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.

looking down from Tokyo Tower

↑ Robo-chan… uh… being 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:

忘れて下さい
wasurete kudasai
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:

気にしないで
ki ni shinai de
Never mind. / Don’t worry about it.

That was Level 2.

In the first day of our Level 3 class, our teacher laid out “the purpose of Level 3,” and she said that it was:

自分の意見を伝えられるようになること
jibun no iken wo tsutaerareru you ni naru koto
Becoming able to express yourselves.

I was like, Yeah, whatever.

I wasn’t looking at that, right? All I ever thought about was my “Dream-Level Japanese.” I wanted to watch TV shows, read books, translate, get paid to use Japanese. So I didn’t really worry too much about what my teacher was saying that day.

↑ Embarrassing photo of my young self... that guy SUCKED at Japanese ↑

↑ Embarrassing photo of my young self… that guy SUCKED at Japanese ↑

Head down, I studied.

Every day, I studied.

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.
  • Every grammar conjugation (casual forms, polite forms, te-forms, passive, conditional, volitional, causative, passive-causative, etc., 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)

breaking the rules

Following the rules is for chumps, apparently.

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.

At the moment, I’m lucky to have free access to (the famous) Benny Lewis’ Premium Course on learning a second language. For those of you who don’t know, Benny’s simple advice for becoming fluent in languages is this–Start speaking from Day 1. He also talks about this a lot in his (free) Speak in a Week Course.

Reading through Benny’s language hacking material, I felt that maybe I should put some more stuff on my site about the simplicity of having conversations in Japanese, which I think can tend to get pushed to the side with all of this talk about kanji… and word nuances… and vocab acquisition…

Honestly, though, you don’t need any of it to have a conversation in Japanese.

I have an exercise for this one.

simplifying your constructions

Let’s look at two random English words:

  1. imagine
  2. fear

Now let’s take one sentence for each of these words, which I’ll pull from my favorite English dictionary: Learner’s Dictionary.

I’ll take 1 very natural English sentence, and then I’ll break down how someone could express this with no grammar.

To do this, we’ll use the following Japanese hack:

Japanese Conversation Hack: Jumble nouns together.

Right now, I’m writing a grammar book on learning Japanese (if you’re interested, just sign up for the newsletter, and I’ll let you know when it’s released). In that book, I try to break down the absolute simplest ways to form (totally accurate) sentences in Japanese.

And part of that is using nouns, because Japanese nouns are exponentially more useful than English nouns. There is soooooooo much you can do with nouns in Japanese.

Let’s dive in, and I’ll show you…

1. Imagine

Here’s our sentence:

It’s hard for me to imagine having children.

Now, if I took the long way to learning Japanese, I could use all kind of fancy grammar to say what is, essentially, a direct translation of this sentence:

子供育てるのって想像もできない。
kodomo sodateru no tte souzou mo dekinai.
I can’t (even) imagine having children.

If you’re still in the first month (or even year) of Japanese, you’ll probably have a hard time saying a sentence like this. However:

Just because you don’t know how to say exactly what you want does not mean that you are incapable of expressing it.

When you want to say something, just:

  1. Pick out the key words
  2. Turn all verbs and verb phrases into nouns
  3. Look up the Japanese equivalent of those nouns

It’s hard for me to imagine having children.

Our key words are “hard,” “imagine,” and “having children.”

“Hard” is an adjective, so we could just leave it as is. But “hard” is a versatile word, so let’s change it to “difficult.”

The noun form of “imagine” is “imagination.”

The noun form of “having children” is… uh, I don’t know! What’s a different way to say this? Let’s say “raising,” as in “raising (children).” (By the way, putting -ing on a verb makes it noun… kind of.)

Okay, so we have:

  • Difficult
  • Imagination
  • Raising (children)

So I bust out an English-Japanese dictionary, and I look up these words:

  • “Difficult,” on Jisho.org, first comes up as 難しい (muzukashii).
  • “Imagination,” on Jisho.org, first comes up as 想像 (souzou).
  • “Raising,” on Jisho.org, first comes up as 飼育 (shiiku), but I can see that this word also means “breeding,” so it’s probably not that, right? I scroll down a bit more, until I get to a definition that says “bringing up; raising:” 育て (sodate).

