Many people believe you need to live abroad to get speaking practice in a foreign language, but this isn’t true.
Similarly, people often assume that if you live in Japan, like I did, you’ll pick up the language easily. But that’s not necessarily true either.
If you speak English, it’s possible - indeed easy - to live in another country for years and not become fluent in the language.
I didn't make any year-long New Years’ Resolutions this year. Instead, I decided to set myself some monthly language-related challenges. I’ll decide them as the year goes on, and I’ll probably do one every other month.
In January, I decided to speak Japanese every day for a month.
For context: I live in the UK, I don’t speak Japanese at home, and although I work as a Japanese teacher, I don’t currently teach Japanese every day. So this was going to take some effort.
When I lived in Japan, I was using Japanese every day. My Japanese reading and writing is significantly better now than it was then (I have five years’ more practice under my belt). But I don’t speak Japanese every day like I used to. So I decided to try!
I set myself the following, slightly arbitrary, rules:
1) Speak in Japanese for a minimum of 15 minutes a day (ideally more)
2) Texting doesn't count
3) Talking to yourself doesn't count either*
*Incidentally, I am a big fan of talking to yourself as a method of practicing a language. But I decided it wouldn’t count for this challenge.
Every year on January 1st the Brighton Japan Club has a New Year’s swim in the sea. A great opportunity to practice different words for “ohmygodit’sfreezing” .
I don't swim this year, just go along afterwards for a post-swim lunch and some Japanese- and English-language chat in a café.
Tip number 1: Find people to speak with. You can’t practice speaking by yourself. Could you join a group class or a social club?
I get up an hour early and have a 30 minute italki lesson on Skype before work. Italki is a website and app where you can find online language teachers.
I plan to start teaching on Skype in 2019, possibly using italki, so I take the opportunity to ask the teacher all about italki and how she finds it. The teacher is friendly and I have fun talking with her. I’ve never met her before – I just found her on italki.
I go to the weekly Japanese-English Language Exchange with Brighton Japan Club. It’s a good way to meet Japanese people, and people interested in Japan. There’s usually a good mix of old and new faces, which keeps things fresh.
I have dinner with a Japanese friend I met last month at the end-of-year party of the Brighton & Hove Japanese Club (a similarly named but different group to the Brighton Japan Club). We go to Goemon, arguably Brighton’s best ramen bar. We talk in Japanese all night.
I go to 書き初め kakizome (first calligraphy of the year) at Brighton Japan Club. I don't speak much Japanese at this event and on the way home I wonder if it ‘counts’… I have a lot of fun though.
I Skype with a friend in Japan, who I met when I lived in Nagoya. This was probably the most fun thing I did all week. I saw her last spring, so catching up over video chat, there is a lot to talk about.
I reflect that being able to talk with friends in Japanese is really important to me.
Tip number 2: make friends who speak the language you’re learning
I have a 30 min italki “instant lesson” with teacher S. She used to live in Canada where she ran language exchange events. She’s thinking about studying abroad in the UK, so we chat about that. She talks quickly, and so do I, happily and unthinkingly.
I go to Café an-an in Portslade for lunch. I chat briefly with the owner, Noriko, while eating katsu curry. I take home some 花びら餅 hanabira mochi (“flower-petal mochi”) sweets.
After lunch I have a video meeting scheduled with Jess from Nihongo Connection. We chat in Japanese for the first half of the call - Jess is British, so I wasn't expecting to talk with her in Japanese, but its fun. We make plans to meet up the following month in Edinburgh.
Skype lesson with Sugita-sensei. I met Sugita-sensei at Yamasa in Okazaki, where I studied on the Advanced Japanese Studies Program in 2014. Now, I consider myself lucky to call him a friend as well as 先輩 (senpai; senior colleague) and teacher. When I have time, I usually have a Skype lesson with him once a week. We read fiction and news articles, and sometimes I write stories or essays and we work together to correct them.
I’m going to London for the day, to the video-games exhibition at the V&A and to see Macbeth. I have an italki lesson with teacher H in the morning. I ask her how I can improve my speaking. She says the goal “improve my speaking” is too broad, and I agree. She suggests I should think about what kind of speaking I want to get better at; and what I want to be able to talk about. Then, focus in on those topics, by reading about them. This seems like very good advice.
Tip number 3: find a good teacher
I go out for dinner with a Japanese friend and a Spanish friend. We switch between speaking English and Japanese all night.
I spend the day out with my boyfriend and some friends. My boyfriend can speak Japanese, but we don’t speak Japanese together, because - well, just because we don’t.
We get home at 11:45pm and I realise I haven’t spoken any Japanese yet today. Reluctantly, my boyfriend agrees to speak Japanese with me until midnight. We set a timer for 15 minutes and I pour him a beer.
