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Jan 27, 2011

From Understanding to Producing - A Look at Speaking

As requested, here is a look at the problems regarding speaking when self-taught. Basically there are two potential problems that people run into in speaking Japanese, and which problem is encountered depends on how you learned. People that learn in a classroom setting have the problem of learning a bunch of static sentences that they can swap words in and out of to get their point across. They essentially receive a set of metal cookie cutters that can make pretty, precise cookies - but only in those shapes. They could potentially bend the cookie cutters into new shapes, but it'll be difficult and the results won't be too pretty.

On the other hand, people who learn on their own from enjoying Japanese and immersing into the language gather up all kinds of random sentences, forms, and structures. People like this can do a lot, and to go back to the cookie analogy, they can basically craft all kinds of cookies - but not necessarily have control over which ones they make. Essentially, self-teaching by immersing in media will make you a god at comprehending, but when you initially begin to speak or write you'll be constantly switching between forms and manners of speaking. This is what has happened to me, I've started speaking a lot and now I'm starting to categorize all of those things that I already understand into levels of usage.

When I say "talking like a book is written" I basically mean that I speak without all of the polite forms that the Japanese love to use. Instead of speaking in the more polite manner with ます (masu) and です (desu) I essentially speak plainly and more casually. It's not necessarily wrong, but it's also not exactly correct. The more important thing is learning to actually make that distinction of what is polite and what is casual, which is probably best done by actually practicing speaking OR by paying close attention to how people interact and talk in Japanese media.

When facing this problem, you should really know what your priorities are. If you are like me, and basically learned Japanese to be able to enjoy media or comprehend, then you don't really need to worry all that much about forms and manners of speaking. If/when you decide you want to speak/write Japanese then you can go through my same experience, which is just re-categorizing the things you already know and learning how to use your knowledge more effectively. If you're more interested in speaking and interacting with Japanese people than in reading books and watching TV, then really pay attention to how people talk to each other. Notice the slight changes in word forms that people use when dealing with close friends as opposed to teachers or doctors.

In all things, practice is paramount. Don't spend your time drowning in textbooks and grammar guides in an attempt to figure it all out, just find a friend who will correct you and help you to get better (or use a website such as lang-8 as a substitute for a friend) and start trying to use what you know. Do what you want to do in order to get to where you want to be. Don't sweat the small mistakes you'll inevitably make, just learn from them and move on - and above all, take it easy.

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  1. Thank you so much for explaining! I'll definitely take this into consideration.

  2. I think a problem I have is that I kind of have a mix of both immersion and "cookie cutter" textbook language. If I try to talk casually, I end up thinking it sounds off. But I can comprehend a lot more than I know. When it comes to watching a video without subtitles or something, I can usually understand a lot more than I'd normally be able to write or say. When it comes to writing and speaking, a lot of the information I know just gets stuck in the back of my head when I really need it.

    Kinda like if there's a name of a person you're not close with. You can't think of their name off the top of your head, it just stays on the tip of your tongue. But if someone said the name out loud, it'd click "yeah, that's the person's name!" and you're able to piece the two together. But without actually hearing it somewhere to remind you and light the spark, you're there thinking forever about it to the point where you think too hard and your mind runs around in circles never getting an answer right in front of your face.

    I think I complicated my explanation a bit too much. My comprehension skills are a lot better than my speech and writing.

  3. Thank you for taking time to explain what you meant! I'll definitely keep these points in mind..

  4. Kirari - Your example of forgetting the name of a person you're not close with is perfect for this. Essentially, when you don't speak or write Japanese too often you're just acquaintances with the language, thus you forget the name you're wanting to remember. You have to spend more time with it and become close friends, because you're highly unlikely to forget the name of your best friend.

    I've experienced the same thing with kanji. I can read them all day long without a problem, but quite often when I go to write down something I haven't seen in a while I'll forget where to start. If I had a hint of which kanji I was looking for I'd remember the entire thing, but with no clue I'll be stuck sitting there for a while trying to bring it back to the front of my brain.

    In each case, just spending more time focusing on that specific element of the language will really help.

  5. I never bother to learn the familiar form in languages - I don't care if I sound like an old fogey, it never hurts to be polite.

  6. Just the kind of place I was looking for! Reading this gave me a little more confidence in the way I'm learning. I watch J-dramas, anime and listen to japanese music. I've picked up a lot of stuff here and there and almost have kana down. Lately, I've started to watch and read anime and manga raw, that is, without the subs or english scanlated. Like you said, practice is good.