How to Practice Speaking Japanese and Where to do it

If your goal is to come able to speak Japanese naturally and with ease, practice is the way to get there. But it is not always easy to know how to go about practicing effectively and just finding a practice partner in the first place can feel like a daunting task. Fortunately, effective ways to practice at every level exist and there so many easy options, particularly online ones, that are available to connect you to native speakers.

Practicing Japanese can be done by speaking with native speakers found easily through purpose-made online platforms for practicing foreign languages. Free language exchange and paid tutoring options are available. Effective practice can be carried out using the communicative language approach.

Regardless of your current level, use the many available resources to find Japanese native speakers to practice with and use effective strategies to make the most out of your practice time together. The first part of this article is an overview of how to practice and have meaningful interactions. The latter part covers where to go to find native speaking practice partners!

How to Practice Speaking Japanese at Every Level

As just alluded to, one big tip is that you do not have to wait until you think you know enough to start speaking. Start practicing your speaking from the beginning. Doing so will give you a much better command of the basics and make it easier to incorporate more advanced language as you learn more. You can carry out your practice most effectively by employing the communicative language approach. Here is a definition of what that is:

…an approach that aims to achieve communicative rather than linguistic competence through learner interaction… based on the philosophy that, in order to learn a language, one must practice using that language to communicate meaning to others.

University of Louisiana Monroe

So, it’s all about making the most use of the language knowledge you have already gained to date, including what you are just currently in the process of learning, to produce meaningful dialogue. The focus is not to produce grammatically unflawed sentences, the focus is simply on communicating in Japanese.

Absolute Beginner Japanese Speaking Practice (guided activities and role plays)

It is possible to start speaking Japanese as an absolute beginner. If you have textbook, really take advantage and work through the textbook’s speaking practice activities with your teacher or language exchange partner. By doing this, you are immediately practicing the things you learn as you learn them, and you are getting the experience you need to solidify the concepts.

I often hear that textbooks are only good for grammar and not useful for speaking practice. But good textbooks, such as Genki which I have written about here, dedicate sections to structured speaking activities and role plays for using the grammar (and vocabulary) they teach in meaningful ways. These sections are the most important part of the book.

I can say from experience that these speaking activities really do help. You practice using one bite-sized bit of language at a time, for example, asking someone for a favor. “Could you please write a letter of recommendation for me?” “すいせんじょうをかいてくれませんか?” If you make a mistake or get stuck, that’s just fine, if you are working with a native speaking partner, you’ll get the correction you need.

Pitfall to avoid: Do not spend your speaking time receiving grammar explanations from your speaking partner. Do all your grammar studying in advance and be ready to practice when you meet your partner.

Beginner Japanese Speaking Practice (task realization)

As you continue to build your Japanese, task-based language learning (TBLL), which goes hand-in-hand with the communicative language approach, is a great way to go about your speaking practice. The Council of Europe and European Commission’s Methodology in Language Learning’s T-kit says the following about TBLL:

The focus is away from learning language items in a non-contextualized vacuum to using language as a vehicle for authentic real-world use. By working towards task realization, the language is used immediately in the real- world context of the learner, making learning authentic.

Council of Europe and European Commission

An example of a task could be renting an apartment in Japan [1]. With your speaking partner, role play the scenario of talking to a rental agent about your ideal conditions for a rental apartment. Is it furnished? Is it close to a train station? What is your monthly budget? If you plan on going to Japan one day, it’ll be great to have a grounding in how to carry out this task!

When your language is limited, how are you going to get the task done? If you know what the task is in advance, you can do your best to look up some relevant vocabulary prior to your speaking practice session, but otherwise, don’t worry about trying to say everything in the most eloquent way. Just use what you can to navigate your way through the task no matter how clumsy it may feel. Again, the T-kit states:

TBLL relies heavily on learners actively experimenting with their store of knowledge and using skills of deduction and independent language analysis to exploit the situation fully.

Council of Europe and European Commission

Tip: After completing a task, take the time to ask your partner how you did and reflect on it together. Were you missing some critical vocabulary? Were there more natural ways to express what you said? Have your tutor or language exchange partner give you these valuable new tools. Then try going through the task again!

Upper Beginner and Intermediate Japanese Speaking Practice (set topics)

Now that you are getting better, it’ll be good to be able to talk a little bit about a lot of topics. Prior to a speaking practice session decide on a set topic to discuss. When I was at this stage, I did exactly this with my language exchange partner. I even had a website bookmarked that listed out various suggestions for language exchange topics.

Here’s a classic example of a topic: the Olympics. What sports do you like? Did you ever want to become an Olympian? Have you been to the host city? Do you agree with the concept of the Olympics? Do governments spend too much time and money on it? Do rich countries have an unfair advantage? Or is it a great way to foster global peace and understanding through sport? Within the topic, you can go from simple questions and anecdotes, to expressing you opinion, which is one of the harder things to do when learning a foreign language such as Japanese.

Upper Intermediate and Beyond (topics that interest you and that are relevant to you)

When it comes to topics that you are interested in, or topics that are at least relevant to your life, you are probably somewhat of an everyday expert in these areas, and it is within these topics that you want to start extending your vocabulary with the topic specific vocabulary that comes with them. You might even be able to teach you speaking partner a thing or two!

