Top 15 Japanese Conversation Tips
By Azia Bounds | Created February 25, 2021
Thinking about how to advance your Japanese speaking skills, but not sure how? Are you really bad at keeping Japanese conversations going or can’t even manage to start one? Don’t feel discouraged. In this article, I’ll give you 15 tips to get you practicing speaking Japanese like a pro.
This article is a part of a series of articles on Self-Studying Japanese.
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The Challenge of Having a Japanese Conversation
Speaking. It’s one of those mundane tasks that we do every day and don’t really pay attention to. We talk to friends. We talk to order food. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves. But we don’t really think about it. That’s because of how comfortable we are when speaking our native language. We know the words, the grammar, and etiquette. There’s no need to fear. But this changes when we try speaking in another language.
Speaking a foreign language can be a bit daunting at times. Especially when speaking to a native speaker. You don’t want to look stupid. Or be a bother. But practicing speaking is important. Not only is it one of the main reasons you are learning Japanese, but it is also essential to learning the language. You can learn how to write and read Japanese, but you haven’t truly mastered the language until you can speak it. There is so much more to speaking than...well speaking. You have to know about things like etiquette, gestures, and dialect. So learn to speak Japanese.
Where to Go to Have Japanese Conversations
1. Go to Japan
So let’s start with the most obvious tip. Going to Japan is one of the best ways to practice speaking Japanese. That’s simply because you are immersed in the language. You can’t go anywhere in Japan and not hear or see something in Japanese. Being immersed in a language is probably the best way to learn a language. It forces you to constantly use the language. It also teaches you etiquette, hand gestures, and dialect.
Different cultures have different social norms. You may already know about bowing in Japan, but do you know about tipping. It is uncommon for customers to leave a tip in Japan, and it is generally not necessary that you leave one. This differs from the custom of tipping in the United States. In the United States, servers and taxi drivers expect to be tipped for their services and many people even calculate how much money they want to leave depending on the quality of service. Japanese hand gestures are also different. For example, did you know that when a Japanese person points at themselves, they point at their nose. However, when an American points at themselves, they point at their chest. Counting is different too. In Japan, people start counting with an open palm and begin with their thumb. They curl each finger inward until they reach their pinky. Furthermore, dialect can vary from region to region making it hard to understand people sometimes.
These points are things that you may not be able to learn by speaking to a Japanese speaker outside of Japan, depending on how long the person has been out of Japan. Besides traveling to Japan is probably one of the main reasons you decided to learn Japanese. If you are still a bit nervous about traveling to Japan and having to speak Japanese there, there are Japanese language learning schools, like Japan Switch, to help you out.
Japan Switch is a language learning school in Japan that helps beginner and intermediate students learn Japanese. Japan Switch offers classes both online and offline. They offer group and private lessons five days a week for an affordable price. They also have great teachers and signing up is easy.
2. Online Groups
So you’re not ready to go to Japan yet, but you still want to practice speaking Japanese. Try joining some online groups. Conversation exchange is a website that links you to native speakers. You can decide which type of conversation exchange you want to have. You can have a face-to-face conversation or you can have a pen pal. You can also have a simple chat by using their chat software. Signing up for this platform is free and easy.
HelloTalk is another online platform that will help you get in touch with a native speaker. It is an app that can be found in the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. You can chat with people from all over the world or people that live in your community using a chat application. You can also join groups or find individual people to talk to. Hello Talk also allows you to speak to people using voice and video calls and includes translation tools to help you along the way. Although the app is free, you do have to pay extra to unlock certain features like unlimited translation and getting rid of ads.
If you are looking for something more local and offline, try finding a Japanese language community. These communities often have regularly scheduled meeting times and places. They also are a great place to make friends who are learning the language just like you. To find language communities in your area try looking on social media for them and read our article What are the Benefits of a Japanese Language Community for more information.
