July 5, 2012 5:54 AM   Subscribe

Bilinguals and polyglots of AskMefi please hope me. I understand a lot of words and grammar in Japanese but don't seem able to use them. How do you make the leap from "knowing" a word or grammar pattern to actually being able to use it in conversation?

I understand a lot of words and grammar constructions that I hear in conversation and come across in writing. However I don't seem able to actually use them in conversation. They simply just don't come to me. My active dictionary of usable words and grammar is stunningly empty! How do go from simply passively knowing the meaning of a word or grammar construction to being able to use them in conversation?
posted by ultrabuff to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Language immersion. You need to listen to people speaking japanese A LOT, and you need to be forced to respond in Japanese a lot. It'll come!You're never going to get better at conversation with any sort of work-book like approach, even if that helped you learn words and grammar rules.

(Even try watching Japanese movies or tv shows over and over - and talk along with them, learn the lines, get your mouth used to the patterns of making japanese sentences, even if it's not you're own words.)
posted by Kololo at 6:26 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you in Japan?
posted by zachawry at 6:39 AM on July 5, 2012

Yes, this is all about active practice. In your native language, note that you don't think about grammatical structures, vocabulary, etc. (at least, in casual conversation). It simply comes to you, because you've had practice. If you speak the language regularly, thinks will start to become automatic. That's what you need. Find someone who speaks Japanese, and practice with them. Find simple things to talk about, and struggle until the right words come out in the right order. And then keep doing it.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 6:47 AM on July 5, 2012

The skill you're talking about is language fluency, and fluency really only comes from immersion. Sad, but true.
posted by Nomyte at 6:54 AM on July 5, 2012

Nthing immersion with a lot of studying on the side as the fastest way. I've been in Japan for about 9 months - my work environment is basically all Japanese and I've become functional in the language. But without studying and memorising grammar, my speech patterns are limited to a few simple sentence structures.

If you're not in Japan, try finding a conversational group or partner willing to practice? And tell them to stop you whenever you make a mistake, however small, and correct you. I found that helped immensely in eliminating my errors. Gradually your brain will calm down enough for you to consciously decide to use any new grammar you've studied on paper. First you'd have to get over the deer-in-the-headlights reaction everyone gets when starting to speak in a foreign language!
posted by monocot at 7:21 AM on July 5, 2012

Oh, and lots and lots of listening helps too. I find myself becoming able to use new grammar patterns after being exposed to them through studying, then starting to notice them in native-speaker conversation (e.g. between my coworkers). After that I usually try to use the pattern the next time I speak to someone. A few more times of using it and you've cemented that grammar in your active conversational repertoire.
posted by monocot at 7:29 AM on July 5, 2012

When I was studying to be an ESL teacher, I was told that people use half of the vocabulary they actually have, mostly due to shyness and embarrassment. This sounds a little bit batty, but meeting up with native speakers for beers and getting buzzed helped me loosen up like crazy when I was trying to learn English. After that I "knew that I could" and I became more fluent.

It helps if you are drunkenly discussing politics/philosophy or any complex subject that requires you to use more sophisticated vocab.
posted by Tarumba at 7:33 AM on July 5, 2012

You have to practice speaking, a lot. As others have said, immersion is best, followed by language partners.

By yourself, read out loud. During your daily routines, pick out phrases and translate them, speaking out loud ( things like billboards, newspaper headlines, etc). If you can't remember a word, write it down, and turn it into a flash card later.

By speaking a lot, you will be exercising the brain's ability to pull up the sounds needed to say what you want. Reading and listening comprehension won't do this as well, if at all.
posted by Fig at 7:46 AM on July 5, 2012

This question comes at an apropos time for me, as I am about to launch myself into an Irish gaelic festival, which is nominally supposed to be an immersive experience. I, like you, find my account at the Bank of Vocabulary and Grammar to be suddenly overdrawn when I get into a conversation.

Others have said immersion and practice. This is good advice, listen to it, but it is a longer term solution. If, like me, you are thrust suddenly into conversation without the benefit of lots of practice and immersion, here is a strategy I sometimes use. Here in Ottawa we call it "franglais". You speak as much of the sentence in the second language as you can, and fill in the rest in your native tongue. In practice, this comes out sounding a lot like:

"j'ai parké mon auto à l'autre bord du street". (I parked my car on the other side of the street.)

Assuming the people you're talking to have a little bit of English, your meaning is still conveyed, even if you didn't get everything perfectly right. I find not having to get everything perfect helps me get over that hump and at least get talking, even if it's a little strange sounding at first.
posted by LN at 8:01 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

As well as conversation practice and as much listening as you can get, try translating your internal monologue into Japanese as you go about your day. It's much easier to put new grammar and vocabulary into use in your head than it is to get them out into the world--not only do you avoid the bashful barrier, it also just feels easier, at least to me. When studying, I try to rephrase new grammar into something I could use mentally. Then I overnarrate my actions and try to translate any new thoughts as I think them. (Think "okay, I have to turn right here to get to the post office" or "hmm, this banana doesn't look ripe yet, I should choose a different one" or "I have to remember to buy some flour" or "oh no, I forgot the flour" etc)

I guess this sounds weird now that I type it out, but intentionally thinking as much as possible in my target language has really helped me get conversational. As a bonus, if you practice like this, I think it takes less time and less overall fluency for thinking in the target language to start to feel normal and to become something you do automatically when your environment is immersive.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:15 AM on July 5, 2012

It helps to practice using the word at first in situations where you can sort of mentally rehearse what you're going to say ahead of time. Asking someone "How do I get to the _________" is easier than coming out with "Oh, you just turn left at the _________" when someone asks you for directions. You have to master the first use (for any given word) before you have a good shot at getting it right in the second use.

I think willingness to fuck up also helps. It's easy to be 75% sure that you've got the right word and still keep your mouth shut. You have to convince yourself that it's worth it to try even if there's a 25% chance of failure, and that you can always repair the misunderstanding if you guess wrong. (I am terrible at following this advice in my own language study, but it's something I try to make a conscious effort at, because the people I know who are the most impressive quick language learners all seem to have this cheerful "oh well mistakes happen" attitude towards the whole thing.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:26 AM on July 5, 2012

My 4 years of college Japanese meant little when I moved to Japan because oddly enough nobody natively speaks like a textbook (or grammatically correct, for that matter). And I'm an introvert and speaking is not my preferred way of communicating, which didn't help.

However, nthing the 'use it or lose it' consensus. Get a Japanese native speaker to talk with you and have a conversation, work through with them the vocab and grammar you 'know' but haven't been able to put to use.

BTW, you might want to check out Fluent in 3 Months, if you haven't already.
posted by sazanka at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Words only exist in isolation in dictionaries. As they're actually used, there's a lot of context, which comes down to (largely) statistical patterns regarding their use. You can understand a word knowing its definition in isolation, and connect the dots if words are thrown at you, but it's hard to use them yourself without knowing what patterns they fit into.

So, to get that you really just need more exposure and more chances to see what patterns work and which don't.

I took three years of Japanese in school, but had a lot of trouble understanding conversations at the end of it. For a year and half after that I spent about an hour every day watching Japanese TV shows without subtitles. After that I had a much easier time with conversation in general, though when I first moved to Japan I spoke very haltingly because I hadn't had anyone to talk with. The listening helped that move along a lot, though.

I wouldn't stress going over the same materials repeatedly, though - even if you're missing things, it's important you build a smile-and-nod reflex for when you miss the odd word in actual conversation.
posted by 23 at 1:00 AM on July 6, 2012

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