I have a close Japanese friend who has been learning English for over 10 years. I know that she has been learning for at least 10 years because she was a pretty good speaker when she first attended my class nearly 10 years ago.
Though she doesn’t have the opportunity on a daily basis, she speaks very well. Well enough that she could find a job using English in Japan. In fact, I recommended that she do so.
She says she needs to study more. That she needs to study more grammar and that she doesn’t speak good enough to do anything serious.
The truth is that she is afraid. Afraid she won’t understand. Afraid she will be embarrassed. Afraid everyone will find out how bad at English she really is.
She is so busy being afraid and focusing on what she doesn’t know, she can’t see how much she really does. It’s a perception problem created by fear.
Fear Stops Opportunity
In order to learn Japanese, or any language, you have to be willing to get out of your comfort range. If you try to learn all of the grammar structures and words before you start speaking, you’ll never start speaking. And it’s important to start speaking as soon as possible. You should start speaking on day one.
The earlier you start speaking Japanese in your studies, the faster you will learn.
But fear stops us from pursuing speaking opportunities and engaging with Japanese speakers. It makes us think, what if I make a mistake? What if they laugh at me? What if I can’t understand? It’s the voice that says “don’t try to speak to them, just keep your eyes down”.
Fear pulls our focus to what we might not know and the bad things that might happen. It forces us to overestimate the negatives and underestimate the positives.
For example, the humor of making a mistake when speaking Japanese will strengthen the bond you have with that person and it will help you remember the correct way to say it. The chance that person is offended because your English isn’t perfect is near zero.
How to Get Over Fear of Speaking Japanese
Getting rid of fear is both difficult and simple. It’s difficult because it requires doing the thing you are afraid of and simple because you know exactly what to do. If you are afraid of speaking Japanese, speak Japanese.
Yes, you will make mistakes. You will mispronounce, and not understand, and misunderstand, but you will learn, and you will have fun. You will get better. You will learn where you need to study more and where you are strong.
You Can’t Get Better If you Stay in Your Comfort Zone
After my friend explained to me that her English skills weren’t good enough to pursue the opportunities we discussed, she told me that she wished someone could speak with her and tell her where she needs to improve. She feels she isn’t good enough, but she isn’t sure where to improve.
I went through this myself. I felt that my Japanese wasn’t as good as it should be. But I wasn’t sure what I needed to learn to make it better. I was living in Japan. I spoke Japanese 100% of the time, and yet, I still felt I wasn’t good enough. If only someone could tell me exactly what I needed to learn to get better.
It has been ten years since I remember feeling that way. I have had some time to think about it and reflect on it. I have also read dozens of books on learning, language, and habits since then and put that knowledge to use to learn new skills.
Here is what I realized: This feeling comes when you want to get better, but are afraid to get out of your comfort zone and go to the next level.
You feel you aren’t good enough for the next level and instead of trying and learning, you try to first gain more skills. But since you don’t experience the next level, you don’t know what you need to learn. If you knew, you’d be getting better rather than worrying.
Fear creates a vicious circle. You are afraid you aren’t good enough, so you don’t try. And you don’t get better because you don’t try.
Try, Fail, Try Again
Failing is not the worst thing, failing to try is. If you try, then you learn. This knowledge makes you smarter, better, and more likely to succeed the next time.
You can’t learn Japanese if you think you must speak perfectly. You have to make mistakes to learn. It’s part of the process. This is true in anything we do.
Get used to failing and making mistakes. Think of it as a game. Try, fail, make adjustments with the knowledge you gained from failing, and try again.
You Decide Your Japanese Level
Only you can decide your Japanese speaking level. No one else. You decide how much you learn and when you stop learning.
But be careful, because the decision to stop learning can be an unconscious one. You may still be studying, but if you stop getting out of your comfort zone, if you stop being mindful about your learning, you will stop improving.
My friend has two business opportunities in front of her. Both of them involve English. Both of them are great opportunities and are a strong match for her skills.
They both require her to grow and learn and get out of her comfort zone. Until she does, she will feel her English isn’t good enough and she won’t know where she needs to improve until she tries.
