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The skill of speaking fluent Japanese

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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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52 Comments
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Just find some topic you are interested in , and study it in Japanese.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

surround yourself with people who speak no English (a situation which is becoming harder and harder to find in Japan)

Never been a problem...

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.

That's not a problem in Japan if you're a 20-something female blonde. :-)

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.

Again, not my experience. Even people who are pretty good at English seem happy and relieved to be able to relapse into Japanese.

It’s like a switch.

Makoto's switch! Yes indeed.

0 ( +6 / -5 )

When I was first in Japan, I was in a regional area which helped I think. In Tokyo it is possible to get most things done in English but not so in the countryside.

I was quite singleminded about learning Japanese and it has paid off professionally. The writer is correct about the whole popularity thing though, and I did have some locals actively try to discourage me from learning Japanese, presumably out of self interest.

3 ( +3 / -1 )

language dominance battles do happen in my experience, because as a foreigner you naturally attract Japanese who want to practice their english on you. Sometimes you end up having half english / half japanese conversations because neither party wants to speak their own language! :)

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I can say by myself, been studying japanese over 10 years, started to learn chinese mandarin during the boring matches of South Africa World Cup (so boring, but just didn't want to miss the results). In less than two years, I'm already able to chat with friends, discuss trend topics on social network sites, watch chinese news and soap operas, that's luckily like japanese, always accompanied with some sort of subtitles. I guess my progress has been at least 10x faster than the average learner that starts the language from 0, but again, you have to be a kanji nerd to learn this fast. Never thought learning japanese could be this useful to learn another language, seriously! But all depends on how interested you are in the language (of course!), even being a k-pop addicted / pump it up enthusiast, I just can't see much fun learning a language that hasn't a whole new handful ideograms to learn..

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I like speaking broken Japanese.

7 ( +8 / -2 )

That's not a problem in Japan if you're a 20-something female blonde. :-)

So Cleo, are you implying that Japanese expect a 20-something female blonde to speak Japanese like a five year-old? Were you content with that situation? Sounds kind of insulting to me.

The author here has a good sense of humor. His point about thinking in the target language is crucial.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I have this major issue with my boss and Japanese, it doesn't matter how much I know he always say "you don't know X yet so you don't speak Japanese"... I learn X, they say "you can't write"... I start writing, they say "you can do something else"... I think this guy feel he needs to have something over me... it is like he doesn't want me to learn it and corrects me like a child when I make the ever so slightest mistake.

I told him to stop it and unless you totally don't understand me don't break my rhythm of trying to say what I want to say but he continues to "be the expert in japanese" so feel the need to ignore me because he knows Japanese and I don't....

7 ( +7 / -0 )

correction... I speak Japanese quite well but not native like him is what I was meaning to write in the last sentence.

JT: Get an edit function PLEASE!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

How can anyone call himself fluent by learning a language for 2 years is a mistery to me. It takes at least 10 years to be fluent.

4 ( +6 / -3 )

Agree with Foxie.

Language is way more than the criteria posted above or passing a certain test. I have seen guys that got the PHD in Japanese overseas struggle for up to a year putting it into practice.

Lots more to a language than just grammar and vocabulary.

Myself fluent in Japanese not by a long shot but at times people without seeing my face mistake me for a local.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Myself not

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Masswipe - Not that they 'expect' anything at all. Being a 20-something female blonde (in most countries that I visited in my youth, at any rate) makes up for a whole range of shortcomings, including speaking broken Japanese. Or broken anything.

It takes at least 10 years to be fluent.

KIds are fluent way before their 10th birthday. Adults, if they're of the right mindset and in the right environment, can do it quicker. And I suppose it also depends on your definition of 'fluent'.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Fluent to me means knowing over 90% of the expressions and words of a language. So, kids cannot be considered fluent speakers at age 10, they lack a lot of words.

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

fluent |ˈfloōənt| adjective

(of a person) able to express oneself easily and articulately : a fluent speaker and writer on technical subjects.

• (of a person) able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately : she became fluent in French and German.

• (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility : he spoke fluent Spanish.

No mention there of percentages.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Not that they 'expect' anything at all. Being a 20-something female blonde (in most countries that I visited in my youth, at any rate) makes up for a whole range of shortcomings, including speaking broken Japanese. Or broken anything.

