What to do When you Understand Japanese but Cannot Speak it

Reaching a point at which you can understand quite a bit of Japanese but really struggle to speak it is a normal part of the language learning process. When you reach this point, you likely have a good understanding of Japanese grammar, can recognize a large number of words, and overall have taken in a lot of input. While you still need to continue to take in a lot of input, the way to come able to speak Japanese is to start dedicating more time to practicing your output.

Understanding Japanese at the semantic level is not the same as being able to produce it at the syntactic level. Sufficient speaking practice with feedback from native speakers is needed to move from just understanding the meaning to grammatical production of the language with automaticity.

Input will always be the most important thing you need in order to learn Japanese. When you formulate your own output, it’s hard to know if your sentence is correct and natural sounding without having been exposed to many similar examples made by native speakers through input. But the caveat with input is that you only need to process the language for meaning without worrying about its syntax.

Input alone is not sufficient for acquisition, because when one hears language one can often interpret the meaning without the use of syntax… Little knowledge, other than knowing the meanings of the words and knowing something about real-world events, is needed.

Susan Gass and Larry Selinker

How Practicing Output will Improve Your Japanese

What you need then in order to bring your ability to speak the language closer to the level at which you understand it is to practice your output. In their book Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course [1], language learning experts Susan Gass and Larry Selinker propose four ways in which output helps language learners develop their speaking abilities.

When learning a language, output is a way for learners to:

  1. test hypotheses they have about the target language
  2. receive feedback and correction from native speakers
  3. shift from meaning-based processing of the language to syntactic processing
  4. develop automaticity in language production

As a learner of Japanese, you are constantly making unconscious hypotheses about how things get expressed in the language. You need to test your hypotheses in order to discover whether they are accurate or not. The way you test them is by speaking with a native speaker. A native speaker will be able to give you the feedback you need to eliminate your incorrect hypotheses.

For example, when speaking with a native speaker, if you say something and it seems as though they did not understand it or found it odd in some way, it gives you an opportunity to re-state what you wanted to express in a different way. You can receive this type of feedback when speaking in real-life situations with natives, but there are ways to get even more helpful feedback.

Working with a native speaking private tutor is the ultimate way to get feedback. The whole point of working with a tutor is to get coaching to improve your speaking ability. A private tutor can help you formulate your sentences such that they are syntactically correct and natural sounding. The best place to find your tutor is on italki which I have written about here.

In addition to speaking, you can practice writing too. A great place to practice your writing is LangCorrect. I have written in detail about the benefits of using LangCorrect here. Take notes on all the feedback you receive so that you can review it and incorporate it into your repertoire. As you build your repertoire, you’ll come able to produce your own correct and natural sounding output!

A lot of practice and feedback with respect to syntactically correct forms of language usage will enable you to move from meaning-based processing of the language to syntactic processing. As you start grasping the syntax, you’ll be able to formulate your output more quickly and develop your automaticity of language production. You’ll hesitate less and be more confident that what you are saying as you are saying it is correct.

Let me mention an amazing bonus method for building your repertoire. When you think of a sentence that you would like to express in Japanese, but you are not sure how to say it or whether your formulation is correct, ask for help from the community on HiNative. Your question will go right to native speakers for them to review.

If you have your sentence in English and you just don’t know how to say it Japanese, use the How do you say this in Japanese? question format. Native speakers will respond with natural translations. If you have your sentence in Japanese, but are unsure of how it sounds, use the Does this sound natural? question format. Native speakers can confirm if it sounds natural or provide correction if not.  

The Struggle Towards Fluency in Japanese

I’d like to share my analogy of working towards fluency in Japanese as trying to negotiate your way through a big room in total darkness. When you are able to understand Japanese and can speak it to a certain degree, it’s like being able to walk. But if you constantly struggle when you speak, you don’t know how to say certain things and can’t tell if what you’re saying is correct, it’s like trying to walk in total darkness.

You need to move forward carefully because you can’t see where you’re going. You also need to just try going in certain directions (which is like testing your hypotheses) and hope for the best. When you bump into something (which is like receiving feedback), you need remember where the obstacle is and correct course.  

You make cautious, hesitant movements (which is you processing) as you try to move towards a certain destination. Wait, what’s the word for X? How do you say X in Japanese? Do I need to use the potential form or passive form here? How do you make the passive form of this verb again? Wow, I should know this word, I’ve seen it a hundred times, why can’t I remember it?” There is no automaticity.

With lots of feedback from native speakers, and continued time and effort, you will ultimately get to the point of automaticity. At this point, you’ll be able to see where you are going and walk confidently. When you speak Japanese, it will be more effortless, like how it feels when you speak your native language.

Alongside your speaking and writing (output) practice, you also still need to continue taking in as much input as you can. Japanese is different from English in endless ways. You need to be exposed and get used to the way things get expressed in Japanese. It takes a lot of input to get there, and it takes many exposures to the same thing, for example a word, an expression, or new grammar point, before you are able to internalize it and use it for yourself.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to speak and find that you have forgotten things you ought to know. You just need more exposures which you will get through a high volume of input and output.


[1] Gass, Susan M., Selinker, Larry. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Third Edition. Routledge.

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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