But if she takes the challenge she will find most of what she fears wasn’t real. It won’t be scary anymore because the unknown will be known. Once it’s known, she can learn it and practice it.
With region codes being removed from a lot of the games and game systems, it has become easier than ever to get copies of Japanese games. The big question however, is do games make good tools for practicing Japanese?
In the past I would have generally said “not really”. Not for me at least. If you have subtitles enabled you can get practice reading kanji, but since I was in a rush to actually play the game, I generally tend to skip most of it. Most games also have voice overs, but similar to anime, the acting is very far from actual speaking. I am sorry to disappoint, but people just don’t talk like that in real life.
So in the past I would have said that video games might possibly make average Japanese study tools (if you are diligent enough to sit through all the text and cut scenes).
Using games to speak to native Japanese speakers
However, there is one aspect of gaming that I think can help you practice your Japanese, online gaming.
Now I will admit I don’t really do online gaming. I just don’t play enough to try and play online. However, at the end of last year, Modern Warfare 2 came out. My brother liked it so much he sent me a copy, along with a mic, and told me I had to get online with him and play.
Eventually, I started playing online when my brother wasn’t playing. It may because I am located in Japan, but many of the people I end up playing with are also located in Japan.
To be honest, I am not really interested in talking when I play a game. I set the headset aside so I don’t have to listen and can just enjoy the game.
However, for someone who is interested in practicing Japanese, it seems like it would be a great chance. While you aren’t going to have deep conversations, you will at least get to practice some common Japanese greetings and basic commands for helping each other out in the game. You might even be able to make a few friends a long the way.
Of course you have to be a little careful on how you approach this. Don’t just start trying to talk to anyone and everyone that is Japanese and has a mic. Remember that everyone is there to play a game, not teach a Japanese lesson.
The following tips should help you practice Japanese and meet some new people without becoming an annoyance.
- Try to keep the conversation focused on the game.
- If they seem hesitant to speak with you don’t try to hard.
- Refrain from asking too personal of questions. Unless they ask you first. (Remember other people can hear)
- If you want to add them as a friend, ask them first. They will be more likely to accept.
- Only talk when necessary. Remember everyone is there to play game.
- If you do get a good conversation going, remember to show interest in them (don’t get lost in learning Japanese).
In the end, I think that online gaming communities can be a unique place to practice Japanese. You know you have some similar interests, the conversation topic is already chosen, and if you end up on the same team, you have a great reason to communicate.
Give it a try and let me know what you think. If you have already tried it please leave a comment and let me know how it went.
P.S. I am looking for a new PS3 controller. Any recommendations?
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Marilyn Monroe. Yes, Marilyn Monroe. Two words difficult for both Japanese speakers to say in English and for English speakers to say in Japanese. I can still remember the conversation with my Japanese host mom from over five years ago about Marilyn Monroe. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but she was asking me how to pronounce it, and we were both laughing at her attempts. Then she asked me to try and say it in Japanese, and we both laughed at my attempts. Compared to English, Japanese doesn’t have a lot of sounds. However, some of the ones it does have are very difficult for English speakers to pronounce. I certainly struggled myself. Though with a bit of practice (actually probably “quite” a bit) and a few techniques I believe anyone can do it.
This technique is key and I give it most of the credit for my success in improving my “accent”. When I was a kid I used to imitate just about everything I saw on TV. Eventually, I got pretty good at doing accents and voices. I pretty much do the same thing when I am practicing Japanese. I listen to Native speakers tones, inflictions, and accents and then try to copy exactly what they said, exactly the way they said it. For this technique to be effective, try and copy as soon and often as possible after you hear a new sentence. It is usually possible to use it in the same conversation your hear it. If not, then you should practice by yourself immediately after your conversation has finished.
Record and Listen
We tend to hear what we want when we are speaking. It is common that we don’t even hear the difference between our own accent and a native one. By recording your own voice and listening to it, you can hear what you really sound like. It is also handy to have the same audio in native Japanese for easy comparison.