Absolutely. If you can get by on your looks don't bother. That's been my approach these last few years..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

75% agree with the writer's opinion.

1 ( +2 / -0 )

lived in thai for 5 yrs, cant speak thai was no problem, living in japan now for 2 yrs-cant speak japanese also no problem.

we have hand and feet to talk, i wonder whats all the english teaching here is all about if hardly anyone speaks english. seems waste of time for me.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

If you can get by on your looks don't bother.

No no no no no! If people want to think you're a pretty blonde airhead just because you don't (yet) speak your second language with total native ease, that's their problem and can be used to your advantage. By the time they realize you're not an airhead (assuming you aren't, of course) you're way ahead of them.

To harp on a little more about fluency; situation and circumstance need to be taken into consideration, too. The average 10-year-old child is able to express itself easily and articulately on topics that relate to its daily life, so it can be considered fluent, though obviously its language skills are not at the level of someone with a PhD. I consider myself fluent in Japanese and can pass myself off for a Japanese over the phone; but I'd be way out of my depth say in an academic conference on biomagnetic diagnostics or digital geometry processing. I'd be out of my depth in those situations in English, too and probably wouldn't know 10% of the jargon used, never mind 90%. Does that mean I'm not fluent in English? I don't think so.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

fluency has various levels. Many people can speak fluently with no problem, but it would depend what the topic of conversation is. I consider myself fluent, would have no problem in MOST conversations, but if the topic was the relation of ancient bhuddism and shinto then I would struggle.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Marry a Japanese guy or a Japanese girl...!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

..and oops, work in the Japanese Inc....like me!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Japan Inc pays my salary, but boy is their accent thick! I'm a five year old in my company in the suburbs of Tokyo but a cultured world gentleman in inaka and Kansai. Go figure.

The article is so on the spot. Well, almost: Could somebody PLEASE translate this in Japanese switching "Japanese" to "English" so I might also one day go by with any level of English in Kansai area? I don't remember a single instant in nine years where speaking English might have gotten through. Then again, I've learned English English. Maybe Japanese accustomed to Americanglish have hard time getting through my accent (at the same time when they're complaining why I can't understand theirs).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

How about, I am going to the kobini for some ichiban shibori and yakitori, etc...???

1 ( +2 / -1 )

you can become fluent in 2 years. first year you spend in a Japanese language school, classes from 8 am to 4 pm, then until late at night learning and homework. then next year you spend at uni, all classmates Japanese, all the classes in Japanese, you have to take credits. in 2 years you sing like a bird, believe me

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I'm way too lazy for this. When i was young, i loved learning new languages, was almost fluent in French back in the day when i went to School in Canada. Now I'm just lazy and chasing other things. Bat habit especially as Japan is now pretty much my permanent home. Yeah really bad habit. I hope this don't come back an bite me later.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

southsakai, everybody is lazy. do you think I would have gone through the horrors described in the post above unless they were absolutely necessary for my career? if nobody would have forced my, even after 13 years in Japan my Japanese would have been somewhere between beginner and acceptable

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I just love how this author assumes that a process that takes a Japanese child about 15 years can be completed by a foreigner in just 2 years. Truly we foreigners are attributed all sorts of super-powers! ;)

7 ( +9 / -2 )

@gogogo... For those that cannot grasp that there is a world outside the island... Their default position is that foreigners cannot speak/read/write/understand Japanese. Whether you actually do or not is irrelevant. Facts have no bearing on this sort of mindset. I think it was Twain that said you should never argue with idiots. Theyll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

In my former office my old boss got in my face about a form that had to be handwritten. He wrested the form from me before I put pen to paper. His reasoning was that the handwriting MUST be good. I offered to write it and he told me "Dont be silly". I suggested that he write a sample and that I would. I would allow HIM to judge whos handwriting was best. The look of shock on his face said it all. I wrote the form, and word of my ability got out.

...until new people came to work in the office and once again I had people telling me what I couldnt do because I wasnt Japanese. Youll be able to convince close friends, and family... But sweeping back the tide of willful ignorance... Would be like trying to erase racism in America. Youll never resolve the whole problem. Just live your life as an example to others.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

@Kuroyama: Excellent post, thanks for the info, I'm currently trying to go around the one person that is causing the trouble with me, I speak perfect Japanese but this guy tries to keep something over me all the time.

