Want to Get Fluent in Japanese? Then You Must Leave Your "Study Cave"!
Are you spending too much time alone in your Japanese "study cave" trying to master the language before venturing out in to the world?
Do you avoid conversations out of fear of making mistakes, not knowing what to say, or not understanding others?
Do you focus exclusively on reading and listening (i.e. activities you can fully control), terrified of the unpredictability of live, two-way human communication?
If so, you are definitely not alone.
Many Japanese learners spend years hiding inside apps, textbooks, manga, and anime, never daring to have real conversations.
And it makes total sense why!
Reading and listening feel safe and comfortable. You can pause podcasts and videos. You can look up unknown words while reading. Gamified apps provide a dash of addictive fun.
These activities are not the problem. You certainly should get as much exposure to Japanese as you can throughout your day. Listening and reading (so-called "input activities") are a great way to build up your Japanese vocabulary and help you internalize Japanese grammar.
By all means spend the time necessary to build up a bank of useful words, phrases, and structures so you have something to say and have a better chance of understanding what's said to you.
But please keep in mind that all of this knowledge will remain frustratingly passive until applied in real conversations. No amount of listening, reading, or tapping away in Duolingo will get you fluent in Japanese.
If you want to get good at speaking Japanese, then you have to actually practice the skill directly.
You have to leave your study cave once in a while!
It sounds obvious when written out like this, yet many a learner has spent years running from this truth. They develop elaborate excuses and justifications for not practicing speaking.
"I don't know enough Japanese grammar and vocabulary yet to start speaking."
"I'll start working with a Japanese tutor once I finish this textbook."
"My Japanese is really bad and people will make fun of me."
I wish there were an easier, more comfortable way to improve your Japanese speaking skills. I also wish I could build a six pack by drinking six packs. But just as rock-hard abs live on the other side of healthy eating and ample exercise, Japanese fluency lives on the other side of tons of speaking practice and mountains of mistakes.
There's no detour.
There's no shortcut.
You can't skip the suck.
The good news is that—despite the fear and frustration—speaking Japanese can be a lot of fun! Even with shaky grammar and limited vocabulary, you can manage to communicate and connect. And the more you practice, the better you get at understanding and being understood.
Language learning is a team sport and Japanese is best enjoyed with others.