Talk Like a Crazy Person
Have you ever seen someone walking down the street talking to him or herself and think that person is crazy? You want to become that person. Only you want the words you are speaking to be Japanese and you want to focus on moving your mouth to make the correct Japanese sounds. I used to do this as a college student walking in between classes. I would guess that more than a few people probably walked past me hearing “Ra Ri Ru Re Ro” and thought I might have lost it.
This was a technique I learned in a Japanese class at Waseda University. Open your mouth big and over emphasize each sound. This is a great way to teach your mouth and tongue to move the correct way. Just simply read though the Japanese alphabet again and again using this method. You may feel a bit silly, but after you do it for a while you will realize you were probably mumbling. I did.
Practice and Repetition
As a small child I had difficulty pronouncing Rs. Since my favorite show at the time was the “Smurfs”, I used to sit with my father repeating “Smurfs, Smurfs, Smurfs”. I don’t know how many hours we spent, but I eventually got it. Learning Japanese is no different. Your tongue and mouth have spent years learning to move in certain patterns and it will take time and practice to teach them new ways. The longer and more often you practice the better you will get!
You’ve got your textbook, your kanji book, your dictionary, and you have been studying like crazy. You have memorized a number of Japanese words and phrases and even a number of Japanese characters. Yet, when you get the chance to hear someone speaking in Japanese, it still sounds alien. Don’t worry, this is completely normal and happens to everyone. You just need to get enough listening practice for your brain to start to distinguish the sounds, and then match them up to the words you have already memorized. Luckily, there is a fun way to do this. Watch a movie in Japanese!
The reason that movies can be great tools to practice listening is because they contain “regular” Japanese, spoken at a normal pace. It will be difficult to understand at first, but like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets. Movies also allow you to choose several viewing options depending on your level of Japanese by changing the audio and subtitle options.
So first, where can you find movies with Japanese audio and subtitles? As you have probably noticed unless you are in Japan, most movies don’t have Japanese options. There are two places in your video store that will. The first of course is the foreign video section. However, this will most likely be very limited and may only contain some of the older samurai classics (which aren’t very helpful because the Japanese used is outdated. The other and probably more helpful, is the animated section. As many of you probably know, Japan is famous for it’s animated films. Many of which have probably been exported to your home country. Because of the different genre you can also hear different types of speaking. And of course, if you can get your favorite movies dubbed in Japanese, then by all means go for it.
So what’s the best way to study using Japanese movies? This partly depends on your level of Japanese. For most everyone, I recommend watching your movie a couple of times. Doing so will help you get a better understanding of the meanings and what is actually being said. I recommend that you make the first watch either in Japanese with English subtitles or in English with Japanese subtitles. This allows you to know what is going on in the movie so you can focus on language learning. I have broken the instructions of viewing into three categories (beginner, intermediate, upper intermediate) below.
- Watch the movie at least once in English. Either in English with Japanese subtitles or Japanese with English subtitles.
- Watch the movie again in Japanese with English subtitles
- Watch a third time and pause/re-watch parts you don’t understand. You can also write down Japanese words you are unsure of to study later. (you may want to use Japanese subtitles to help you learn the words.
- Watch the movie at least once in Japanese with English subtitles.
- Watch it again in Japanese with Japanese subtitles
- Watch again to replay parts you don’t understand creating a list of words and phrases.
- Watch in Japanese with Japanese subtitles
- Watch again to replay parts you don’t understand and create a words/ phrase list
- Watch a third time in Japanese using no subtitles. This will help you focus on just the listening.
Notice that you will be watching the movie or TV show quite a few times, so try to find something you like. Also, even for those who don’t think their Japanese reading level is high enough that subtitles will help, use them anyways. It will help you learn to read Japanese and learn kanji. You may also find that you know more than you think.
Lastly, don’t worry if you are having a hard time understanding. The first times I started doing this with a film I could barely make out a few words. But each time I watched it I would recognize a few more and a few more. Pretty soon I was able to watch the movie without having to focus. It just takes practice.
There are a lot of Japanese anime available, but a good place to start is with Miyazaki Hayao. Many of his movies are not only fun and light hearted, but the pace of speaking is very natural.
If you have a favorite Japanese movie or anime, please feel free to list it in the comments, along with why you think it would be a good choice for learning Japanese.