Have you just come to Japan and are wondering how to get better at speaking Japanese? Or have you been here a while and yet, in spite of the classes, the homework, and being surrounded by Japanese people, you just can’t seem to get your speaking going? As a former study aboard student now living in Japan and working in a Japanese-language office, I’ve found that most learners (myself included) often overlook one of the most obvious and yet essential ingredients for fluency.
What’s missing that classes and textbooks won’t give you? Don’t get me wrong, these are very important. As dull as it may sound, studying grammar, Kanij, etc., is crucial to building a solid foundation from which you can improve your Japanese. However, while there is no shortage of international students who are Kanji masters, the number of people from overseas who can actually speak Japanese fluently is far smaller. What makes the difference?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple: the thing you need above all else is practice! Trying to become fluent in a language without practicing it is like trying to learn to play a piano concerto by reading sheet music but without ever touching a key.
You’d think that this would be the easy part though, just come to Japan and problem solved, right? Being surrounded by Japanese speakers every day should bring more than enough opportunities, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, it often doesn’t quite work out that way.
For one, people will often come all the way to Japan only to end up spending most of their time hanging out with friends from the same country, the same classes, the same study aboard program, etc. Needless to say, they usually aren’t using Japanese at these times. There’s nothing wrong with this though, it’s perfectly natural and to a large extent unavoidable. Forcing yourself to use a new language all day can be exhausting, and forcing this on your non-Japanese friends will likely result in you soon speaking to yourself.
On top of that, quite often people you will meet in daily life here are more than happy to try speaking English with you the split-second they realize that you’re not a native speaker. Countless times I’ve been to restaurants, offices, etc., speaking somewhat competently in Japanese, only to have the staff answer back somewhat less competently in English. This can be charming at first, but ultimately it may prove to be a bit grating, not to mention less than useful for practicing Japanese conversation.
So what are you to do? Well, you can give up all of your non-Japanese speaking friends and start throwing a fit whenever a stranger insists on speaking English with you. Or, it might be better to just casually get more Japanese practice by joining the ICC’s にほんごペラペラ Club. You’ll regularly be able to speak in Japanese with Japanese and other international students. Moreover, most of the club members will be the same each session, so it’s a good way to start making a Japanese-speaking circle of friends. You’ll also be able to avoid the Japanese vs. Insert-your-native-language-here conversation battles. Signup is going on now, so give it a try, and remember: practice makes pera pera!
JM (ICC Staff)