Do you wish you had more opportunities to speak in Japanese?
How much more confident would you become in Japanese if you could simply speak it more often?
Well, whether you live in central Tokyo, rural Hokkaido, or in a different country altogether, it might surprise you to know that there is a small army of native speakers out there literally waiting to help you start practice speaking… even if you're a beginner.
Read on, and I'll show you the exact steps I've personally used to find dozens of affordable tutors on a great website called iTalki, and significantly improved my Japanese speaking skills.
Why aren't you speaking?
If you're not currently speaking Japanese regularly, I'll guess that it's for one of two reasons.
- You don't believe you're good enough to start speaking yet
- You don't know where to find native speakers who will want to talk to you as a beginner
But I'm about to take those excuses and bust them wide open.
Speaking to learn
Let's talk about why you need to start speaking.
Yes, you're a beginner. Yes, you've got a small vocabulary. Yes, you probably make lots of mistakes. Yes, there are loads of kanji you don't know.
But guess what? We all start out like that.
You might say to yourself: “I need to learn to speak Japanese better before contacting native speakers.”
But here's the thing.
You have much more to gain by starting to speak now, even if you don't know a lot of Japanese yet, than by waiting until “you're ready”.
By trying to speak with people, even in the early stages, you quickly figure out what speaking “feels like” in Japanese – greetings, common expressions, pronunciation, even body language.
Sure, you need to study your textbooks too, but the fact that you're speaking means you've got an instant way to actually put everything you're learning into practice.
This is the smart way.
Put off speaking for too long, and you simply risk becoming someone who can conjugate verbs till the cows come home… but can't hold a simple conversation.
I call this “Speaking to Learn”.
But how can I speak as a beginner?
“What!?” …you say.
There's a perception that if you use English, you're cheating. Or that “real language learners” only ever use their target language.
But I take a very practical view on this.
There's got to be a middle-ground between complete beginner and the point when you can hold a conversation.
And the best way to bridge this gap is by using English.
Here are the advantages of using English to get started:
- You can quickly find a teacher, tutor or language partner
- You can get to know them quickly
- You can ask them language questions easily when you finally meet for the first time (online or face-to-face)
English is a big deal in this case because the one thing you're probably most scared about is making mistakes and looking silly when you talk to a Japanese person.
By using English, you can start enjoying all the benefits of working with a native speaker, even when you're still a beginner yourself.
How to have your first session with an online tutor
If you're thinking to yourself: “This is too simple”, or “This is too mundane”, remember this…
The biggest danger in learning a language is that you never actually start.
[Tweet “千里之行，始於足下 – A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”]
In this case, your single step is finding yourself a native Japanese speaker to work with.
This person can…
- tell you how to say things naturally in your target language
- let you practise saying your first few phrases
- tell you how to say them better
- help you get used to speaking the language and build your confidence
- correct your pronunciation
- give you examples of how to use certain words
- …and give you a reason to study each week!
And you can use English as much as you need to in order to feel comfortable.
As soon as you start to become confident you can phase out the English and speak more in the target language.
Honestly… this has been the single most important thing that's helped me learn not only Japanese, but 6 other languages too.
So if you haven't started having simple conversations in your target language yet, can you really afford to put it off any longer?
Finding affordable language tutors
At this point, you may be thinking that hiring a professional teacher might be too expensive.
And it certainly is!
Luckily, though, the best thing about being a beginner is that you don't need language classes or a professional teacher.
Have another look at that list (above) of things that a native speaker can help you with.
Anyone with an interest in languages can help you with these things, and get you started quickly.
And thanks to the internet, you can find amazing people all over Japan who will help you for as little as $5 per hour. (Yes, $5.)
These people have become known as informal tutors, and are what I use personally to learn and maintain all my languages.
12 steps to finding your ideal language teacher
Here's how to get started, step-by-step.
1. Sign up for a free account with iTalki. This is hands-down the best website in the world for connecting students and teachers.
I recently had the chance to hang out with their CEO Kevin in Berlin, and his passion for helping language learners around the world was clear, and great to see.