I'm not going to even mention that if there is anything wrong with the office, or someone left something out, made a mess in the kitchen it automatically was me that did it. I now walk around the office in the morning and evening looking for things that I might be blamed for and clean it up, it is such a waste of time but if I don't I get the "gaijin dana" comment and treated like "if he doesn't understand how to clean up how could he run a project"...

The other way to get around it is be like the foreigners you see on TV, loud and speaking difficult Japanese, run around the office and make friends with everyone, forget about your work you wont have time for it, I refuse to lower myself to these trained monkeys with speaking ability but no business intelligence. There was an excellent article on this site a few weeks back about how foreigners seem to do nothing in Japanese companies... now JP people can understand why.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I agree with the author. I put myself in an environment where I could converse in Japanese over 50% of the day, thought in Japanese, and in 2 years of studying in Hawaii I went to Japan and could function in daily life, shopping, train, interacting with my boyfriend and host family, without using English at all. My kanji caught up in the 3rd and 4th year and I can pick up a novel and read it at about half the speed I read English, and comprehend it OK.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Gave the whole 'abandoning native language and focusing entirely on thinking in the target language' thing a shot today. Man... the headaches that ensued...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I can personally confirm that 6 months was more or less the time (in Japan) it took me to start to blather in Japanese. And to have Japanese interfere with my previous third language, French. I guess, once one foreign language pops up in the mind involuntary when searching for another, that can be conisdered as fluent.

However, I had some different experiences from what the author describes. The most important ones are the following:

First, fluency (as I experience it) is obtained by the absence of conscious thought about the fact that you're speaking a foreign language. Once You stop bothering about mistakes, your fluency improves faster than you can realise it yourself. The task is not to think at all.

Second, vocabulary doesn't matter. You can always resort to using nouns from one language in another language, since You will have a description at hand if You need it. It makes no sense at all to translate "conbini" or "nikuman" to another language. Instead, I treat it as a name and explain its meaning. Otherwise, saying "sushi" (instead of sliced raw fish on rice, which had been put on rice-based vinegar before) in English or my native German would mean that I'm not fluent. And that's rubbish.

Third, the popularity. I never experienced popularity due to being a foreigner who speaks fluent English. Instead, I grew more popular with people once my Japanese improved significantly. Maybe that's due to the fact that most of my dealings were with either young Japanese (below 30 years) or those with a scientific background who actually knew that their Englisch was rather acceptable.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Ive hit a total plateau in my Japanese the last couple of years and it is frustrating. I suspect a lot has to do with this idea of thinking in Japanese. This is what I need to master. I still mess up all the time, but I find when I do it with a smile on my face and a self-deprecating laugh everyone is more than happy to forgive me and/or help me out. Im sure I will get "there" one day - wherever "there" is?!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

First, fluency (as I experience it) is obtained by the absence of conscious thought about the fact that you're speaking a foreign language. Once You stop bothering about mistakes, your fluency improves faster than you can realise it yourself. The task is not to think at all.

100% agree, but any Japanese will tell you otherwise that you have to drill the language into your head. I don't find that method works at all, if it did all Japanese high school students, who must study english in school, would speak English.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Great post and lots of good ideas.

Fluency is a tough one. I am totally illiterate when it comes to understanding loan forms, but brilliantly fluent when goofing around in the language and making people laugh.

If you want to be a fluent writer of the kyoiku kanji in one year, get Heisegs Remember the Kanji. Torrent available too. :-) I will not put that link though, but you can find it. Brilliant man.

Personally, I think when you finally dream in Japanese you are there, especially if you use a dictionary in your dreams to look up words that you forget when awake, but amazingly find when dreaming. That is amazing to me.

Keep studying peeps. You obviously love this country or you would not be here.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Not that they 'expect' anything at all. Being a 20-something female blonde (in most countries that I visited in my youth, at any rate) makes up for a whole range of shortcomings, including speaking broken Japanese"

Cleo, this is a contradictory statement. If the Japanese in your younger days had absolutely no prior expectations about you (as you imply), then why did your being blessed with the luck to be a 20-something female blonde make up for a whole range of shortcomings? Could a 20-something female Indonesian have had such a blissful, wonderful experience in Japan as you apparently did as a youth?

