Fluency is the dream of many people studying Japanese. It seems that Japanese fluency has become such a coveted commodity that an entire industry has sprung up to deliver it fast and hot to your door, like pizza. Mmmm, mouth-watering fluency. So crispy and delicious.
I suddenly became fluent three years ago, while staying in a minshuku in Nagasaki. A minshuku, as I’m sure you know, is like a cross between a rundown B&B and some old Japanese family’s house. It’s quintessential Japanese budget travel, and when I arrived, they acted like I was the first white guy who’d ever stumbled through the front door dripping with sweat and cradling a bottle of sake.
And after several days of speaking constant Japanese with minshuku guests and staff, taking tours of Nagasaki in Japanese, and conversing with my companion who spoke only her native language, I realized I had ceased to use English altogether. I just literally stopped thinking in English. If I wasn’t awesome, at least I was functional.
Now, to be fair, it wasn’t exactly like getting struck by lightning. I’d spent a number of years prior reading Japanese books, watching Japanese dramas, and eating boatloads of brain-boosting sashimi. Not to mention all the Japanese beer I drank. No doubt that helped. I took classes and did Rosetta Stone and slept with "Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar" under my pillow. (By the way, best book ever.)
But for some reason, I thought being fluent would mean I was finally done with studying. Japanese? Excuse me while I check that off the list. I’ll just be heading to the park now with these books, CDs and a can of gasoline. Unfortunately, the reality had a little less earth-shattering kaboom.
What is fluency?
Let’s define what fluency is and isn’t. It certainly isn’t knowing all the words in a language. It doesn’t even have overly much to do with grammar. Many native speakers have abysmal grammar and pedestrian vocabularies. But then, what is it? Certainly one overriding characteristic is the skill of thinking in a language without translating. That ensures that both input and output occur relatively smoothly and with a minimum of processing time.
In order for that skill to develop, two prerequisites must be met. The first is a vocabulary sufficient to enable thinking in Japanese without reverting to one’s native language, drawing pictures, or employing a series of grunts, clicks, and whistles. While those may be effective for communication, they certainly don’t qualify as fluency. Thus, if a word hasn’t been learned or can’t be recalled, one simply “talks around it,” and arrives at the same idea through the use of other terms. If you can’t remember how to say “grape,” then at least you can say “that round fruit used in the making of sweet, sweet wine." If you forget “zebra,” just say “that black and white donkey-looking thing like they paint down in Mexico.” You may have done this when trying to recall actors or movie titles, which draw upon rarely-used memories that are harder to access.
The second prerequisite would be grammar sufficient for comprehending and expressing concepts, such as who’s doing what to whom and when. Those two abilities, along with practice applying them in real-world situations, are what lead to fluency. But, still, what’s so great about it?
What Japanese fluency feels like
After my Nagasaki miracle, I realized fluency shouldn’t have been my goal, because it wasn’t a goal at all, and here’s what I mean:
Have you ever talked with a seven-year-old? I’ve got a nephew who’s seven, and I can tell you, it’s great. For about, oh, a minute. Sure, he’s completely fluent, but all he wants to talk about are fire trucks and cartoons. He’s got a head full of cotton candy. But ask him who he wants to win the U.S. election and he runs outside with his skateboard. I don’t even know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican.
That’s what it’s like to be fluent in Japanese. Speaking is one thing, but having something to say is quite another. I’ve found myself in this situation hundreds of times, where I fall into a conversation with a stranger and they’re amazed. Wow, you’re from America, yet you speak fluent Japanese! And for a while, we have the best conversation ever. We learn about each other’s backgrounds, interests, and opinions. And then the novelty wears off and we run out of common ground. Suddenly, it’s like being on a first date, where you’re just poking at your salad. Sometimes it takes five minutes, sometimes a weekend, and sometimes a month, but it’s hard to stay fascinating forever. Then it comes down to: What can you really talk about?
Many people studying Japanese know quite a bit about subjects related to Japan, such as anime, gaming, martial arts, maid cafes, whatever. This single-subject expertise can be thought of as a vertical silo, and as long as you’re speaking to someone who shares the same expertise, who’s in your silo, you have something good you can both discuss. If you’re into Japanese horse racing and the dude sitting next to you turns out to have that same passion, you are, perhaps literally, off to the races. The problem lies in talking with people who aren’t in your silo.
