Upping your Japanese Output Skills
Learning a language requires both input (reading and listening) and output (speaking and writing).
Today, let's think of ways to work on your output both with people and when by yourself.
Input and Output
One way to look at learning languages is to think in terms of "input" and "output."
Input is essentially being exposed to the language through hearing or reading.
In other words, input is working through your textbook, reading a light novel, listening to a podcast, and watching an anime.
To make your input learning the most effective, you should be adding words and phrases to your Anki deck (or even paper flashcards). This shouldn't be passive, though. Make sure you review and clear your Anki deck every day.
I talk about using Anki and Yomichan for input practice here.
Input is extremely important, but I think most people (especially those outside Japan) are more likely to neglect output. And so, let's discuss a few output methods.
Output is harder for most people, at least at first. This is because the most common output method is actually opening your mouth and speaking a foreign language to a native speaker of that language.
Scary. Very scary.
But don't worry, there are highly effective output exercises you can do on your own. (See below)
Output practice is extremely important. For example, many Japanese learners of English concentrate heavily on the input side but are lacking in output practice. I have met several Japanese people who are well-versed in English grammar and spelling (most likely better than me!), but can barely carry a conversation. I have yet to meet a Japanese person whose handwriting is worse than mine (which, admittedly, would be a remarkable discovery).
In other words, they spend most of their time studying with books.
This is important. You need to learn vocabulary (most important) and grammar, but without actually using what you are studying, are you really learning the grammatical patterns? Does knowing the spelling of "rice" really matter if when spoken it comes out as "lice"?
What happens if you are only output and no input?!
I stand by what I just said about most Japanese tending to be excellent on input but not so much with output. However, there is one glaring exception:
出川イングリッシュ Degawa English
His name is 出川哲朗 (If you are a Makoto+ Shogun or Lifetime member or bought our Names course, you can see his entry here) and he is 100% output with approximately 0% input. In other words, I doubt he has spent a minute with an English textbook, but his creativity when using his small vocabulary is truly remarkable. It's actually inspiring.
If you don't know a vocabulary word when talking to a Japanese person, be like Degawa and come up with a work-around.
Here is a reaction video featuring a few of his classic 出川イングリッシュ Degawa English episodes. He is tasked with finding a location or some detail, and he can only speak English with people who know no Japanese.
I love 出川さん and whenever he is on a variety program, I drop everything to watch. Still, just because his output tenacity is amazing doesn't mean he should be copied completely. A good balance between input and output is the key.
So, if input is studying from my textbook and listening to Japanese podcasts while watching the latest 阿部寛 drama, how can I improve my output speaking skills? Do I have to move to Japan and, gasp, actually speak with people?!
If you are a beginner or simply a natural introvert, good news! There are a few things you can do by yourself. And, boy, are they effective methods.
Practicing output by yourself
Exercise #1: Reading Aloud and Shadowing
Shadowing means either repeating directly after someone or reciting a text with someone (or a sound file).
Ideally, you want to find text that is at or slightly above your level and has an audio file with it. If this sounds familiar, we do a ton of this both with Makoto+ (Samurai, see the shadowing sentences in your members area and Shogun or Lifetime, see here for tons of beginning sentences and intermediate sentences here) and also our digital bundles at TheJapanShop.com which has both a normal speed and slow speed recording of the Japanese.
Here's what I do:
- I first read through the text out loud, looking up any unknown kanji or vocabulary and adding the vocabulary/phrase to my Anki deck.
- I then read it through again also out loud but this time with the audio file. If you use our material, you might do this two times. First, using the slow recording and then again with the normal speed recording.
- If you want to go the extra mile, print the text out and mark it up to show pitch accents or intonation while listening to the native speaker recording.
If you are a beginner, our Makoto+ beginner sentences are probably a good length. If you are an upper beginner, reading a news article or a page of one of our stories would be good.
I started doing this exercise about a year ago, and I always do it every single day and it takes me about 20 minutes. It has greatly improved my fluency and pronunciation.
Exercise #2: 独り言 Speaking to Oneself
This sounds silly, but I assure you, this is powerful.
In the shower, in the car, or when no one else is around, think of questions that might pop up during a conversation with someone. Then answer them in Japanese.
The great thing about this exercise is you can easily identify weak points in grammar and vocabulary.
For example, if you ask yourself where the nearest bank is and realize you don't know the word for "bank." Great! Go look it up and add it to your Anki deck. Then, the next time you do this exercise, ask yourself the same question. This time, answer it using the word you previously didn't know.