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Japanese Conversations: Before You Say Hello
Before you start having Japanese conversations you need to know if you can actually communicate with your conversation partner(s). While this is supposed to be practice to get you better at speaking Japanese, you won’t learn anything if neither one of you can understand anything that the other is saying. Therefore, someone at an N5 level of proficiency in Japanese should not try to have a conversation with someone who is not fluent in English. That is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, try to find a Japanese conversation partner that meets your needs. If you have an N4 or N3 proficiency level of Japanese then maybe your conversation partner doesn’t need to be 100 percent fluent in English, but should still have a good understanding of the language with a few years of practice. Someone who is at an N2 proficiency level doesn’t need to look for a conversation partner that is fluent in English, as they are capable of understanding most words and grammar patterns used in conversations. Remember, the goal is to get better at speaking Japanese and the only way you will get better at speaking Japanese is by practicing speaking and having someone correct your mistakes.
2. Understand Why You’re Having Japanese Conversations
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Beginning to speak a new language can be challenging for several reasons. Two of the most prominent reasons are because of fear of making mistakes and being a bother to others. You will make mistakes when you start speaking Japanese. That is a fact. However, that shouldn’t be embarrassing. It is a natural part of learning anything. When you first learned how to walk you fell down. But you got up with bruised knees and palms and tried again and again. So don’t let your fear of failure outweigh your desire to learn and achieve your goals.
Also, don’t let your fear of being a bother outweigh your desire to learn. If you have decided to visit Japan and want to practice speaking Japanese while you’re in the country, just ask someone if you can. The worse they will probably do is say no. If that happens, ask someone else. If that person agrees to help you practice your Japanese then chances are you are probably not bothering them. So just go for it.
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3. Assemble a List of Potential Conversation Topics
Now that you have an appropriate means of communication and some confidence, you need to make a list of potential conversation topics. Don’t fall into the trap of not being able to continue a conversation after the greeting. It is a common pitfall for language learners. You need to plan ahead. Write down your hobbies, favorite movie and music genre, favorite food, etc. Make a list of whatever you like and be able to talk about those things at length. You don’t have to make a script, but you should be able to have a lengthy conversation about them. When you finish a topic move onto another one. Keep the conversation going.
If you are having trouble trying to figure out what you can say about your topic, then try making a questionnaire and fill it out, using complete sentences and preferably with a small number of one-sentence answers. Here is a completed questionnaire about my favorite movie genre.
Favorite Movie Genre
- What is your favorite movie genre?
My favorite movie genre is comedy, but I also like action.
- Why do you like this movie genre?
I really like comedies because I like to laugh. I’d much rather watch something funny than something romantic. I think romances are kind of boring, but I do like a good rom-com. I really like action movies too. I love to see crazy stunts and fight scenes. They make me feel lively and energetic.
- What is your favorite movie from that genre?
My favorite comedy is Friday and my favorite action movie is Avengers: Infinity War.
- Why do you like these movies so much? Is your favorite comedian in it? Does it have a really funny scene? Are the action scenes really good?
Friday is just hilarious. All the scenes in the movie are funny. It also has one of my favorite comedians in it, Chris Tucker. The movie is about a man who gets fired on a Friday, which also happens to be his day off. The movie tells the story of what happens on the day. It has crazy characters and great jokes.
Avengers: Infinity War also has its comedic moments. But it is action-packed from beginning to end. It is also the long-awaited beginning of the end of a series of movies, spanning more than a decade. It has most of the characters from the previous movies and great story-telling. And the villain, Thanos, is great and beyond menacing.
- What are your favorite scenes from the movies?
My favorite scene from Friday is when Craig, the main character, is interacting with his father. His father wants to talk to him about getting a new job since he just got fired. The only problem is that the conversation takes place in the bathroom, his father is using the toilet, and the smell isn’t all that pleasant in there. You really feel bad for the son who is stuck in the bathroom with his father, until they finish their conversation. However, you can’t stop laughing through the scene because some of the best jokes and situational humor are in it.
My favorite scene in Avengers: Infinity War is the end. However, that is a bit of a spoiler. So my second favorite scene is when Thor makes his ax. It’s really cool. And it shows off just how strong Thor is. It has some comedy in it too. And my favorite character from Guardians of the Galaxy, another movie a part of the series, is in it. And he’s pretty funny.
Notice how I can provide lengthy answers for each question. I am not just answering with one sentence. Notice how the questions flow from one another based on how I am answering a question. That’s how conversations are. They flow. They can be long. And good ones don’t usually include one-sentence answers. So try to really have a discussion about a topic. For more information about how a typical Japanese conversation is like watch the video below and try to follow along with the cues.
