How to Speak to People in Japanese if You’re Shy

How to Practice Speaking Japanese if You’re Shy

What if I’m too afraid or shy to speak Japanese with anyone?  This is an issue that many people have.  It can be difficult speaking to someone in a totally different language, especially if you’re a beginner.  You don’t know many words and grammar patterns, so you can’t say the things you want to say.

We all have a fear of not knowing what to say to people in conversations.  You know that awkward feeling when you’re sitting in complete silence because no one knows what to say?  Yea, it’s painful.

However, there are ways to get over this, and gain confidence speaking in Japanese.

Here’s how to deal with this fear of talking to people in Japanese.

Here’s how to get over the fear of speaking Japanese with people, and build your confidence as well.


1.  Create Pre-written Conversation Pieces

This is incredible helpful.  I highly recommend you do this.  I used to do this all the time, and it really built my confidence, because I knew I would always have something to say.

Create and write out several conversation pieces that you find interesting, or that you think you will use.  For example, if you going to study abroad in Japan, you might want to prepare a self-introduction, some small talk questions (where are you from, what are your hobbies, etc), as well as some fun stories about you.

When you meet Japanese students around the campus, you’ll be ready to introduce yourself and have a short, but fun conversation.  Of course you should prepare questions asking the person for their contact information and to invite them to do something with you later.

In addition to this, think about the little details of a real conversation.  What will you say when you agree with something the person said.  What if you disagree?  What will you say when the conversation is starting to slow down?  What will you say when you have to leave?

Planning out these words and phrases that you’ll use in conversations will not only build your confidence, but it will also making speaking fun.  Instead of not knowing what to say next, you’ll be 100% confident since you’ll know EXACTLY what to say next.

As to talk to more people, you’ll notice that you will get asked the same questions over and over again.  This is great, because you can easily prepare for it.  Here’s a quick list of questions that you might be asked when you first meet someone in Japan.

  • Where are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Do you like Japan?
  • Do you like/know any Japanese musicians/actors/comedians?
  • Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • *What is your blood type?

*Yes, this is a weird question to be asked for most people.  If you’re from America, you probably don’t even know your blood type.  In Japan, most people know their blood type.  They believe that your blood type can determine what kind of personality you have.

If you have a A blood type it means you are responsible and sensible, but like things in order and can be obsessive, stubborn, and reserved

People with a type B blood:  Active, cheerful, and creative, but can be irresponsible, unreliable, and selfish.  You like doing things your own way.

Type O:  Competitive, friendly, and aware, but can be cold and unpredictable.

Type AB:  Chill, controlled, and sociable, but can be brash and have a “split personality,”


Questions If You Are in Japan

  • Is this your first time in Japan?
  • Why did you choose to come to Japan?
  • Is there anything that shocked you about Japan when you first got here?


This is just a small list of questions you might be asked if you speak to a native speaker.  But you’ll notice that these questions are pretty straight forward and easy to answer, especially if you plan out the answers in advance.

If you have trouble thinking of topics to write stories on, here some ideas that most people can relate to and are interested in.

  • Food
  • Relationships
  • Culture differences between your country and Japan
  • Teaching them cool English words
  • Psychological quizzes (answer 5 questions and I can tell you your personality type, etc.)


If you are working with a private teacher online or in real life, you can prepare conversations about topics you are interested in.  Use this pre-written scrip to have a short conversation with your teacher.

They can help you by correcting any mistakes you have made, as well as teaching you more ways to express your thoughts.  A native speaker is the best resource for teaching you natural, real-world Japanese.


2.  It’s Okay to Not UnderstandSpeaking Japanese if You're Shy Don't Understand

Another reason why people have a fear of speaking in Japanese to people is because they are afraid that they won’t understand what the other person is saying.  The person talking to you might be speaking super fast, mumbling their words, and using Japanese words you have never heard before.  Not a good combination when you’re trying to understand what someone is saying.

You don’t want them to know you that you don’t understand, but admitting it would be embarrassing to both you and the other person right?  Nope!  Not if you do it right.

Just remember this.

It’s 100% natural and okay to not understand everything someone says.  This happens in any language among native speakers.  As native English speakers, how many times have you not understood what someone said?  Probably a lot if you think about it.

As native speakers, it’s no big deal when we can’t understand someone.  We just ask then to repeat what they said, or tell them that we don’t understand.  Why can’t we do the same in Japanese?

It seems simple enough, but most people don’t do this when they are speaking in Japanese.

