Getting started with Japanese conversation can be a little daunting, but with the right mindset it's easy to hold a short conversation in Japanese without much study.
Step 1: Hold a ten-second conversation in Japanese
You need to put yourself in situations where you can speak Japanese, and have something to say. Staring at a Japanese person like a deer in headlights before reverting to English does not count as 'Language Exchange'.
The basic introduction in Japanese is taught as the first thing in all textbooks. Don't worry about being too polite at this stage, you have to start somewhere:
- Nice to meet you
- I'm Mike
- よろしく おねがいします
- Please be kind to me
This is how you start a conversation with a Japanese person you've never met before. You can mix it up with variations later on, but for now, this is how to start. You will want to change your name from Mike to something else :P
Step 2: Have things to say
Japanese conversation is a little like a video game you have to start from scratch each time you play it.
The first time it will be really awkward and unnatural, you might die straight away if the other person doesn't understand you. Even when you do get a basic introduction accross, the conversation stops there because a) you have nothing else to say or b) you don't understand what the other person is saying.
When you get to this conversational 'game over', it's easy to spot clues for what you need to do to make the conversation progress further next time.
Each time you play, you get further and further into conversation. You'll be able to practice and experiment with responses to commonly occuring questions until eventually, it's no longer a linear series of questions and answers and more like a regular conversation in your native language.
As an example, after you introduce yourself, Japanese people will normally say something like:
日本 語お 上手ですね。
- Your Japanese is very good isn't it?
To which a stock answer would be:
- そんな こと ない です。
- Oh no, not at all.
Which is a nice humble way to respond.
This is a good place to start as a response but you will eventually get bored of parotting out the same phrases over and over again. That's exactly how it's supposed to feel, and you're now ready to experiment with other responses and 'wing it' a little more than you would as a beginner.
To start with though, it's good to build a respository of stock responses to questions you might get asked. If someone asks your age, nationality, job or anything about you, you should have a stock answer prepared and ready to go.
The best way to find out what questions to have answers for is to get into as many conversations as possible with Japanese natives.
Step 3: Ask Questions
Talking is good because it allows you to practice, perfect and validate your spoken Japanese. You get an even greater benefit however when you listen to native speakers. They expose you to natural language, new vocabulary and speech patterns that are fundamentally correct because they are native speakers.
When you first meet a Japanese person outside of Japan, unless you already know the answer, an obvious question you can ask them is:
なんで [the country you're in] に きましたか？
Why did you come to X country?
In most cases the answer will either be 'work' or 'study'. The next question would then be either:
- What is your job?
- What are you studying?
This will get them talking, exposing you to some new Japanese and starting off a conversation that isn't entirely centred around you.
Step 4: Tactical Phrases
When you become amazing at Japanese, you may understand something like 95% of what's being said in a one-on-one conversation with a native speaker.
When you're starting out, you'll be lucky to understand 10% at best. It becomes very demoralizing ver quickly to try and hold anything like an adult conversation. But it's imperative that you don't give up.
The quickest way to become fluent is to expose yourself to native speakers. Whether you can consciously feel it or not, your brain is doing all sorts of rewiring in the background so that you can understand the new sounds you're hearing into understandable language.
So, our task is to somehow stay in conversations without understanding most of what's being said. Here are a couple of 'tactical phrases' you can use to help with this.
The equivalent of 'oh really?' in English. You can use this to stall for time while you try to figure out what was just said or think of a topic to change the subject to.
[a word you understood from the last sentence] ですか？
Sometimes you'll hear a long and complex sentence that you understood only a single word from. If you want to steer the conversation towards that word or some context around it (perhaps because you have a little more vocab in that subject area) then simply appending [ですか] to it will have the desired effect.
[a word you didn't understand] は なん ですか
"What does ___ mean?" At this point you're being a little more honest and asking them to explain what a word means in easier Japanese. Japanese native speakers in general have no idea what Japanese is 'easy' for foreign learners so you're not likely to get any better an understanding of the word you're asking about, however it might steer the conversation into easier territory for you.
Using a combination of a basic introduction, some stock phrases, good questions and a few sneaky tactics, you should find it easy to hold a one minute conversation in Japanese.
Know any better techniques for Japanese conversations? Leave a comment and let us know!