A Thought Experiment

Do you find that your output ability lags far behind your recognition ability? If you spend a lot of time reading, listening, or reviewing recognition cards in your SRS, but you rarely speak or write, then you will probably find this to be true. The best way to increase your ability to output Japanese is simply to practice output! A lot of people (me included) may avoid output as much as possible. There are a lot of reasons, but I think the main ones are typically: 1) It can be difficult and time consuming, and 2) You don’t want to interact with others.

Well, what if I told you that there is a way that you can practice your output without using up any extra time out of your schedule and without interacting with others? With a simple exercise that anyone can do, there are no more excuses for avoiding output!

Don’t Be Scared of Output

But first of all, let’s clear something up. Output is not going to hurt you. Some people have this idea that trying to output before they have become masters at the language will somehow hurt them in the long run. I seriously can not even begin to follow the logic behind this reasoning, but the argument I typically hear seems to go along the lines of “you risk creating incorrect output, and then getting it so ingrained into your mind that it becomes habit, and then for some unexplained reason, you will forever be unable to correct this habit.”

I don’t care how much input you consume, and how long you wait before outputting anything. You will make mistakes. Just stop and think about how many mistakes you probably make on a daily basis in your own native language. How many mistakes are in this very article? If I can’t even speak my own language without making errors, then I sure as heck am never going to speak a second language without errors! And that’s just the point! We don’t have to be error free. The point of a language is simply being able to communicate ideas. If our message gets across, then we have hit the main target. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake!

Furthermore, the benefits of output are enormous. By actively trying to recall words and phrases rather than simply recognizing them, we create new paths to this data in our brains, and we strengthen existing paths. This lets us access the data easier and faster. It’s also the best way of practicing grammar. Just look at it this way: when you were studying mathematics in school, what was more beneficial, listening to a lecture from the teacher for 30 minutes, or actually working the practice problems?

After all, trying to produce output is the only way to be sure about whether you actually know something or not! As you go about this exercise and come across words or ideas that you don’t know how to express, or you are unsure whether or not you are expressing them correctly, try to make a mental note of it and then check up on them later. You might find that you are simply unable to remember a lot of words and phrases that you thought you knew. And that’s the key point here. By identifying those failures, it shows you what you need to study more. Don’t be afraid of failing—embrace it.

Narrate Your Life

My method of practicing output is quite simple. Just talk to yourself! You don’t have to literally speak out loud, just saying it in your mind is enough (although speaking aloud can be great practice as well!) Talk about what you are doing at any given moment during the day. Getting ready in in the morning? Describe everything you do, as you take a shower, brush your hair, eat breakfast, and so on. While going to school or work, describe the scenery that you pass by. Describe the tasks that you are doing at work. Describe exactly what you are doing as you operate a PC. Are you a daydreamer? Convert your thoughts to Japanese! Rehearsing a conversation in your mind? Try saying it in Japanese. Counting sheep to fall asleep? Count in Japanese. We all literally have so much time available during our lives when we may be physically busy, but we are mentally available. Don’t just let that all go to waste!

I don’t want to discount the positive impact that actually conversing with another human being can have. But sometimes, it just isn’t going to happen. Maybe you are shy, maybe you don’t have anyone to speak with, maybe you don’t have the time, or maybe time zones are a big factor in your ability to have a conversation partner. But whatever the reason, this might be the next best alternative, and there are no excuses to weasel your way out of it.