What many people ending up doing is pretending they understand something, even when they don’t.  In the middle of their conversation, they get asked a question that they don’t understand.  Due to pride and/or embarrassment, they decide to give it their best shot and answer the question.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty common for them to answer incorrectly, which makes things really awkward.  Not only do you feel weird for answering  the wrong question, but the Japanese speaker realizes that you didn’t understand anything they said.


Here’s a real life example.

Japanese teacher:  What is your favorite food?

You:  Uhhh….Monday.

This may or may not have come from my personal experience 🙂

Sure, it’s great that you’re giving it you all and trying to answer questions you don’t understand.  The bad thing about this is that it helps NO ONE.  It makes both the speaker and you feel awkward, it stops the conversations dead in its tracks, and you don’t learn anything from it.

There’s a better way to deal with situations like this.

If you understand the general idea of what the speaker is trying to say, but didn’t understand a word or grammar pattern, ask them questions.

Just like in English, if someone said a word or phrase you didn’t understand, you would ask them what that is.


So in Japanese, you can ask it like this:

In Japanese:  (unknown word/phrase) とはなんですか?

In English:  (unknown word/phrase) to wa nan desu ka?


Or a more casual version:  In Japanese (unknown word/phrase)ってなんですか?

In English:  (unknown word/phrase) tte nan desu ka?


If you didn’t understand the whole sentence that was said, it’s usually due to the Japanese speaker speaking too quickly, or them not pronouncing words as clearly as your textbook CD’s.

In this case, you can ask them to say it again:  In Japanese: もう一度言ってください (もいちどいってください)

In English:  Mou ichi do itte kudasai.


If you could understand most of what they said the second time around, then use the sample Japanese questions above to ask them what a specific word or phrase means.

If you relax and don’t panic,  you should be able to pick out a word or two that they said 90% of the time.  Even someone who has never studied Japanese before can pick out different words out of a full sentence.

If you still didn’t understand anything they said, simply tell them you don’t understand.

Here is the important part.  If you just tell them, “I don’t understand,” things can become awkward really quickly.  The way you can avoid this is with your attitude.

Here’s 3 things you have to do to make things go smoothly.


3 Ways to Avoid AwkwardnessHow to Practice Speaking Japanese if You're Shy Avoid-Awkwardness

 1.  You Must Listen

I mean really listen to what they are trying to say. Give them your full attention and try to understand every word they say.

Have you ever talked to someone who was constantly looking around the room, looking bored, or even interrupted you while you were talking?

How did you feel about them?  Now how would you feel if they told you they didn’t understand what you were saying, and asked you to say it again?  You probably would want to kick them in their shins!

Even in Japanese, the speaker deserves your attention, especially if you are asking them to repeat themselves over again.


2.  It’s Not a Big Deal

Telling someone you don’t understand them is not a big deal at all.  But many people make it out to be.  They feel like they somehow failed if they have to say that they don’t understand.

We say it in English all the time, and we don’t think twice about it.  It should be the same when we’re speaking Japanese.  Just say you don’t understand, and move on.  It’s that simple.


3.  Sincerity

When you tell someone you don’t understand them, try not to say it in a frustrated, or even in a matter of fact kind of way.  You should say it with a little sincerity, to show that you wish you could understand them.

Now I’m not saying you need to break down in tears and fall to your knees, but the way you say it should come off as genuine.  Saying that you don’t understand with a little bit of sincerity makes it feel like you’re being genuine…and that goes a long way.

Here’s the important part.  After you tell them you don’t understand, one of two things will happen.

  1. They will repeat what they said, possibly using simpler language with gestures.
  2. They will stop, say nothing, and things might start to get awkward.

If they repeat themselves using simpler Japanese, that is awesome.

Try to see if you can understand what they are saying then. As always, if you didn’t catch a word or two, ask them what it is.

If they stop and the silence is starting to grow, you need to be the one pull this conversation out of the awkwardness.

I found that the best way to do this is by saying a lighthearted, “I have to study more Japanese.” If appropriate, ask them a question related to what you were talking about (if you understood some of what they said), or about speaking Japanese.

For example, after you tell them that you don’t understand, and say a lighthearted, “I have to study more Japanese,” ask them for advice. “What’s the best way to learn Japanese?” “I want to learn more Japanese by watching TV/movies, do you have any recommendations?”

When you ask them a question like that, they will think of an answer, and you avoid the awkward silence. You not only kept the conversation going, but you also know what the conversation will be about since you choose the topic.

You should be able to follow the conversation a bit better since you know what they will be talking about.