A lack of stuff
This is not a problem of language. It’s one of culture. It’s not a deficiency of vocabulary, grammar or fluency. It’s simply being outside of the shared understanding that comes from years of living within a society. Rather than a series of vertical silos with specific information, native speakers share a broad, horizontal base of common knowledge. Simply put, everybody knows the same stuff. If you’re American, you know why Mr T pities the fool, what Cheese Whiz goes with (everything), and understand why Sammy Hagar is incapable of maintaining a constant speed of 55.
Even with a shared base, it’s not uncommon for communication gaps to develop within native populations. A good example is a generation gap, where older and younger people don’t share common references because their accumulated knowledge is different. They may both be fluent, but it’s hard to talk about music when one person thinks Maroon 5 is a paint color. Information silos also frequently occur, such as when men talk about football and women talk about, well, who knows? Shoes or something. Eh, probably men, huh.
This brings us to the classic party problem. It may be easy enough to have a conversation with one person, but when native speakers get together, how do you follow them? It’s like listening to Australians talk about rugby. Sure they’re speaking English, but if you know none of the teams, none of the players, and none of the terminology, how do you participate in the conversation? All you’ve got is a head full of cotton candy.
The typical way non-native speakers approach this challenge is by asking questions. You may be able to coax out a conversation simply by making queries and listening to the replies, although answering a string of questions can become boring very quickly.
Conversations in Japanese are also hindered by cultural customs and norms. Now, this may come as a shock, but the nation isn’t exactly known as being the most expressive on the planet. “Westernized” Japanese people (i.e. all your Japanese friends who speak English) may be accustomed to speaking openly with strangers, but for many Japanese people, this is possibly something they’ve never done. They may ask few questions of substance, or reply with short, dead-end answers. Not the greatest conversationalists really, the Japanese.
Putting fluency in perspective
Fluency, in popular books and on the web, is frankly a bit overrated, for at least three reasons.
Fluency isn’t exactly a goal, since it’s closer to the starting line than the finish. Whether you can become fluent in three months, three years, or whatever is immaterial. In your native language, it took years of formal and informal exposure for you to amass a sizable base of cultural knowledge, and you shouldn’t underestimate the time required to do so again in Japanese.
Facts may get you further than linguistic ability. Knowing the names of players and teams is far more helpful when talking about sports than the ability to construct a proper sentence. Consider ways of supplementing your overall knowledge base with widely-known and often-used information. How many prefectures can you name? Who are the top Japanese singers and actors? Who are the key government officials and newsmakers? Historical figures? What are the popular television shows, movies and songs? How many can you sing?
- How you approach conversations is important, since it’s possible to be too “Japanese.” You may find that the more of the language you learn, the more the customs of and behaviors of the society you acquire, which is not always a good thing. Americans tend to greet all news with, “What the eff? Say what? Why?” which are great for promoting discourse. Japanese, on the other hand, more typically respond by looking thoughtful and mumbling “heeeeey” and “huuuuum” a lot. Conversations flow a lot better with meager Japanese and more of a “Western” attitude than with perfect Japanese that ends in a culturally-appropriate mumbling and starting at one’s shoes.
Fluency is a useful skill, no doubt. It smooths interactions and makes life in Japan a lot easier. It also promotes learning directly from native speakers. But fluency alone won’t make you a stunning conversationalist.
Watch a ton of TV. If you have access to Japanese television, there’s no better way to mainline popular culture into your veins than by watching TV. It’s an extremely lightweight way to pick up information, since it comes with moving pictures and pairs nicely with malt liquor and dried squid.
Read the news headlines. Now the hard way to do this is by using that giant paper thing that people used to look at before Al Gore invented the Internet. The easy way is to read Yahoo News in Japanese. Use Firefox as your browser with the Rikaichan add-on and Boom! You’re a kanji master.
- Get out of your silo. Cultivate widely useful information that’s known by everyone. What do people talk about when you’re not around? What types of knowledge would be helpful in conversation, with anyone? Figure it out, find it out, and learn it. Also, “get out” in general: out of your apartment, out of your circle of English-speaking friends, out of your comfort zone. You can’t go back in time and thoroughly acquire what it took other people a lifetime of growing up in Japan to learn, but you can go forward.