For me, this is quite fun. I like to keep asking myself harder and more detailed questions until I find a word I don't know. Then, I try to use that word the next time I talk with a Japanese person.
This exercise isn't just about building vocabulary. It also gets your tongue moving.
Being fluent enough to carry on a conversation isn't just about how big your vocabulary is or how good your grammar is. It's about stringing ideas together and getting them out of your mouth in a comprehensible manner. Talking to yourself in the shower will help prepare you for when you actually speak with someone.
One negative is you don't get feedback or corrections instantly, but if you apply what you are practicing the next time you speak to a Japanese friend, you'll have that opportunity. It may seem silly, but I guarantee you, this exercise will greatly improve your conversational skills.
Yes, I (Clay) admit it. I talk to myself. I talk to myself quite often. Every day. I talk to myself about all sorts of topics, and doing so has greatly improved both my fluency and vocabulary.
Exercise #3: Construct Sentences
This is a little harder to do since it involves using AI instead of a native speaker, but you can practice writing (typing) out sentences in Japanese and then check using an AI translator to see if the English translation matches your intent.
I recommend DeepL Translator. It blows Google Translate out of the water for Japanese (at least for now, maybe Google will improve things...). I'm very impressed how accurate DeepL is, but it isn't a native speaker. So, keep that in mind.
DeepL is free and pretty amazing. Once you are satisfied with the English translation, then hit the arrow icon to see how DeepL would translate the English into Japanese.
If it is different than what you wrote, ask yourself why and play around with it.
It isn't perfect, of course, and it won't explain why it chose to translate something the way it did, but if you can't practice your output with someone, this could be a useful exercise.
But once you gain some experience using the above output solo methods, you really need to stretch your wings and...
Practice output with others
Of course, if you have Japanese friends, speak with them. But what if you don't have someone to speak to? Or what if you want to speak to as many different people as possible? Good news. Today's technology makes this possible.
Option #1: Conversation Exchange Programs
It used to be that unless you lived in Japan or an area with Japanese people, finding someone with whom to speak was very difficult.
I started learning Japanese in 1998 in somewhat rural Florida. At the time, my best option was a conversation exchange program at my university. That was awesome, but the options today are mind blowing in comparison! If you have an internet connection, you can talk to an unlimited number of people pretty much any time throughout the day. In fact, while writing this article, two Japanese people I have never met sent me invite texts on Tandem (see below) asking to be a conversation partner.
I use two online conversation apps, iTalki and Tandem. Of course, there are many others, but these are the two I personally use and recommend.
iTalki is a paid service (click here for my affiliate link which will get you $5 back if you spend $20), and because of that, it is very safe and catered specifically to your needs. In other words, you literally pay someone to be your friend, but a friend who gives you 100% attention and is there to answer any questions you have.
I think, especially if you are a beginner, I would recommend using iTalki over the free conversation exchange options since you can find certified Japanese teachers who know how to help total beginners. It costs money, but you are helping to support a Japanese teacher while also improving your language skills. Sign up for iTalki and give it a try.
If you are an upper beginner and above, give Tandem a try. I know there are many other similar programs out there, but this is the one I use and I highly recommend it.
Still, since it is a free app, you have to be very careful. There are scammers and people looking for dates there. I haven't experience much of this, but I am, after all, an old dude.
I have used Tandem for over a month now nearly daily, but I only recently started with Tandem Parties. A party is essentially a group voice chat (no video or text chatting). Man, is it fun. For the past week, I've spend several hours each night in various Japanese parties. I probably won't keep up that pace, but it is addictive enough to do so.
You can join a party but stay a listener without saying anything. I usually enter a party, listen for a minute so I know what the current topic is about and then decide to raise my hand to speak or leave. No pressure and most hosts and speakers are kind and willing to take turns.
Most parties are active in the evening in Japan. So, if you look for Japanese parties at other times, you may not find many or any at all.
Option #2: Penpal/Email buddy
Try to make Japanese friends on social media and then make comments on their posts. Ask them for corrections.
Or a better way. Tandem, mentioned above, is actually excellent for writing practice and getting corrections. And it's totally free.
All you have to do is tap the text your Japanese conversation partner sent, and correct the English. Your partner will do the same for your Japanese.
Even if you aren't ready to actually speak with someone, you can just indicate that you are only there for written corrections. This might be a good use case for Tandem for even total beginners.
Well, that's just a few things I do to practice output. Do you have techniques, tools, or exercises you use and recommend? If so, please leave a comment below.