Years back, I attended a Japanese language school in Tokyo.
At that school, each class had a different level--each one taking 3 months to complete.
Level 1 was for all the beginners, who sucked at Japanese.
Level 7--the highest level--was for N1-Level Ninjas.
I started out at Level 2, which was relatively basic stuff. The kind of stuff you study in Genki 2, Minna no Nihongo 2.
Being Unable to Say What You Want to Say
One of my friends in that class was this quirky Chinese girl--we called her Robo-chan.
She didn't speak English.
I didn't speak Chinese.
So we had no choice but to try (and fail) to use Japanese.
And there was one particular phrase that we were always saying:
Please forget (it).
One of us would try to say something. Be unable to say it. Then say, "Yeah, just forget it." And even that was incorrect. We should have been saying:
ki ni shinai de
Never mind. / Don't worry about it.
That was Level 2.
Heads down, we studied. Day after day. Month after month.
And this one day, I was talking with Robo-chan, and I had this Ah-ha moment. I said to her:
"We never say, 'just forget it' anymore, do we?"
Without noticing it, I had become able to express myself in Japanese.
Able to form sentences.
Able to make friends. Tell stories.
Now, I get emails from readers who want to become able to express themselves, who want to get Japanese coming out of their mouths, and I find myself looking back to my old, hungry self--What level was I at then? What was it that got me making sentences, actually saying things in Japanese?
What You Need to Form Sentences (the Boring Version)
If we look at this from a grammatical perspective, yeah, you need to learn a ton of stuff to make sentences in Japanese. For example...
- Maybe 2-3 thousand words.
- Most verb and adjective conjugations (casual forms, formal forms, te-forms, passive, conditional, volitional, causative, passive-causative, etc.)
This is what I did. The boring version. I jammed all of these words and grammar into my head...and I still sucked at Japanese.
Yeah, I got there eventually. But it was a long, difficult process. And I doubt I'd do it the same way if I were to start over again.
I think a big part of this was over-thinking, which is a nightmare when trying to have a conversation in a second language.
What You Need to Form Sentences (the Easy Version)
So you look at that list of stuff to do (above), and you think, I gotta hit the books! I gotta go study for 600 hours!
Well, not really.
Yeah, at some point, you do need to learn all that boring grammar stuff. You do need all of those kanji. All of those vocab. All of those particles. Those conditional constructions. Those verb conjugations. Blah, blah, blah.
But that's not what you need to express yourself.
Instead, you need three things:
- Something you want to say
- An attempt at saying
- Native-speaker feedback on your attempt
I once met this guy who worked as a piano player in Tokyo. He would play at fancy bars, hotels, etc. And despite having no formal education in Japanese, he was quite good at speaking it.
I asked him how he'd gotten so good, and he told me:
I meet with a tutor a few times a week, and I tell them specific things I want to say in specific situations, then they tell me how to say it.
This method could be copied. If you can't afford multiple lessons per week, then make a longer list of things you want to say, write down what you think my be the natural response, then get feedback on that response from a tutor or teacher. Then roleplay the situation you came up with so you can develop the muscle memory involved in making the correct sounds.
You'll end up learning a lot of new words and grammar by going through this process, but they aren't a prerequisite.
And if you spend too much time trying to "lay a good foundation" for speaking later, you risk doing what I did:
Learning lots of vocab and grammar that aren't actually used in everyday language in Japanese. So much wasted time!
One reason that we provide contextual information for all of the Japanese we teach at NativShark is so that you don't fall into this same trap of learning things that won't actually improve your ability in a meaningful way.
Best of luck. And get talking! Making mistakes will help you learn faster. Especially embarrassing mistakes.