Let’s say you are interested in fitness. Could you describe your workout routine in detail in Japanese to your speaking partner? Can you name the exercises you do and the various muscles you work? Why do you choose a certain type of fitness training such as weightlifting or yoga? What benefits has it had in your life? What goals do you want to achieve? It’s probably pretty effortless to talk about this in your native language, but it’s quite challenging to do in Japanese when you are still learning.   

Tip: Don’t feel the pressure to try to go deep into topics for which you don’t have an interest. If you’re not interested in politics (which is a touchy subject in any language and maybe a good one to avoid) don’t talk about it. It would be a chore to do, and outside of your speaking practice session, you probably won’t be talking about it anyway, which will make it hard for you to retain the topic specific vocabulary.

Tip: Have more than one speaking partner and speak to your different partners on different days, but about the same topic. It will be hard the first time to talk about your chosen topic as you will likely be lacking the relevant vocabulary and expressions, but your partner can help give them to you. Then take what you have learned and try the conversation again with your other partner. This will help make everything stick.

Where Can I find People to Practice Japanese?

When learning a foreign language such as Japanese, nothing is more rewarding and fun than having an opportunity to speak it. But if you are outside of Japan and don’t have immediate access to native speakers in you everyday environment, you need to find people to practice with. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to do so.

Using purpose-made online platforms, such as HelloTalk and italki, is the easiest way to find people with whom to practice Japanese. In-person alternatives can also be found such as local language exchange groups on Meetup, conversation clubs at local universities, and searching for a local tutor.

Places to go for Online Speaking Practice

Some great online platforms exist for connecting with native Japanese speakers. Free and paid options are available. Free options focus on connecting language exchange partners. Paid options focus on connecting students with teachers. I personally have made good use of both options and there are pros and cons to each (more on this below).

It is quick and easy to get started on the available platforms. Many platforms offer video call, voice call and chat functions. For chat, in some platforms there are even sophisticated correction features so that you can get your mistakes corrected and correct those of your partner. Take time to explore the features of the platforms listed below.

Free Online Platforms for Language ExchangePaid Online Platforms for Language Tutoring

Places to go for In-Person Speaking Practice

For in-person speaking practice options, you again have the options of language exchange partner and private tutor. Depending on the area where you live, you may also have the additional fun option of language exchange groups and conversation clubs. Below is a list of places to look for in-person speaking practice partners that includes all three options just mentioned.

Places to find in-person speaking practice partners:

In-Person Language Exchange

For in-person language exchange, Conversation Exchange and My Language Exchange are good places to find a partner. Conversation exchange is free to use. My language exchange has been around a bit longer and does offer some free functionality, but otherwise, there is a small fee to be able to send full messages to potential partners.

Conversation Clubs and Language Exchange Groups

A conversation club brings together multiple people who want to do language exchange and can be multilingual, or Japanese-English exclusive. Conversation clubs are attended by local people wanting to learn Japanese (or another language) and Japanese native speakers (or natives of another language), such as exchange students living in the area.

Different clubs undertake language exchange in different formats, for example, the traditional one-on-one format, or group conversation format. Conversation clubs are fun because you can have different speaking partners every session and it is a great way to make friends. I certainly have made great friends this way. To find a conversation club or language exchange group, Meetup and checking at your local university are good places to start.

In-Person Paid Tutoring

To find a paid in-person tutor, the easiest way is the way you already know, which is a google search using a search term like “Japanese tutor [your city’s name]”. With a search like this, global sites like Preply and Superprof will likely appear, but other truly local search results will also appear. Another place to search would be Craigslist. In general, I would say that finding an in-person tutor might require a bit more creativity on you part when searching compared to online options where location and even time zone (to a certain extent) do not matter.  

Free Language Exchange vs. Paid Private Tutor for Speaking Practice

There are three variables which separate a free language exchange partner vs. a paid private tutor which are: cost, time, and effectiveness. The benefit of language exchange is that it is free. It can also be a lot of fun to connect with another language learner and be able to share the joys and struggles of the language learning journey. There is also the intangible reward of being able to help another person learn something.

When it comes to time, in a typical language exchange, half the lesson is spent practicing your target language and the other half is spent helping your partner learn your native language. So, for every hour spent in language exchange only 30 minutes are spent practicing Japanese. Consistency may also be a challenge in that it can be hard to match the schedules of two busy people such that you can keep a regular meeting schedule. With a tutor, the whole practice session is dedicated to you practicing Japanese and scheduling should be very easy since they are being paid to be available.

Effectiveness is where the benefits of a private tutor will really be apparent. If you are working with a tutor that has had other students, learned form experience, and has undergone formal education in how to be an educator, then chances are high that they are going to be the most qualified and most effective person to focus on you and your needs. They can help identify your needs and focus on working on areas where you struggle.

I have spent many hours with language exchange partners and with private tutors. Ultimately, I have been able to make my best and fastest gains by working with tutors. For a more detailed look at why you should work with a tutor, I write about it here. And finally, my top recommendation on where to find your tutor is italki. The cost of tutors on italki is actually very reasonable and there is a large variety to choose from. I write more about the benefits of using italki here.

[1] Note: The apartment rental task is adapted from the example given by Martin Briggs.

Briggs, Martin, “Second Language Teaching and Learning: the Roles of Teachers, Students, and the Classroom Environment” (2014). All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 377.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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