The Fluency Game

Hello Jinhan,

I hope you are well.

I would like to ask if you have any tips to share on becoming fluent in Japanese. I have studied Japanese for 3 years in NUS and subsequently got my N2. However, the test was not a good gauge of my Japanese proficiency level because I was weak in grammar and conversation skills.

After my graduation, I did not study nor have the chance of using Japanese in the workplace for 5 years. Currently, I am in Japan on a 3 month intensive course, but my grammar and conversation skills are still weak. I could do well in tests and whatnot, but if you ask me to apply the grammar learnt, it is very difficult for me. Every time somebody speaks Japanese to me, my mind goes blank and I could only utter a simple sentence or word in return. I am not sure if I should extend my intensive study here in Japan; I have classmates who have been here for almost a year, but still could not converse well too.

It seems like it is hard to be proficient in the language and at times, I feel like I should give up.

Anyway, I also want to let you know that I have always enjoyed reading all your posts! 🙂

Hello SC,

Let me start by thanking you for reading my posts.

I was in pretty much the same situation as you some 8 years ago. I attended Japanese language classes for about 5.5 years, got my N2 and stopped using the language for the next 5 years. I was able to speak long but simple sentences and understand Japanese people if they used proper grammar and simple words, and I also did very well for my written tests. In fact, after my placement test and interview, the teachers told me that my written test places me in the A class, but as I wasn’t good at listening and speaking, they suggested I join the B class instead.

But that was after 5.5 years of studies. When I had only studied the language for 3 years, I was wondering if I would ever be able to speak the language, because when my friend asked me how much of a Japanese movie I could understand, I could at most say 20%. And like you, I couldn’t hold a conversation. All I could say was pretty much one- or two-word answers then.

So keep going, you are in a good place.

There are a number of ways that are useful for my learning you might want to try. I find writing a diary very helpful, even though I am quite lazy to do it every day. It helps you discover what part of a certain grammar you are not good at. Despite the amount of grammar and vocabulary available in a language, there actually is a very limited number that is used on a daily basis. Once you get the hang of them, you can basically converse comfortably in everyday conversations.

Watch a lot of TV and if you catch any phrases that might be of use, remember them and use it the next instance you get a chance to. Doesn’t matter if it’s correct or not, because that’s what the teacher is for. If you used it wrong, the teacher will correct you. If you are someone who is afraid of making mistakes, all the better, because you won’t forget it when someone corrects you. That’s why, the most important thing is to make yourself speak it.

Don’t hang out only with people who share the same first language as you do. Or should I say, don’t hang out too much with people who never uses Japanese with you. The best is to hang out in groups where your only common language is Japanese. I’ve used to death the example of one of my dinners with my former schoolmates, but I’ll use it again:

Me: English, Mandarin, Japanese
Swiss friend: English, Japanese, others
Taiwanese friend: Mandarin, Japanese
Taiwanese-American friend: English, Mandarin, Japanese

As you can see, using English, the Taiwanese friend wouldn’t be able to join our conversation; using Mandarin, the Swiss friend wouldn’t be able to join our conversation. So our only common language was Japanese. But this wasn’t a deliberate choice that we form a group or anything. It was by pure coincidence. And despite some of us sharing languages other than Japanese, even if it were just any two of us hanging out, our conversation is always carried out in Japanese. And the best thing is, we never escape to a foreign language to bring our messages across. If we didn’t know the word for something, we always use Japanese to describe it. Like if we don’t know the word for “bottle opener (栓抜き),” we would say, “the thing you use to open a bottle (ボトルを開けるもの).” Or if someone says 栓抜き and we didn’t know what it meant, we would ask and they would explain “ボトルを開けるもの.” The idea is, use Japanese as much as you can not just in class, but also outside.

Talk to yourself at home. This may sound weird, but that’s what I do when I learn a new language. I try to describe the actions I do at home and imagine a conversation on that topic with myself. Doesn’t matter if it’s wrong. The idea is to have yourself speak more smoothly. And again, there really isn’t much variation on the things one says on a day-to-day basis.

One trick I used to sound more fluent was using the “but (けど).”

To extend your sentences, make it a point to give an opposing idea. For example, if someone asks if you’ve been to Disneyland, you could say “I have but I would like to go again (行ったことがありますけど、また行きたいです” or “I have but it wasn’t fun for me (行ったことがありますけど、あまり面白くなかったです).

I only became moderately fluent after 6 months of intensive study here + my 5.5 years of prior studies, so again, you are in a good place.

Most important tip of all: Keep speaking.

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