There are certain aspects of the language that that are important to understand if you want to speak Japanese like a native. I’ve collected some of the most important ones and laid them out below into seven individual steps.
These are the things that I’ve learned from others who have impeccable Japanese, things that I’ve observed in my years of study, and the elements that I’ve focused on improving myself to become a better speaker.
Some of the ideas will be obvious, but others are often ignored. Take a look through the list and see what you’re already strong at and where you could put some extra attention.
Mimic The Sounds
This first step is right in line with this purpose of this free course you’re going through here on this blog.
Mimicking the sounds of Japanese is really a two-fold process. First you have to learn what the right sounds are, and then you have to learn how to make them yourself.
Learning the sounds of Japanese involves actively studying the sounds and then listening to lots of examples. After that, the best recommendation is to listen to a lot of natives speaking in a variety of situations and flood your brain with the language.
Listen to a narrator reading through a story in audio book format. Then listen to a couple of friends having a conversation. Then listen to someone engaging in a monologue. Then listen to a couple of people arguing.
By doing both of these things you get the benefits of both top-down, and bottom-up approaches to learning.
Making the sounds of Japanese involves speaking practice at the sound level, word level, and then sentence level.
It’s good to practice common words and phrases on your own, but there are some other strategies that can help as well.
Try talking to other people in Japanese either online or in person. It can be a with a tutor so that you can get corrections, or just a normal person with the intention of communication.
As you train the muscles in your mouth to make the right sounds, it will begin to feel natural and you won’t have to make as much conscious effort as before.
How do you know if you’re making the right sounds? The best way to tell is also the hardest.
You have to record yourself speaking and then listen to it.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who enjoyed listening to a recording of themselves speak, but by listening to what you actually said and comparing it with a native you can quickly see which sounds you made correctly and which ones still need some work.
Focus On Prosody
I’m going to throw out a couple of weird words in this post, but I’ll give the definition of each one and explain why I think they are important.
There are several definitions of prosody, but the one that I feel best explains what I want to talk about is “the patterns of rhythm and sound” when it comes to the way people talk.
This actually ties in pretty well with the last lesson that we went over because it is about how an overall sentence sounds.
If you’ve ever listened to a text-to-speech tool read out a page of a digital book or the contents of a website’s article, then you’ve probably noticed that even nowadays they tend to sound a little robotic.
Whereas when a native reads the same passage, they sound natural and fluid.
That’s because the machine is focused on speaking each separate word, whereas the human is focused on the entire sentence as if it were a single entity.
Here is a picture that illustrates what I mean.
It is a graph that shows sound, and in this particular case each blue sound wave represents a word in Japanese.
They are また あいて うれしい です よ。
What if instead of focusing on the individual words, we instead focused on the overall sentence?
It would look more like the below picture.
Notice how even though these two examples are technically comprised of the exact same elements, the sound waves are quite different from one another.
In the same way, by focusing on speaking Japanese in complete sentences as if each sentence were a single item, you can begin to sound more like a native and less like someone who is learning a foreign language.
This of course take a lot of exposure and practice, but the tip is to treat full sentences as one complete thought, instead of many individual words that just happen to be strung together.
Practice Fast Japanese
Calling it “Fast Japanese” is actually a bit of a misnomer because it only sounds fast to people who are learning the language.
To natives, it just sounds normal.
I like calling it this however, because most people who start learning Japanese use materials where the speaker talks slowly and clearly.
This is so that the student can fully hear and comprehend what they are listening to.
I think that this is a great way to get started, but at some point it is important to stop listening to this slowed down audio and instead start listening to natives speak naturally.
Of course, this will sound really, really fast at first!
You might even think it’s too fast.
But the trick is to stick with it until you just, sort of get used to it. I always found that the sweet spot was around the two-week mark any time I tried to take myself up to the next level like this.
That doesn’t mean I mastered it in two weeks (far from it!), but that was about the time that it started to feel manageable.
Another trick to getting better at using the language at faster speeds is to really have phrases down. If you’ve heard and practiced introducing yourself dozens of times, then you can do it at a native speed.
When the words and phrases start functioning at a subconscious level (you don’t have to think about them) then you can use them just as fast as a native does.
Get Used To Collocations
Alright, time for another linguistic term. The actual definition for “collocation” wasn’t as clear or helpful as I would have liked it to be, so I’ll paraphrase it myself. It basically means that “certain words tend to appear together in sentences.”
