Without a doubt, one of the most important parts of learning Japanese (or any language) is conversational practice. All of the study that you put in learning words, grammar, and phrases is tested during conversational. It’s also when you mind learns how to put together all the different parts you learned. Though it can be somewhat monotonous, I believe that conversational practice is also one of the more rewarding parts of studying Japanese.
My Japanese teachers at Waseda University (a university in Tokyo, Japan) forced us to break into groups and have conversational practice using set dialogs. I never really liked that method much. Looking back on it however, I realize it helped me a lot. The time I spent having coversational practice and learning to both listen and speak set phrases gave me confidence to use them outside the classroom. There are a few things I have learned that should help you get the most out of your conversations in Japanese.
What to study
As I’ve mentioned before, choosing the right materials is key. One of the Total Japanese books I used at Waseda University was completely dedicated to conversation. It had a number of set conversations with common Japanese prhases for casual and formal situations. Having a set dialogue will help make the conversation go smoothy. You can start out reading, but should eventually be able to respond with out looking at written materials. If you are doing this with a friend (preferably someone who speaks Japanese) it may seem a little weird, but it is good practice.
Once you are start to feel comfortable with set conversation you should start spending part of your time with free conversation. Try to keep the topics based around things you know know the Japanese words for and also topics that you enjoy. The topics will naturaly expand as you learn more and more Japanese words. Keep a dictionary handy, but try not to use it too much. The important part is to understand the ideas of the conversation. Don’t focus too much on understanding every word.
Choosing a Partner
The best option for your Japanese speaking partner is a native Japanese speaker. Preferably someone who doesn’t speak English. Conversing with a Native speaker allows you to hear Japanese pronounciation and also that mae sure they can understand yours. If your partner can’t understand English (or your native language) then you will be forced to speak Japanese. Choosing someone who has similar interest is also helpful as you will be able to discuss topics you both like.
I realize that this is an ideal situation and won’t always be possible for everyone. Not everyone has native Japanese speakers around to practice with. One option that I recommend is Skype. It is a free service that allows you to talk to people around the world. Skype even allows for free video chat. You can find someone by searching by country or try posting on various language forums. I recommend you find someone who does not speak your native language. You teach me Japanese and I will teach you English seems like a good idea, but doesn’t work out that well. Instead, choose someone who has common interests. Being forced to speak Japanese will help you learn much quicker.
And last but not least, remember to have fun and don’t worry about making mistakes.