I go to Brighton Japan Club’s annual new-year mochi-making event. My favourite events are the ones involving food! I eat squishy rice cakes and chat with some new people.
I have an italki lesson at 7am with a new teacher, T. This is the only italki lesson I had that wasn’t really for me. He suggests some resources that are way too low a level for me and a Japanese grammar website with picture explanations that I think are kind of unclear.
I take this as a useful lesson in how not to teach on Skype.
Term starts today, which means I teach STEP 1 (beginner) and STEP 2 (upper beginner) Japanese classes on Tuesday nights. STEP 1 students are doing a quiz about which country well-known brands are from. STEP 2 students practice asking each other to do things, which is always fun.
On the way home I wonder if teaching beginner level classes counts as speaking practice for me. Probably not, but I decide to let it count for this experiment anyway. It’s still three hours of Japanese time.
7am Skype class with Sugita-san. We read a section on “Friendship” from Tsurezuregusa (徒然草, Essays in Idleness), a collection of essays written by the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenkō in the 14th century, and talk about it.
I teach two more Japanese classes, STEP 3 and STEP 4, at pre-intermediate and intermediate level.
My higher-level classes usually need a bit less structure than beginner classes. I still speak more slowly than natural speech, but I don't plan the wording of my instructions in the same way as I do with beginner classes. Especially in STEP 4, students like to chat and always have good questions, which they can ask in Japanese.
Tip number 4: ask questions!
I’m going to my office job 9-5 today (no chance to speak Japanese there), and to a birthday party afterwards (no Japanese speakers). So I get up at 7am and have another italki lesson with M-sensei. We talk about Brexit…
I go to a Heart Sutra writing workshop with the Brighton Japan Club. The workshop is in Japanese with English interpretation. I have fun listening along to both.
I Skype with another Japanese friend in Japan. She had a baby recently, so a lot has changed for her. She fills me on her new life. After our conversation, I walk around all day with a huge smile on my face.
Another italki lesson with M-sensei. She is an ex TV announcer, so I ask a bunch of questions about pitch accent. (Briefly: Japanese has high-low tones, and pronouncing a word with the wrong pitch accent pattern makes you sound unnatural).
She says that my pitch is mostly good but I make occasional pitch and stress mistakes which identify me as a non-native speaker.
Like many non-native speakers, I have never explicitly learned Japanese pitch accent, and I think this is probably something I should rectify. She has me read an article from NHK news, and corrects my pitch accent. It’s hard.
I also go to see a Japanese film with another of my students – 君の名は (kimi no na wa; ‘Your Name’). We see another former student of mine in the foyer and speak briefly in Japanese.
I teach two beginner classes. STEP 1 students are practicing verbs like 行きます、来ます、帰ります (ikimasu, kimasu, kaerimasu; go / come / come back), so I have them read a short story about my trip to Disneyland last year.
I am reminded that reading helps with speaking. We need to be exposed to lots of language in order to eventually produce it.
STEP 2 students are learning about giving directions. Confession: I find teaching directions really hard. I used to practice this by playing video games (students shout out directions while one person is playing), but the flash game wont work on the classroom computer any more. I consider switching this up next year.
I think more about input/output. How useful is it for my students to learn to give directions in Japanese? Not very. How useful is it for them to understand verbal directions in Japanese? If they go to Japan, probably very useful.
Tip number 5: Read! There can be no meaningful output without input.
I ask Sugita-san more about pitch accent. He is currently teaching on a course for people studying to become Japanese teachers in Okazaki, Japan. He says many Japanese people don’t explicitly understand pitch accent either.
My boyfriend shows me a video series on Japanese phonetics by Dogen, the Japanese teacher and YouTuber. I go on an internet deep dive into pitch accent. Maybe that will be my next challenge…?
I teach two Japanese lessons. In STEP 3 (lower-intermediate) we cover short forms in casual speech. I love teaching this because it’s so ridiculously useful and common in everyday speech. It’s not in the textbook we use at all, so I made my own materials.
I go to the pub again with my Spanish friend and Japanese friend. Japanese friend is going back to Japan the following day. He has also, excitingly, just become a father. Lots to talk about. As before, we probably talk about half in English and half in Japanese.
I go to an 生け花 ikebana (flower arranging) workshop with the Brighton Japan Club. The workshop is in English, but I chat with the organisers in Japanese a bit.
I have to rush off as I am going to see the film 万引き家族 (Manbiki Kazoku; Shoplifters) with my student in Eastbourne. I love hanging out wth my adult students outside of class, and I’m always super pleased when they invite me to spend time with them, especially when it’s Japan-related!