Japanese Conversations: After You Say Hello
1. Use あいずち (Aizuchi)
Now, you’re finally going to have a Japanese conversation. But you may still want to know a few tips to keep the conversation going. Try using あいずち. あいずち are Japanese exclamations. They basically convey that you are listening to someone, without adding anything further to the conversation. It is the equivalent of the English “Uh-Huh.” Here are a few examples of あいずち.
|そうですか||Is that so?|
Use these expressions when you are speaking to sound more natural and let your partner know that you are listening to them and that you do understand what they are saying. Here’s a video to help you understand how to use あいずち in conversations.
2. Ask the Obvious
Yes, ask the obvious. Asking the obvious may seem weird, but in Japanese culture it is normal. The idea is that you don’t want to assume too much about a person. This can be considered rude, which can lead to fewer people willing to talk to you. So if you encounter someone wearing a rock and roll T-shirt don’t ask, “what is your favorite rock band?” Instead ask, “Do you like rock music?” This is more socially acceptable. It also lengthens your conversation. Your conversation partner may reply back with, “Yes. I like rock music. Do you like rock music too?” This gives you the opportunity to respond back and leads to an interesting conversation about musical interests.
3. Make Sure You Are Getting What you Need out of the Conversation.
Conversations are 50/50. That means that you should be contributing 50 percent to the conversation and your partner should be contributing the other 50 percent. Not 70/30 or 80/20. If you have a Japanese conversation partner who is trying to improve their English speaking skills, do not let the conversation be spoken almost entirely in English. You are trying to improve your Japanese speaking skills. Allowing this unequal exchange will only hinder you. Therefore, you need to make sure that part of the conversation is in Japanese.
Talk to your Japanese conversation partner about dividing the conversation into English and Japanese. One half of the conversation can be entirely in Japanese while the other half can be entirely in English. This way you both are getting what you want. And no one feels as if they are not learning anything. Make sure that you and your conversation partner stick to the discussed plan and do not deviate from it.
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4. Listen to Verb Endings
When your Japanese conversation partner is speaking make sure that you are paying attention to the verb endings. As you know in Japanese verb endings are very important. They dedicate a sentence’s tense. They can indicate an invitation or a request. There is even a verb ending that can describe an activity as forbidden. This differs from English considerably, as it does not have verb endings with the same functions. Therefore, missing the ending of a verb in Japanese can almost be the same as not hearing the sentence at all. So pay close attention to the end of a sentence. It can help you avoid moments of confusion and awkward pauses that no one quite knows how to break.
5. Ask Questions
Ask questions during the conversation. Ask your Japanese conversation partner to repeat what they said or explain what a word means. Yes, I do realize that the last tip was for you to pay attention to verb endings so that you won’t have to ask your partner questions. However, that is just good listening practice. You will have to ask questions.
Don’t feel embarrassed to ask these questions. You and your Japanese conversation partner have agreed to speak to each other with the intention of improving your respective second language speaking skills and possibly make a friend. Therefore, they are expecting you not to know everything and need help understanding grammar patterns, slang, and other words. They also realize that you may not be accustomed to understanding everything in a conversation at natural speaking speeds and have trouble understanding different dialects. Plus your conversation partner is probably going to ask you questions as well, because they may be struggling to understand grammar patterns, slang, and other words too.
So there is no need to feel embarrassed. You are trying to help each other better yourselves. So make the most of the time that you spend talking to your Japanese conversation partner. Ask as many questions as you need to better understand Japanese. This is the only way that you are going to learn.
6. Have More Japanese Conversations
Now that you’ve gotten through your first conversation, have more conversations. Schedule a regular time to talk with your Japanese conversation partner. The first conversation may not have been your best, but that’s okay. First tries are often not the greatest. And besides, you already know that it takes several years to learn a language. Therefore don’t let your first conversation deter you. Having more conversations, helps you practice your speaking so that you can get better at speaking Japanese. And one day with all of this practice, you will make it to an N1 level of proficiency in Japanese.
Other Forms of Immersion
1. Speak Japanese at Home
You may have found or may soon find out that you cannot speak to your Japanese conversation partner all the time. But you want to spend as much time as you can speaking Japanese. You could find another conversation partner with a different schedule or you could speak Japanese at home. As mentioned before, as humans we talk a lot. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves. So start talking out loud to yourself in Japanese.
