The Skill of Speaking Fluent Japanese

April 13th, 2012By Category: Uncategorized

Speaking fluent Japanese

Speaking fluent Japanese is easy. You only need three things:
1. A bunch of words
2. A bit of grammar
3. To think in Japanese

While the first two points get a lot of attention, the third point is equally, if not more, important.

Knowledge Versus Skill

Thinking in Japanese is not just about knowledge. It takes skill. Fluency requires the ability to stop your native language from entering into your brain. In other words, to stop translating. Okay, so that’s easier said than done.

It’s natural to want to use words from your native language as place-markers for unknown words in Japanese sentences. For example, if you want to talk about how terrible your apartment is, but you don’t have the appropriate Japanese vocabulary, you end up with a sentence like: apaato wa hellhole da. (My apartment is a hellhole.) Similarly, it’s common to hear foreigners living in Japan insert Japanese words into English sentences, like: “I’m going to the konbini for a nikuman.” (I’m going to the convenience store for a meat-bun.)

Unfortunately, approaching Japanese in this way only slows the progress towards fluency. Even people who have lived in Japan for years and studied tons of Japanese get stuck at this stage. The only way past it is to force yourself to stop thinking in anything other than Japanese (when you’re using Japanese). That means that if you don’t know a word, you either find another way to make the same point, or you simply don’t say it. You don’t even think it. Fluency is the skill of learning not to think in your native language.

Bilinguals and Polyglots

Bilingual learners have a well-documented edge in acquiring additional languages, and it may be due in part to having previously mastered this ability. They’ve learned how to block out one language, so that it doesn’t intrude on the other. Instead of using their native language as a crutch, they force themselves to find ways of expressing what they want to say using only Japanese. Similarly, people who have already learned a second language, even if imperfectly, sometimes go on to learn other languages in a similar fashion. They become polyglots, a term that refers to someone who can speak multiple languages, but sounds more like someone who has consumed a massive amount of Jello. Polyglots have learned to think in one foreign language, without reverting to their native language, and once they’ve learned the technique for one language, they can apply it to others.

One Day You Wake Up Speaking Japanese

When fluent speakers talk about their own language learning process, they often describe becoming fluent as a sudden event: one day they just woke up and could speak the language. It’s not that they finally acquired a critical amount of vocabulary or reached a tipping point in grammar. Instead, they simply learned to quiet the voice of their native language. By making their native language(s) off limits, they forced themselves to think and speak in Japanese.

Your Declining Popularity

How long this process takes varies with the individual and environment. Certainly, immersion helps. If you can surround yourself with people who speak no English (a situation which is becoming harder and harder to find in Japan), then you quickly learn not to rely upon your native language. It also takes perseverance and a determination not to revert back to your native language no matter how easy that might make the situation. There’s also a social component to as well. If you speak English, you can speak with confidence and enjoy a degree of popularity. You may find yourself far less popular if you insist on speaking in Japanese, where you sound like a five year-old. It’s not uncommon for a language-dominance battle to develop, with a Japanese person insisting on speaking English while you insist on speaking Japanese. You may discover that Japanese people who speak English fluently resent your persistent attempts at speaking their language.

How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent?

People who are fully immersed and force themselves to interact solely in Japanese seem to take between 6 months and two years to acquire the skill of fluency. Learning core vocabulary and grammar help considerably. Yet beyond that, a lot of learners don’t seem to be consciously aware that they’re trying to develop fluency as a skill. Instead, they focus on the technical aspects of the language and sort of wait for the Holy Ghost to one day bestow fluency upon them. Being meta-aware of the process – of stopping your native language and forcing yourself to think only in Japanese – can speed up the time it takes for fluency to kick in.

Not All the Time

It’s important to note that it’s not necessary to do this 24 x 7. You don’t have to walk around thinking in Japanese all the time. To do so would be onerous and a waste of time, particularly if you haven’t yet acquired a solid working vocabulary. You only need to think in Japanese when you’re speaking Japanese. It’s like a switch. You think in English until you need to use Japanese, and then you turn English off. Again, this is a skill. It takes practice. And like any other skill, the more time you can spend practicing it, the better you’ll get at it.

Author of this article

Ken Seeroi

I'm that guy who writes JapaneseRuleof7, bringing knowledge to your brain straight from Japan. My writings are mostly humor mixed with social commentary, plus an occasional foray into language education.