Here are two example sentences with the collocations underlined.
- I drive my car everyday.
- I operate a forklift everyday.
Technically, you could say that you “operate a car” and people would know what you mean, but it just doesn’t sound natural because native English speakers nearly always use the verb drive with the noun car.
This same thing happens in Japanese, where certain words typically appear with one another in natural sounding sentences.
If you construct your own Japanese sentences by looking up individual words in a dictionary, you run the risk of pairing a noun with a verb that might make sense, but doesn’t actually sound natural.
One of the best ways to overcome this problem is to read and listen to a lot of Japanese. This gives you a lot of material to consume and make notes from on which words should go together.
Learn To Love Syntax
I think this is the last new word I’m using, so thanks for bearing with me! (ᵔᴥᵔ)
This time the definition is pretty good. It says that syntax is “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.”
The key word here is “arrangement” and it can have a big impact on how your communication sounds.
This is especially true for English natives learning Japanese because many of the things that are necessary to include in English can be omitted in Japanese.
This will probably make more sense with an example.
Let’s take a simple sentence in English and do a rather literal translation into Japanese. Then let’s take away the unnecessary parts of the Japanese sentence so that it sounds more in line with something a native would say.
- Do you like sushi?
- あなたは すしが すき ですか。
- すしが すき ですか。
- すしが すき？
While the full translation listed in #2 above makes sense, it sounds too wordy for natural Japanese. The reason is because the context of the situation provides information, so you don’t need to literally say something that everyone knows.
If you were talking to one person, then you could omit the あなた (you) since they know that you are talking directly to them.
We could also leave out the ですか (do you?) part if the situation is casual and we used a rising intonation at the end of すき (like) to make it a question.
In English the question “like sushi?” sounds a little weird because it is missing some necessary pieces. In Japanese, it sounds normal because that’s how the structure of the language works.
Much like the last section on collocations, the best way to learn Japanese syntax is to get a lot of exposure to it through reading and listening and then to use it yourself.
Of course I also recommend that you look up new grammar patterns that you run into and don’t understand.
Since the rules are a lot looser in spoken conversation than they are in written communication, it would be ideal to study dialog and focus on the meaning behind the words while observing how the sentences are formed.
A general rule of thumb is that if you hear a native say something, then you can say it too as long as you find yourself in a similar situation.
Imitate Communicative Behavior
One thing that has a big impact on how native you sound is not what you communicate, but how you communicate.
This is like the invisible side of communication since most people aren’t aware of the impact that a person’s culture has on the way they talk to others.
America is considered to be a low-context culture. This basically means that when we talk to people, we tend to be direct and explicit. We do not expect other people to know what we are thinking.
Japan is considered to be a high-context culture. It’s basically the opposite of America!
What this means is that there are a lot of unspoken rules in Japanese culture that everyone is supposed to know and abide by. This allows for people to actually know what the other is thinking, since they are both operating from the same rule book.
What that means for non-Japanese people is that they will need to learn and use this “hidden rule book” for communicating in Japanese in order to blend in with natives and sound like one of them.
This may be the hardest part of sounding Japanese since you will have to put aside your beliefs on how people should talk to one another and instead adopt the way that they do it in Japan.
Does it bother you when people don’t give you a straight answer? I hope not, because it’s actually pretty rare to get a direct “no” from the Japanese.
Instead they will say things like:
- That might be hard.
- I’m not sure I can.
All of which are subtle Japanese ways of turning down a request or invitation. They are polite, indirect ways to say “no” in their culture.
Think Of Yourself As Japanese
I didn’t really give you a good way to work on #6 above, did I?
The reason is because the answer is found here in #7 which is to think of yourself as a Japanese person.
There’s no need to change your name to たなか and start eating Japanese food for every meal, but when it comes to learning and using the language, you should think of yourself as an insider.
You should think, “Japanese is my language.”
Pretend to be Japanese so that you can say the things that they would say, and do it in the way that they would do it.
I like using the word “pretend” because we’ve all done it before and it doesn’t attack our egos or personal identities.
Now you have all seven steps to sounding like a native when speaking Japanese.
The next lesson is the final one and we will talk about one last thing when it comes to the sounds of Japanese. I will also give you some recommendations and ideas on what to do next in order to continue your language learning journey.
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