After they give you their advice, you can politely end the conversation there. Of course, if you feel like you are keeping up with most of the conversation, or are clicking well with that person, feel free to continue.

However, if that person is speaking too fast or not clearly and you are having trouble understanding anything, just say thanks, and tell them that you have to get going. Give them a smile and tell them you’ll see them later.

And there you have it. A full conversation with a native Japanese speaker that minimizes any awkward silences or misunderstandings. Try this out.

When you know that it’s okay to say that you don’t understand, and then can take control of the conversation, your confidence will grow. It does take practice and some planning (using pre-written scripts you create), you’ll soon learn how to talk to anyone without having fears of not knowing what to say.

But what if the person starts talking and doesn’t stop?


Dealing with Super Talkative PeopleHow to Practice Speaking Japanese if You're Shy - Talkative People

We’ve all been there. You probably have met someone who talks about 5 different things at the same time, or talks forever before stopping to take a breath.

Most Japanese people don’t do this if they realize you are not a native speaker of Japanese. Of course, it does happen, so here’s how to prepare for that.

Many people studying Japanese develop the “hai syndrome.” It’s when you are listening to a native speaker talking and nodding your head in agreement saying “hai (meaning yes in Japanese)” to acknowledge that you are following the conversation, even if you don’t.

This is okay to a certain degree. Japanese people do nod their head and say “hai” when speaking, so it’s good practice for you to sound like a native speaker. It’s also good for your listening skills because you have to listen carefully to know when to say “hai” naturally in a conversation.

It’s only when you do this for the majority of the conversation, and can’t understand anything. If someone is speaking in Japanese to you and goes on and on barely pausing to take a breath, you’ll still do the same 3 things listed above. The only difference is that you’ll have to take a little more control of the conversation.

When the speaker does pause in between sentences or ideas, instead of saying “hai,” ask them questions about words you didn’t understand. If you didn’t catch anything, instead of saying that you don’t understand, ask them to speak slower.

Then let them continue and try to hear as many things as you can. If they tell you a whole story, you most likely will be able to hear at least a word or two. Ask them about that word, by using the steps described above.

As always, if you can’t catch anything they said, even after you ask them to speak slower or to repeat themselves, it’s okay to tell them you don’t understand. Then make a lighthearted comment, and follow it up with a question of your own.


3. Be the Boss of the SituationHow to Practice Speaking Japanese if You're Shy - Be the Boss

It’s very common for people to speak quietly and even mumble their words when they feel shy or unconfident. Talking with a native speaker in Japanese, especially if you just met them, is scary.

It’s hard to be confident when you have nothing to base your confidence on. This may be the first time you’re ever speaking in a foreign language, and you can feel the nervousness building up inside. This makes you tense and might even make your mind go blank.

This is an irrational fear since we’re not even speaking with anyone yet. It’s all inside of our mind, with scenarios and images that we create. It’s not real, but it sure feels real.

I believe that when people who don’t know each other well have a conversation, one person usually feels nervous or even awkward. Now it could be that both people feel nervous, but in almost every case, one person is more nervous than the other.

If you have been this “nervous” person before, remember how it made the conversation go. You probably depended on the other person to lead, and couldn’t let your personality shine through. If you were the “confident” person, remember how the other, nervous person made you feel. It kind of made things feel awkward right?

I don’t want to scare off anyone who gets nervous talking to people. I do. Most people do. But you do need to work on letting your personality shine through….if you’re a super energetic cheerful person, a calm person who likes intelligent conversations, or even if you’re into goth and want to rebel, let that person shine through.

To do that, you need to be comfortable with who you are, to the point that other people’s judgment doesn’t bother you. This is very, very difficult to do.

You need confidence to do this. You’ll notice that confident speakers always know what to say, and can handle situations where they don’t understand something. Maybe they used this guy because you can do this too using the first 2 techniques in this guide. If you prepare conversations pieces and use the “I don’t understand” techniques above, you’ll automatically have more confidence.

However, there’s more to it than that. Confidence speakers carry a certain quality that makes listening to them interesting, even if they are telling boring stories.

Here are 4 things that confident speakers have, and how you can get them too.


4 Ways to “Be” Confident in a ConversationHow to Practice Speaking Japanese if You're Shy - Ways to Be Confident

1. Don’t Think About Rejection

A huge, huge reason why it’s scary to talk to people for the first time is that we fear rejection. We all have this fear, no matter how confident we are.

Unconfident or shy people will usually think of negative thoughts and questions before talking to people. Will the person accept us and continue the conversation? Will I bore the other person with my uninteresting stories? What if they don’t like me?