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  • Jason Hughes says:

    Very good points. Thanks for all the great Japanese learning advice! I may be moving to Japan next summer and came across your articles in the process of researching how to learn Japanese. The popularity/language battle issue is exactly the same in Taiwan where I’ve lived for 12 years. I’ve found a great way practice is by going to stores and asking about products that I really like and already understand through English. I repeat the same question at other stores asking about the same/very similar products to reinforce experience. These are products that I already buy regularly such as food, or things which I really would like to buy it if/when I have the money.
    With very basic grammar knowledge and prior product knowledge I’m able to guess what they are “probably” talking about and feel a sense of accomplishment as I gain the ability to communicate in the local language about something I really enjoy rather than suffer through the 10,000th re-run of “Where are you from? Why did you come to Taiwan?” or study something that I think I might have to use someday, somewhere.
    I’m not sure about Japan, but I find sales people in Taiwan are far less likely to try to practice their English in this situation since they are on the job and much more comfortable discussing product/service in their native language. They are also motivated to make the sale and more likely to take the time to help you understand the product which necessarily means explaining words you don’t know. Because the interactions tend to only take minutes and be focused on a narrow subject matter, I’m better able to reflect on and consolidate what I’ve learned, remember it and then use any new words/grammar to improve my ability to communicate next time.

  • Ken Seeroi says:

    Thanks, Nicholas.  I’m really glad you enjoy them.  As far as learning kanji, it’s all about how far you want to go with the language.  If you just want to exchange a few pleasantries with your local sushi chef and then go, boom, back to English, you don’t need it.  But if you want to have any real conversation, you’re gonna need lots of words, and kanji are words.  Well, kind of.  I mean, they look like a pile of twigs, but Japanese people seem to think they mean something. 

    Yeah but seriously, if you met somebody who wanted to learn English without learning the alphabet, you’d be like, Dude, that’s insane.  We all know nobody wants to learn how to spell “ketchup,” but there it is.  You gotta do it.  Same with Japanese.  Actually, it’s even more important with Japanese, since all the words relate to each other.  Anyway, check out Japaneseruleof7 if you haven’t already, because I keep putting stuff out there all the time.


  • Thank you, Ken.  your articles are awesome and inspiring.  you’ve somehow convinced me to learn Kanji even though I think it’s a waste of time. (but i read your other article so I’ve started learning already).

  • Ken Seeroi says:

     Hi Kyle,

    What I’ve found is that you have to be really assertive if you want to speak Japanese.  A LOT of Japanese people speak at least some English, and sometimes it can be a real challenge to use Japanese.  I usually tell people that I want to speak only in Japanese, and that if they want to explain something, then please tell me in Japanese. 

    But . . . you also have to consider the psychology of the people involved.  When folks get the chance to translate or otherwise help, it give them the opportunity to shine.  And if they’ve actually studied English, then this is the golden chance they’ve waited for.  Kind of like if you spent years studying CPR and then one day some dude had a heart attack right in front of you.  You’d be like, Sweet!  Everybody stand back!  I’ll save him!  Being the hero is just too juicy to pass up.

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s no better way to keep people loving you than by allowing them the opportunity to showcase their talents.  Everyone loves the spotlight. 

    So, while I’m probably the last guy you’d want to ask about marriage advice, I’d say if it comes down to A) Japanese, the language, and B) Japanese, the wife, I’d go with B. 

    C is also an option: hire a private tutor.  Good luck with that.


  • Ken Seeroi says:

    Hi Lynden,

    First of all, congratulations on having a lifestyle that allows you to zone out watching daytime Japanese TV.  That sounds fantastic. 

    Secondly, I think it’s critically important to set up an environment where you interact directly with Japanese people.  That changes your interaction from passive (TV, radio) to active.  From the moment I arrived here, I made it a point to speak only Japanese whenever possible.  Unfortunately, I also found that to be surprisingly difficult, especially until I built a larger vocabulary and had reasonably good grammar and pronunciation.  At first, I found a lot of people insisted on speaking English to me. 

    It helps to seek out people who speak virtually no English, like laborers, farmers, and fishermen.  The challenge is to also find folks who are sensitive to the fact that you can’t understand everything, and certainly not some peculiar regional dialect.  Older people seem to be more patient and helpful than younger people.  Hanging out with old farmers hasn’t done much for my social circle, but it’s been great for my Japanese.

  • A very interesting article Ken. I am particularly interested in your first point since it is an obstacle I’ve been trying to overcome for sometime, the ‘translating through your mother tongue’ factor. Using English grammar to speak Japanese is a crutch (as you put it) I haven’t been able to abandon. As a result people understand what I’m trying to say but it is far from correct.

    I watch a lot of daytime Japanese TV but the content doesn’t interest me and so I tend to zone out. Can you recommend any exercises that have worked for you in regards to attaining more focus?

  • Any thoughts for doing this with a Japanese wife who lived in the U.S. for years and jumps into my conversations to “help”? Hehe. This is easier said than done, but I’ll give it a shot.