This is not off topic, because it goes to the heart of how well or enthusiastically people will pursue Japanese language fluency.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If the Japanese in your younger days had absolutely no prior expectations about you (as you imply), then why did your being blessed with the luck to be a 20-something female blonde make up for a whole range of shortcomings?

Nothing at all to do with folk being Japanese. Blondes have fun everywhere. :-)

Could a 20-something female Indonesian have had such a blissful, wonderful experience in Japan as you apparently did as a youth?

Dunno, you'll have to ask one.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

I think Ken Tanaka has the best method: How to speak Japanese without saying a word

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuFe5lqBAYE

1 ( +2 / -1 )

How about, I am going to the kobini for some ichiban shibori and yakitori, etc...???

elbuda,

Brewskies fine, but PLS oh PLS dont buy yakitori at a konbibi, yuck!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

it doesn't take ten years..... it just takes complete immersion. My brother who didn't know any Japanese came back from living up north in sendai a while ago (lived there for 2 years). He had lots of trouble coming back to speaking in English. He had to translate his thoughts from Japanese to English. He said he saw a foreigner once a every 2 months.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ps. he forgot many basic words like 'sticky tape' and 'over coat' ... was hilarious ;)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You write very well for such a youngster ; )

When I first arrived in Japan, there was no such thing as "bilingual TV". Television can be an excellent teacher because "seeing is understanding". It certainly helped me get around! However, one day, when I wanted to buy 5 small cakes, I discovered I only knew how to say "yotsu" so I said: "Kore wo yotsu kudasai" then immediately, as if it were an "afterthought" I added : "Ah! Mo hitotsu kudasai!"

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Better be Fluent to native status by the end of this decade, of it's for me to stay in japan for life

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Just in case it isn't "evident", I meant the author: Ken Seeroi - such a cute photo!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

After reading some of the native-English speaking/writing respondents' replies here, I simply have to assume that no matter how fluent they are/aren't in Nihongo, their Nihongo is surely better than their native Eigo. ;-)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I speak fluent Japanese, English, German, and my mother language... My Japanese is probably the best right now, as many Jpeople on the phone are confused by my foreign name and native-like intonation and fluency.

Working in a Japanese company, reading Japanese newspapers and having a general Japanese only atmosphere helped as well.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

However, one day, when I wanted to buy 5 small cakes, I discovered I only knew how to say "yotsu" so I said: "Kore wo yotsu kudasai" then immediately, as if it were an "afterthought" I added : "Ah! Mo hitotsu kudasai!"

I don't know why, but I always find "five" to be humorous. For some reason "itsutsu" always makes me smile. (I know. I'm weird.)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

...and ここのつ. "I've got a lov-e-ly bunch of ここのつ!"

2 ( +2 / -0 )

...and ここのつ. "I've got a lov-e-ly bunch of ここのつ!"

lol'd because I sang that when i read it XD

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I certainly agree with everyone who said that it takes a long time to become proficient in Japanese. I touched on that this week in http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/the-best-way-to-learn-japanese/ , along with examining some of the mass-marketed programs that promise you'll soon be speaking Japanese in your sleep. Just by eating three magic beans or something.

But in this article, I was interested in exploring the discrepancy between knowledge and fluency. They often seem to have little relation to one another, which I find surprising. I thought the two would go hand in hand, but hey, they don't seem to.

Some people who have tremendous knowledge have difficulty putting it into practice, while others with quite limited vocabulary and grammar are able to hold conversations just fine. And that's in English. From what I've seen, it is possible to acquire decent Japanese grammar and enough vocabulary to discuss a range of topics within 6 months and two years. Beyond that, how deeply or articulately one can discuss a subject, well, that's a lifetime endeavor. I haven't found that limit yet.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I'm finding it hard to cope in my Japanese class. I guess it's too much to learn two languages at once.

Try finding online Japanese videos with lots of chatter and with English captions. If you're learning Japanese writing, even better if they have Japanese captions as well. Or maybe can find DVDs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuMqg7Q3u4s

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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