A few weeks back I had the opportunity to attend one of the meetings at a bilingual Toastmasters club here in Bengaluru. It was an amazing experience and I could see the potential of what I could learn there. A few weeks later I visited them again because watching people try to overcome their fear of public speaking gave me energy and motivation to do the same. However, this time my focus was not on that but rather on speaking Japanese with a native.
A Japanese national had visited the club that day and everyone was more than happy to make him feel welcomed. I watched as everyone spoke to him in Japanese. It didn’t matter if their sentences weren’t grammatically correct or they didn’t use the right words to speak to him. They spoke without fear and he listened without making any judgements. He was then asked to introduce himself in English and he did without showing an ounce of fear.
Here I was with an excellent opportunity to practice Japanese, but I couldn’t get a word out. I suddenly realised what the problem was. I was afraid of making mistakes. I was too obsessed with perfection and I didn’t allow myself to try without knowing every bit of the conversation beforehand. I was trying to be a mindreader and a time traveller all at the same time. Lofty expectations, I know.
As I watched the members of the club, both Indian and Japanese, it made me realise I wanted to get bolder with learning Japanese. If I had to get anywhere near to speaking like a native by the end of the year, I had to step out of my comfort zone and make mistakes. And so I reached out to my language exchange partners on HelloTalk.
Thanks to Japan Habba that had taken place last month, I was able to befriend a Japanese woman who had been living in Bengaluru for the past 8 months. When I put out my request to her, she gladly accepted. My goal with a language exchange with her was to get over my fear of speaking Japanese. But this required some preparation from my side.
My preparation period:
Shadowing: I figured that if I practiced speaking Japanese out loud, I might get used to how I sounded. This technique would also ensure that my mouth would overcome the alienness of making foreign sounds. For this purpose, I ‘shadowed’ a person speaking in Japanese and tried to maintain the tempo while keeping an eye on my pronunciations.
Add1Challenge: As I had never done a face-to-face language exchange before, I wanted to see how I could use this opportunity to get the most out of it. As I was scouring Youtube, I came across a few recorded sessions by the founder of a community of language learners called Add1Challenge. Everyday he would challenge himself to talk to a Japanese native over Skype. If you check out his other videos, you will see that he’s come a long way since he first started.
His videos desensitised me to the whole process of language learning. At first, it was painful to watch him make mistakes and struggle to form sentences. I realised I would be in the same position as well and so would my language partner when speaking English. Making mistakes suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Going back to my grammar notes: I didn’t revise a lot. But there were a few things that I had wanted to go over assuming they would come in handy during the meeting. I didn’t want to relapse to English during the conversation.
The D-Day finally came and I was nervous and so was she. But I figured if we stuck to our plan of speaking only Japanese for 30 minutes followed by another 30 for English, it wouldn’t be an awkward meeting. Surprisingly, my main concern here wasn’t making mistakes, but rather managing awkward silences. I wanted this session to be comfortable and fun for the both of us.
We met up for coffee and I began speaking to her in Japanese right off the bat. I did this both to prevent myself from using a lot of English and to make her feel comfortable as well since she had mentioned she wasn’t too confident about her English.
Topics: As I mentioned before I didn’t want any awkward silences and so I went in armed with a few possible topics that we could talk about. But thankfully, the session never had a dull moment. We talked about our lives, our likes and dislikes, her experience living in India and my experience with learning Japanese.
Teaching English: I didn’t want it to be a one-way learning session and so I asked her if she wanted to speak some English with me. I was so surprised when she took out a book and asked me to correct the English sentences she had written in there. Teaching a language is not easy and I found myself trying very hard not to confuse her with my explanations. There are different ways of saying the same thing and it’s not wise to put them all out there at once. Teaching her English pushed me to try and explain certain concepts like tenses in Japanese. Although it wasn’t easy, it was very interesting and I’d like to do it again sometime.
When choosing a language partner for yourself, identify what your objectives are. Are you looking for to practice speaking your target language or are you looking to be tutored in grammar? Are you looking to build a relationship or is it a simple language exchange?
Are you willing to put in the time to give back to your language partner if he/she so wants? It might be well in your interest to find out if your Language Partner is able to speak your language well enough to explain concepts to you. If not, you will have to decide if you know your target language well enough to understand if he explains the concepts in his/her native language.
Thanks to this meeting I feel very empowered and confident about speaking Japanese. It was a great way to practice listening as well.
Do you have any face-to-face language exchange experiences as well? If yes, how did they go? What is your advice to someone who is trying to get over their fear of speaking in Japanese?