Tip number 6: find fun things to do related to the language you’re learning
I go to Kantenya, the Japanese supermarket, and buy sashimi-grade tuna to make まぐろたたき丼 (maguro tataki don; chopped tuna rice bowl). I ask the staff how long it will take to defrost the tuna. She explains you can just take it out the freezer, or there is a proper technique that’s should make it taste better. She produces a handout that shows how to do it! They have the handout in Japanese and in English. I take the Japanese one. We talk about the Manbiki Kazoku film too.
I have a 30 minute italki lesson with N-sensei. We talk about her plans to study abroad in the UK and my time in Japan. It’s fun, but I don’t really learn anything.
I reflect that just talking is not very good practice for me personally. I think I need to talk about difficult topics and be corrected quite closely.
Italki makes a distinction between “community tutors” (unqualified) and “professional teachers”. N-sensei is a community tutor, and mostly does “free talk”. On reflection, this is not really what I need from a paid class.
Before my group classes, I teach a private lesson in a cafe. We go over some grammar points my student has questions about, but mostly I just try and get her to speak Japanese, without using English.
Most students need more speaking practice. The experience of being totally lost in language, and not understanding most of what’s going on is something we may not have felt since childhood. As such, it can be really scary.
I believe it’s a feeling you need to get used to if you’re going to make progress. I tell my student I want her to be a little bit outside her comfort zone - not so far that it’s terrifying, but just enough that she’s pushing herself and learning new things.
Skype lesson with Sugita-san. We read ネギを刻む (negi o kizamu; literally “Chopping Leeks”) a short story by 江國香織 (Kaori Ekuni). One of my favourite things about my lessons with Sugita-sensei is that he introduces me to stories and essays I wouldn’t necessarily find by myself.
A Japanese volunteer, Aria, comes to class with me. My students ask her questions and talk with her in Japanese. We also make 四コマ漫画 (yon-koma manga), manga comic strips with four panels. Aria helps out a lot and my students enjoy speaking with her.
I get requests from local Japanese people to come and volunteer at class fairly frequently. I’m grateful for their help, and it’s good for my students to practice speaking in this way.
Speaking in Japanese every day for a month - my conclusions
1) Find a good teacher
You need a teacher who fits your needs. If you just want speaking practice, find someone who will “just talk” with you. If you want to be corrected, ask your teacher to correct you more. Chatting with friends is good, but your friends aren’t language teachers (probably)
2) Make friends
The absolute best things I did this month – not just in this challenge, but the most fun things I did this month overall – was talk with my friends in Japan.
I was reminded too that being able to talk with friends in Japanese is really important to me.
3) Connect offline as well as online
If you live in a country where Japanese isn’t widely spoken, you might need to go online to find people to talk with. But I did get a bit bored of having so many Skype lessons, especially as I started to feel I wasn’t getting much out of it.
Plus, italki is kind of expensive to take lessons so often. I plan to start teaching online late this year, so I told myself that taking Skype lessons was research…
Speaking to people offline was way more fun for me.
4) Be open to surprises!
Japanese popped up in some unexpected places this month. I knew that Jess runs a Japanese speaking club, but she’s English so I wasn't expecting us to talk in Japanese so much. That was a lot of fun.
5) Find work using your languages
I get to use Japanese in my work, because I teach Japanese. Arguably it’s not really speaking practice for me, but my students always ask me good questions and help me see things about the Japanese language from a new perspective.
If you want to get serious about having more chance to use your Japanese, consider looking for a job or a voluntary position where you can use it. Could you work in a Japanese restaurant, or for a Japanese travel agency?
At an advanced level, speaking a lot is actually not a great way to get better at speaking.
One of the italki teachers told me: “You don't need speaking practice, because you can already speak. If you read more, you’l be become able to talk more fluently about complex topics.”
This fits with what I know about input-based methods of learning languages – essentially, that these two things happen in this order:
1. You get input — you read and listen to sentences in some language. If you understand these sentences, they are stored in your brain. More specifically, they are stored in the part of your brain responsible for language.
2. When you want to say or write something in that language (when you want to produce output), your brain can look for a sentence that you have heard or read before — a sentence that matches the meaning you want to express. Then, it imitates the sentence (produces the same sentence or a similar one) and you say your “own” sentence in the language. This process is unconscious: the brain does it automatically.
(quote from Antimoon)
There can be no good quality output (speaking the language; writing it well) without massive amounts of input (listening to and reading the language).
But if you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, you’re probably not getting enough speaking practice.
Speaking Japanese every day was really fun. As you can see, it didn’t quite have the result I was hoping for, but I definitely learned a lot. Why not give it a go?