A while back, my daughter did an impression of me speaking Japanese. Her version goes like this:
The “oy” is probably meant to be はい and the uh………………………… is clearly my mouth making a random sound while my brain tries to think of a Japanese word.
I mention this because it relates to the video from Abroad in Japan that I put up in the last post. (I’m not including a link here because, well, it was just the last post.)
In that video two of the things that he mentions are “backfilling” and “conversation fillers”.
By backfilling he means making noises so that the person you are talking to knows that you are paying attention. I had noticed that various people I speak with in Japanese do this. While I’m speaking, they’re nodding and saying うん or はい、はい and I had simply acquired the habit myself. Mind you, in my case it didn’t so much signal I’m paying attention as it did Okay, I understood that.
By conversation fillers, he means the Japanese equivalent of “uh…………………………” That is, something to say while your brain scrambles frantically looking for a Japanese word. I hadn’t really thought about that concept until I watched the video, but then I realized that several of my Japanese friends do this when they are speaking English, but they do it in Japanese. The ones that I hear the most are そうか and なんだろうか with the occasional あのう thrown in for good measure.
Me, I have generally used “uh…………………………” without really thinking about it.
Then I heard my daughter’s impression of me and I thought, “Wow, I really sound pretty goofy there…”
Then I watched the aforementioned video.
Last night I had a conversation exchange on Skype – half an hour in Japanese and half an hour in English. There came that magic moment when I was looking for a word, and I heard myself say あのう。。。
And, you know what? It really does help. One of the things that he said in the video is that the goal is to think in Japanese, and that is absolutely the goal. When you use a Japanese conversation filler, it helps to keep your mind in Japanese mode. (It also makes you sound more like you know what you’re doing, if that matters to you.)
Language exchanges are great, by the way. For those of us who don’t live in Japan, they are a brilliant way to get conversation practice, and conversation practice will make your language skills improve by leaps and bounds.
A while back I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t get any conversation practice. Then I was wishing I could get some practice during the week instead of just on the weekend. Now, each week, I have a Tuesday night exchange, a Thursday morning exchange, plus one on Saturday (and my Japanese lesson) and two on Sunday. That ought to be enough conversation for me.
I learn new words, I hear spoken Japanese, I am forced to speak Japanese in real time…it’s all good.
I also have a couple of contacts who are too nervous to Skype. They feel that their English isn’t up to it, so they are only willing to exchange written messages, and good for them for doing that much.
My feeling is that you should jump right in. Even if your language skills are very basic, go for it. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? You might make a mistake or not understand something someone says to you. Depending on who you are, I suppose that might embarrass you, but my feeling is that I’m learning. Of course I’m going to say things wrong. Of course there are going to be times when I don’t understand what the other person says to me.
No bog deal, especially during a language exchange. The other person is learning, too. Nobody is going to get upset because I make a mistake.
Just go for it. Your Japanese will get dramatically better faster than you realize.
Just practice saying あのう and ええーと and そうですね and you’ll be speaking Japanese even when you have no idea how to say what you want to say next. すごい。