “fluency” is too vague of a term. You have to apply metrics in order to gauge how well people speak relative to the time and volume of material which they’ve studied. That’s why we have tests. Nobody’s going to pass the JLPT2 in 6 months, or probably even two years, but can they manage daily life and relate to those around them within that time frame? Absolutely.

  3. You slay me, Ken. You slay me hard. Like Buscemi-into-the-woodchipper slay me.

  4. Hey Ken, I came across your blog while randomly looking around for things related to Japanese culture and Language. So far, everything I’ve read was incredibly insightful and enjoyable. I really want to learn how to speak the language, but at the moment I am limited on money. It probably goes without saying to learn Hirigana and Katakana before Kanji, but I really dont know where to begin. Should I start with books on the subject, or are websites enough to start learning? I plan on taking a Japanese class in a few months, so maybe that would help get me started. I would really appreciate it if you could help me out good sir. Looking forward to more posts!

    • Hi Andrew,

      How best to learn Japanese is a great question. And judging from Net forums, everyone and their dog has an answer. Really, there are about twelve thousand different ways to approach it (I counted), but for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

      Above and beyond all else, you have to establish a solid routine. It doesn’t have to be super rigid, but basically, just do something productive in Japanese every day and stick with it. What you do is way less important than making sure you do something, every day. Consistency is where it’s at. I’m dying to drop some sports analogy here, about training a little every day versus working out 3 days a week and spending the rest of the time eating cheeseburgers on the couch. But I’ll resist the urge.

      Just in terms of numbers, doing a little every day makes a lot of sense. Like, I make sure to learn eight new sentences a day. That seems like nothing. I mean, eight, jeez. But if you multiply that by 365 you get, well, some pretty big number. I’m not so great with math. Anyway, you see what I mean.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t spend time doing a lot of other stuff in Japanese–talking to people, translating documents, watching TV, reading manga, going to karaoke or whatever. But above all that, I’ve got my 8 sentences a day. And if you put that in practical terms, it’s the equivalent of learning the days of the week on Day 1; the names of the planets on Day 2; the major bones in your body on Day 3; the names of eight animals on Day 4, etc. After a year of that, you’re going to have a great working vocabulary.

      So then a couple of minor refinements on this idea. First, I rarely try to learn things as a set, because they’re hard to remember unless the grouping comes naturally. Like, days of the week seems a natural set, but names of animals doesn’t. For some reason remembering 8 random animals seems pretty hard, whereas days of the week seems a bit easier. Maybe that’s just me.

      Secondly, you’re going to need to review every day, so that adds to your workload. Eight seems like a low number, but when you have to review items from previous days, you can be looking at over a hundred sometimes. I use Anki to manage all this, and it’s great if you can stick with it. I wouldn’t recommend diving in and trying to do to much. I mean, everyone wants to be fluent in like a year, but it’s probably not going to happen. So instead of burning out, just go slow and steady and have fun.

      I approached hiragana this way, and it seemed to work pretty well. On Day 1, I wrote あ い う え お, several times, until I could do them from memory. Then on Day 2, I wrote them again, and then the next set: か き く け こ. Day 3, I did the previous ten characters, plus 5 more. In a little over a week, I could read and write them all (though actually mastering them took more practice). Then I started in on some simple words, like すし for sushi, and とうふ for tofu.

      Given that you can learn hiragana in a little over a week, yeah, why not just do it? Find a website that shows you all 46 characters and just knock that out. Katakana is somewhat similar, so you’ll be able to get that in the same amount of time or less. You might also check out the “Jimi’s” books (see the links on the right of the page).

      I think it’s also a great idea to have a decent textbook, like Genki, to get you started learning how to construct sentences. The problem with the Web is that there’s just too much stuff. You end up getting lost in all the noise. It’s easy to spend hours surfing through millions of different programs claiming to make you a genius overnight. There are dozens of forums where people spend hours talking about studying Japanese, rather than actually doing it. I’m not saying that’s all bad, just that it can be super distracting. Not to mention email, Facebook, YouTube, everything. A book doesn’t have that problem. It’s also easy to get conned into buying something that sounds like it’ll speed up the process. The truth is, it just comes down to you and how much time you spend engaging with the language.