2. Follow the steps to create your account, and select “yes” when asked if you're interested in finding a paid language teacher
3. Instead of using real dollar amounts to pay tutors, iTalki has a great system of credits – known as “iTalki Credits” (ITC). You simply buy credits (for as little as $10) and then trade them for time with your favourite tutors. It's totally safe, and there is a robust system in place which protects the student. When you book a lesson, iTalki keeps hold of the credits, and only transfers them over to the teacher once you have confirmed that the lesson has taken place and that you're satisfied.
Let's get you started with this.
Click the coins symbol in the top right-hand corner of the screen and click “buy credits”. I suggest you just start with $10 ($10 = 10 ITC) so you can get a feel for the system.
4. Now let's find some prospective tutors. On the main screen you'll notice a tab for professional lessons. You can check this out if you want, but I suggest going for “Informal Tutoring”, in order to get the good deals I talked about earlier.
5. Enter “Japanese” for the language and nationality categories and click “search”. Be sure to select “trial available”, as this is where you can get a half-priced trial lesson to see if you like them.
As I'm brushing up my Spanish right now, here's an example of what I was looking for in a tutor recently. Someone who:
- teaches Spanish
- is from Spain
- costs less than 100 ITC per hour
- has a trial lesson available
6. Browse the available tutors and find someone you think would be suitable. There's no special formula for determining in advance who will be the best tutor for you. I've worked with dozens of tutors in the past, and my conclusion is that the only way to figure out who your ideal teacher is, is by trying sessions with a few of them and seeing who you like. I have a few simple questions I ask myself after meeting a new tutor:
- Do I enjoy speaking with them?
- Do I feel like I'm learning?
- Do they correct me and/or suggest more natural ways of saying things?
If the answer to both of these is “yes”, then I'll carry on with them. This is why the “Trial Lesson” system in iTalki is so useful – these guys really understand what language learners need to get started.
Let's have a look at one of the tutors, Bea, and see what can discover. Aside from the basic information like name and nationality, you can see a whole host of information.
In the case of Bea, we can see that…
- she is from Spain, has delivered 144 sessions on iTalki, and has a 5 rating from students
- speaks a number of languages well
- has a video introduction from her (good for getting to know them)
- charges 70-90 ITC (=US$7-9) per hour
- has a 30-min trial session available for 40 ITC (=US$40)
7. I think I'd like to have a trial session with Bea – and for $4, how can I not! – so I simply click through to her profile, then click Schedule Session
8. Scroll down to the bottom and you'll find the Trial Lesson option available
9. You'll then be taken to a screen where you can see the tutor's availability and book your session!
10. Make a note of your new tutor's Skype ID and send them a contact request in Skype well in advance so that you don't delay the start of the lesson!
11. At this point, you might be feeling a little nervous or apprehensive, so I suggest you take the time to send a message to the tutor, telling them a little bit about yourself, your level in Japanese and what you'd like to do in the session.
It can actually be very helpful to say like this:
“I'm just a beginner and can't speak much Japanese yet, so please be patient with me! I'd like you to just teach me some basic greetings and self-introductions, so I can get started!”
…because then you'll feel more comfortable and happy that the tutor doesn't have any unrealistic expectation. Of course, in reality, most tutors are very experienced and totally understand what it's like to be a beginner, so you'll be pleasantly surprised.
12. Write the date and time in your calendar and try not to forget!
Nerves on the day!
Now, I guarantee you that you'll be nervous on the day, if this is your first time chatting with a native speaker.
You might even think about cancelling and making up some excuse about your internet not working 🙂
This is totally normal, and happens to everyone.
Just remember that this is happening because you're stepping outside your comfort zone.
But this is a good thing. No, a great thing, because stepping outside your comfort zone is the only way to grow and improve.
How to speak Japanese with confidence
It's possible to make the process of learning Japanese into something very complicated.
I'm probably guilty of this myself, from time to time, with all the writing I do on the blog!
However, it's also possible to make it all very simple. So simple, in fact, that I sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about! 🙂
In the grand scheme of things, as long as you have a couple of good textbooks and you work through them consistently, there's really only one other thing you have to do in order to eventually become a confident speaker of your new language…
No, it won't happen overnight.
But it will happen, providing that you get started today and don't put it off any longer.