How I became comfortable speaking Japanese

When I visited my partner’s family in Tokyo last winter, I knew about three Japanese words: “hello,” “thank you,” and “please.” Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but I certainly couldn’t have conversed with them in their native language (mercifully, they speak English fluently), nor could I have navigated during our road trip in Kyushu without my partner.

One year later, that has changed.

Sure, my grammar isn’t perfect and I continue to forget vocabulary words mid-sentence, but I can now get by in Japanese. Considering the language’s difficulty for native English speakers, I’m happy with my progress.

As I neared the one-year mark from our trip to Japan, I began to reflect on my language-learning journey. I had tried a number of different strategies with learning Japanese, some of which proved effective for different purposes. Anki, in particular, was very useful for memorizing vocabulary and set phrases. But, what had helped with the biggest hurdle for most learners? How had I become comfortable with speaking?

The answer: tutoring

In June 2020, I started to use a service called Preply. It’s an online platform where you can connect with tutors from around the world to learn a new language, program, or skill. The platform certainly isn’t limited to Japanese, but I have thus far only used it for my language-learning goals.

I hadn’t hired an online tutor before, either having taken classes at university or studied the language in a different country (e.g., Mandarin in Taiwan, or Italian in Italy). Those weren’t options considering the state of the world in 2020 and my living situation, so I did a bit of research and decided to give Preply a try. One year later, I can say definitively that tutoring has greatly impacted my spoken Japanese.

The benefits of hiring a tutor

There were other strategies I used over the last year to improve my Japanese. Watching YouTube teachers or Japanese television shows certainly helped with my vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension; however, not so much for speaking. Feedback from a listener is impossible, and while there are some high-quality YouTube channels curated by expert teachers, they cannot easily and accessibility provide personalized feedback.

A tutor, however, can.

My tutor, Toshiki, developed a lesson plan with me, and we’ve steadily improved my vernacular Japanese from day one. It’s great to have someone with whom you can regularly practice (e.g., my partner), but it’s an ordeal to actually learn why the language works the way it does, or expect the listener to understand your erroneous translations. In my case, Toshiki bridged that gap by encouraging me to explore using the language while gently correcting my mistakes in a constructive way.

Another benefit I discovered was learning informal, conversational Japanese. In the beginning, I noticed that my Japanese sounded like a textbook, which made sense considering that I’d learned everything I knew from Genki. Formal Japanese is obviously useful, but since I mostly use Japanese when speaking with my partner or his siblings, I sounded like a robot! Toshiki taught me not just informal Japanese, but 相槌 (aizuchi), or backchanneling words (think “oh,” “I see,” or “hm”) that indicate attentiveness throughout a conversation. My siblings-in-law not only noticed, but I also felt more confident speaking after I started learning with Toshiki.

How to start with a tutor on Preply

One thing to consider with Preply is that it is not free. Prices vary depending on the tutor, but if you’re interested in trying Preply out, you can sign up using this link for 70 percent off your first lesson.

Toshiki and I have had fifty lessons together to date. He’s an excellent teacher. If you’re looking for a Japanese tutor, I’d highly recommend his services.

San Diego-based writer. Interested in urban planning, languages, cultures, travel, history, and fiction.