However, confident people don’t even think about rejection when they start talking to people. The thought that the people they talk to will reject them doesn’t even enter their mind.

To be honest, people who feel “rejected” from talking to people are usually people lacking in confidence. They are uncomfortable with themselves, which makes other people uncomfortable too. Just by believing that people like you, guess what? You’ll instantly feel less “rejected” and have better conversations. This is easier said than done.

If you look at it though, there is no reason why someone will turn you down just for talking to them…unless you’re trying to pick-up a girl or ask someone for money!

If you’re just trying to have a friendly conversation with no expectations, you’ll find that most people will talk to you. So how do we build up this confidence to just start talking to people?

We have to fake it until we make it. In other words, we have to use little techniques that confidence speakers do naturally. It will appear that we have more confidence when speaking, even if we don’t. However, you’ll gain confidence each time do use these techniques and speak to people.


2. Be okay with silence

We tend to think that silence is bad. We try to constantly keep the conversation going. This is good to some degree, but if it gets to the point where you start to say super random things that don’t even make sense, silence is the better option. Don’t say anything. Be okay with little gaps of silence.

Of course don’t be silent if someone asks you a question, but if you’re the one doing the talking and are starting to ramble on to avoid silence, don’t. When you are comfortable in silence the other person will probably start to talk.

Now there are limitations to this. If you and the person you are standing face to face, and you just stare at them in silence for a minute, that is creepy.

What I’m saying is that you do not need to fill every single second of conversation time by thinking of things to say. It’s tiring and puts you on the spot. If both of you stop speaking for a bit, that is cool. Be comfortable with it. Take some time to gather your thoughts. Or you maybe choose to end the conversation.


3. Practice Being “Chill”

What I mean by this is that you don’t let your nervous show through body movements. Pacing side to side, playing with your hands, sighing, avoiding eye contact…these are all things that make you feel more nervous if you do them.

Stand in front of a mirror and have a fake conversation with yourself. Try keeping your hands to your sides (not in your pocket) and don’t move. It’s okay to use hand gestures to help get your point across, but try to keep all unnecessary motion to a minimum.

When you’re nervous, you want to move around to help you through it. But if you do, it makes you more nervous, and it makes the person you’re talking to uncomfortable too.
This takes practice, but if you keep doing it does get easier over time.


4. Saying Goodbye

For some reason, when we talk to others, it’s hard to leave the conversation even if it isn’t going well. We just have trouble saying goodbye.

When you talk to someone, you can leave anytime you want. Don’t be afraid to say you have to go. Just be strightforward and to the point. “Sorry, I have to get going now. Nice talking to you!”

If you say it directly, but politely, leaving the conversation should be no problem. The problems come from half-assed attempts to leave the conversation. You know, you start to look away, play with your hands, turn your body away from the speaker, and make several attempts to say you have to go.

You want to be nice, but by doing all of this, you are making the conversation awkward. The speaker can feel that you want to leave but doesn’t want to be rude either.

To avoid this, just get to the point and tell them directly, but politely that you have to go. If you’re in a crowd of people, you can try to involve more people into your conversation. If everyone starts talking and the conversation starts to pick up, awesome. If it doesn’t, it will be much easier to leave when there are more people in the conversation.

Just knowing that you can leave at any time gives you confidence. You know that if you run out of things to say, or the conversation isn’t going well, you have an option to leave at any time.



It still is pretty scary to jump into a live conversation with a native speaker even if you use these methods here. But it’s something you just have to do if you want to improve your Japanese quickly. Trust me though, using the techniques described in this article can help you out a lot and build your confidence.

The quote, “chance favors the prepared mind” sums it all up. If you take the time to prepare pre-written stories, questions, and conversation pieces while using the techniques in this guide, you’ll find that you can speak Japanese better than you imagine.

You’ll lead the conversation, and will always know what to say.
Of course, there will be hiccups along the way. You’ll make mistakes and have times of misunderstanding. It’s all a part of the journey to mastering Japanese.

Speaking and making mistakes is exactly what you want, because it will teach you Japanese better and faster than any book, CD, and even most teachers. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but making mistakes can be fun too.


Photo of author

Dallen Nakamura

Dallen was born and raised in Hawaii and never had a passport until he was 24. His first trip outside of the US was to Japan. He loved it so much that when he got back home, he immediately quit his job and moved to Japan without a plan. While he loves the people and culture of Japan, his true love is food. He is convinced that Japan has the best food in the world and is slowly eating his way around the world to prove it.

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