Describe the groceries you need. Talk yourself through making your favorite dish. List the tasks that you need to complete for the day. It may seem a little weird to anyone who lives with you. But they’ll get used to it. They may even start asking you to translate what you are saying, which is great. You can use this as a way to check yourself and make sure that you are using the correct grammar patterns and words. Record yourself while you do this and play it back to yourself. Identify any grammar patterns that you are having problems understanding and vocabulary words that you are having trouble pronouncing or remembering. Fix these issues and keep practicing.
2. Sing Your Favorite Song
Who doesn’t like singing? Regardless of whether you sound good or bad, singing your favorite song is always fun. If you happen to like Japanese music then maybe you have a favorite Japanese song. Look up the lyrics and start singing along to it. Make sure to listen to how the artist pronounces each word. It may sound a little different from how you usually pronounce the word. However, it will help you with understanding different dialects and get more comfortable with understanding Japanese conversations at a normal speaking speed.
If you don’t listen to Japanese music, you should start listening to it. There are plenty of genres with various artists that offer unique songs. You can also try translating your favorite non-Japanese songs into Japanese. Then sing what you’ve translated. This causes you to be a bit more creative and probably learn new vocabulary words, as you will have to find words that are musically appropriate for the song.
3. Listen to a Show or Podcast, But Don’t Watch It
To speak Japanese you need to develop your listening skills. You are listening to a person speak for at least half of a conversation, after all. So it’s very important to understand what they are saying. Listening to tv shows without watching them is a great way to develop your listening skills. This is because you can’t use things like body language, social cues, hand gestures, or English subtitles to understand what is going on. You are actively listening when you do this because it requires you to listen to know what is being said and to whom it is being said to.
Listening to a Japanese drama or a Japanese podcast are both great ways to develop your listening skills and to hear real Japanese conversations. It also is a good way to help you get used to different dialects, understanding what is being said at natural speeds, and to learn more about Japanese culture. As Japanese live-action tv shows and podcasts are more reflective of Japanese culture. They include things like proper etiquette and hand gestures.
Good Morning Call and Hibana: Spark are two good Japanese dramas that you can watch on Netflix. Good Morning Call has a focus on romance while Hibana: Spark focuses more on drama and comedy. Japanese LingQ and Japanese Listening Advanced are podcasts. Japanese LingQ covers a variety of topics including current affairs, culture, and food. It is designed for intermediate-level students and provides access to free transcripts when you make a free account. It is available on the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. Japanese Language Advanced is for advanced level learners. This podcast has Japanese natives who speak at normal speed while using slang and other casual terms and phrases. It also provides English transcripts. Japanese Language Advanced doesn’t have an official website and is no longer updating, but you can still find their podcasts on the Apple Store or on SoundCloud.
4. Read Out Loud
If listening to podcasts isn't really your thing, then try reading a Japanese book out loud. Reading something out loud and reading something in your head - as you might already know - can differ considerably. Reading something in your head is more passive while reading something out loud is more active. When you read something out loud you can hear what you are reading and catch mistakes in pronunciation. You are also able to find places in a passage that are hard for you to understand.
When you find words that are hard to pronounce, words that you do not know, or grammar patterns that are hard for you to understand, highlight them. Constantly repeat words that are hard for you to pronounce, until you can pronounce them easily. Look up words that you do not know and study them. Study grammar patterns that are hard for you to understand. Try using these grammar patterns in conversations.
Good books that you may want to check out are “Read Real Japanese: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors” and “Exploring Japanese Literature.” “Read Real Japanese: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors” is intended for advanced level Japanese learners. It contains eight essays along with notes on the grammar used in the essays and a CD so that you can listen while you read. This book was organized by Janet Ashby and is part of a series of other similar books. “Exploring Japanese Literature” contains three classic stories along with page-by-page English translations. It also offers a translation for each word used in every paragraph. This book is organized by Giles Murray and is also part of a series of similar books.
No More Doubt
Now you know everything that you need to know to start practicing Japanese. So there’s nothing to fear and no reason to doubt yourself. You might have a rocky start, but after a couple of years, you’ll be speaking Japanese fluently. For information about speaking Japanese read our article The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Speaking. Have fun speaking Japanese.
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