      On that note, I think classes are super underrated. A lot of people selling stuff on the Net push their materials by saying that classes suck. Sure they do, if you sit in the back and tell yourself how much everything sucks. But if you take notes, ask questions, do homework, and actively try to engage with your teacher (who’s probably a real, live Japanese person), you will learn a ton. I know a bunch of people here who attend Japanese language school full-time, several hours every day, plus homework. You better believe that after a couple years doing that, your Japanese is A-Ma-zing. Wish I was them.

      Anyhow, let me know how it goes. Sorry for the long reply.

      • I absolutely agree with everything you say, Ken, but とふ isn’t a tofu.. It’s とうふ. I’m sorry, but I’m a pedantic teacher of Japanese and English 😉

        • And apparently I’m a pathetic speller in both languages. Nice catch, I’ve made that correction. Thanks for having my back.

  5. Thanks for the advice. Honestly I’ve just started learning Japanese less than two weeks ago (I didn’t mark the calender, but it might actually be less than a week ago) and have been trying to surround myself with as much varied content as I can. So far I’ve learned the pronunciations for all the hiragana characters (albeit imperfectly), how to write a bit over 100 kanji along with being familiar with some of their multiple meanings (I’m using RTK, but am avoiding attaching only one meaning to Kanji that have multiple). I’ve started reading “Japanese the Manga Way” and am taking song lyrics written in romaji, rewritting them in hiragana, and then trying to follow the song while listening. Currently I don’t know how to say many words, but the few that I do know I’m trying to get the pronunciation down as best as I can.

    Hopefully I don’t end up burning out, but I suppose as long as I make my goal to take at least one step forward every day (no matter how tiny) then there will be no other place to go but up. Right now I feel as if I haven’t even scratched the surface of learning this language, but hopefully with enough time I’ll be in the position to use your advice on avoiding using English too much as a crutch in learning Japanese. The only major impediment that I foresee is that I get really nervous when video chating/phone chating with strangers over the internet so I’ll probably have to find someone in person to teach me … which I imagine isn’t cheap.

    • Wow, you’re really going gangbusters–that’s awesome. Just get yourself into that steady routine and follow it. The key is to keep going, some days a lot, some days a little, but always keep going. You’re making a lot more progress than I did initially, so big props. You can do eet!

  6. Good site you have got here.. It’s hard to find good quality writing like yours
    these days. I seriously appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

    • Thanks much. That’s a very nice thing to read first thing Monday morning. Comments like that, coupled with a strong cup of coffee, are what give me the willpower to put on pants and go to work. Which is a good thing, since people on the train were giving me strange looks for going to work without pants.

  7. Very wise words here. I’ve just started my Japanese journey. What I find useful is walking around with a notebook. When I see something I’ll try and retrieve the Japanese translation from my brain. If I don’t know it yet, I write it down and look it up in my trusty dictionary later. I think that it’s better to learn a language using your own personal experience to build up vocab. It’s all very well building up vocab from text books but if it doesn’t relate to your own personal experience it’s useless. Also, if you are using Japanese related to your immediate environment, your grammar also improves. それはすごくよかった。わたしはあなたたちだいすき!

  8. Solid advice, Ken. You outlined the method I used to learn English, with some minor differences (I’m bilingual). I’m an English teacher in Brazil. I’ll definitely recommend this post to my students.

  9. “Fluency is the skill of learning not to think in your native language.” THIS…A THOUSAND TIMES THIS! I don’t think I’ve found a better way to express what I think fluency means. I always thought fluency was being able to just express any thought in a language…but it’s about a thousand steps beyond that…

  10. Love your writing!!! I’ve been reading all your posts non stop over the past 2 days – they are so freakin witty. I wanted to comment that I heard you are fluent when you start dreaming in the other language. It was so weird and cool when I started dreaming in Japanese when I lived in Japan.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. I don’t usually hear words in my dreams, so I wonder what that means? Maybe I’m not fluent in any language.

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