Altogether, that’s:

  • 難しい (muzukashii), “difficult”
  • 想像 (souzou), “imagination”
  • 育て (sodate), “raising”

Looking good, but just those three words aren’t enough to say what I want to say, right? So let’s add one more noun: “children.” I look that up on Jisho.org, and the first result is 子供 (kodomo). Now our list is kind of making sense:

  • 難しい (muzukashii), “difficult”
  • 想像 (souzou), “imagination”
  • 育て (sodate), “raising”
  • 子供 (kodomo), “children”

Now all we need to do is rearrange these into an understandable order. The complicated way to figure this out is to put verbs (or the noun form of verbs) and adjectives after nouns, so:

  1. 子供 (kodomo), “children”
  2. 育て (sodate), “raising”
  3. 想像 (souzou), “imagination”
  4. 難しい (muzukashii), “difficult”

The simple version is to just throw these nouns together until the Japanese person you’re speaking to seems to understand you. Also, as you get more experience forming sentences (and deconstructing them with all your boring grammar lessons at home in a book), you’ll get a natural knack for ordering the sentences.

Anyways, if you say:

子供 育て 想像 難しい
kodomo sodate souzou muzukashii
Children raising imagination difficult.

…you may be surprised that a lot of Japanese people will understand this sentence. Why? Well, two reasons:

  1. If you go back and look at the translation I wrote, it’s pretty similar.
  2. Japanese people drop as many words out of sentences as they can.

That might look like a long process, but once you have the individual words that you want to say in your brain, spitting them out like this takes only seconds.

No, it’s not natural. It’s not correct. But that’s something we can worry about after communicating our point (I’ll show you how at the end of this article).

Now let’s fly through our second example…

2. Fear

Here’s our sentence:

I’ve been trying to overcome my fear of flying.

Step #1, Key Words:

  • trying
  • overcome
  • fear
  • flying

(Notice that I left out “I,” because it’s almost never a key word in Japanese.)

Step #2, Noun-ify:

  • attempt (the noun)
  • overcoming
  • fear
  • airplane (←simplify whenever possible)

Step #3, Japanese Equivalents:

According to Jisho.org pages, this is what we’re dealing with:

  • 試み (kokoromi) for “attempt”
  • 克服 (kokufuku) for “overcoming”
  • 恐怖 (kyoufu) for “fear”
  • 飛行機 (hikouki) for “airplane”

Step #4, Rearrange:

飛行機 恐怖 克服 試み
hikouki kyoufu kokufuku kokoromi
airplane / fear / overcome / attempt

Step #5, React:

I’m guessing that a Japanese speaker won’t understand this jumble of words. When they don’t understand, just do whatever you can to simplify. And part of simplifying is making things shorter. So let’s divide these into two:

  1. 飛行機 恐怖
    hikouki kyoufu
    airplane fear
  2. 克服 試み
    kokufuku kokoromi
    overcome attempt

With little body language, a Japanese friend or teacher who is interested in understanding you should be able to understand what you’re saying.

Your task is to communicate your idea.

The native speaker’s task is to think of the accurate construction of that idea.

So after you jumble together those nouns, getting them to understand, they will probably say the correct version. If they do, hit them with:

Asking someone to repeat something:

もう一回言って。
mou ikkai itte.
Say that one more time, will you?

If it’s your teacher, you can opt for the more formal:

もう一度言ってください。
mou ichido itte kudasai.
Say that again, please.

Then record what they say. Make them write it down. Do whatever you need to do to get that new phrasing into your brain.

By the way, the correct version of what we’re trying to say here is probably something like:

飛行機恐怖症直したい。
hikouki kyoufushou naoshitai.
I want to get over my fear of flying.
(Literally: “Fear of flying / want to correct.”)

If they finally understand you, but they don’t phrase it for you naturally, then you can ask them to:

Asking how to phrase something naturally:

どんな言い方が自然?
donna iikata ga shizen?
What is the natural way to phrase that?

The more formal version:

どんな言い方が自然ですか。
donna iikata ga shizen desu ka.
What is the natural way to phrase that?

Then move on.

The aim is communicating, yeah?

Life is not a test.

We learn languages to connect with our fellow humans.

To learn about how they think.

How they live their lives.

To understand the social structure and history that is built up around them.

And to be able to do that, you don’t need much.

Just a dictionary, a friendly language partner, and the ability to laugh at your own stupid, ridiculous mistakes.

Sorry for the long article, yeah?

Don’t get discouraged, everyone. If it’s easy, then you’re probably not learning anything.

Keep swimming,

Niko

p.s. For more Japanese brain candy, sign up for this bundle of glory:

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.