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.