It’s a story you’ve heard several times – we don’t talk to each other like we used to. Because ya know, back in the good ole days we used to chat it up with our neighbors and everybody knew everybody right? It was always better back then.
But these days, we tend to ignore each other. We aren’t as open to conversation as we used to be. Instead of striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to us on the train we choose to sit in silence. This is more true in Japan then probably most other places but you get the idea. There just isn’t as much communication going on.
But we humans are social creatures. We like talking and sharing ideas with each other. We need to communicate to get pretty much anything done. And the better we are at communicating the better off we tend to be. Do you ever notice that the one guy that doesn’t do much in your office but can chat anyone up keeps getting promoted? There’s a reason.
And one of the things I love about learning a language is that you have a very viable excuse to just start talking to random strangers. Nobody is going to think it’s strange. That’s kind of one thing I like about my job. I get to talk to people every day all day. Granted you sometimes meet people that are little too unique, but overall, it’s interesting to hear everyone’s different take on the world.
How to Start doing Regular Chats
A lot of people will recommend doing Skype sessions to get some practice with real life conversations and using ‘real’ Japanese with ‘real’ people. And I definitely think that is the best option for the majority of people. Before my daughter was born and my life was a little more scheduled, I was perfectly capable of scheduling Skype chat sessions and keeping to them.
These days though, try as I might, I really have not been able to buckle down a regular pattern to my life. Even my sleep schedule has become a bit tentative in recent months. This has made me a master of being a little more portable with everything I do from blogging to emailing and checking in with friends and family. But even with all my time savings I’ve managed to hobble together, I’m still not able to consistently clear a block of time in my schedule to practice talking.
So how can someone like me squeeze in some practice? Something that doesn’t really require that much of an ongoing commitment, but does provide regular practice so that I can practice and learn new vocabulary in a more natural setting?
Well, I looked around for something to plug this hole. I thought I could get some practice in with Lang-8.com, which I have been doing a little more with, and it is a great service. However, I never really felt a compulsion to do a lot of writing. After all, it is only for me to read, and there really isn’t a whole heck of a lot of real communication going on. You just kind of shoot out a passage and get corrections back, but you aren’t really talking to someone.
Introducing Hello Talk
Eventually, after a little poking around, I found Hello Talk, a chat app for the iPhone and Android. And on the surface it is a basic chat app, kind of like a toned down Line or something similar. But, what’s cool about this little app is it is specifically designed for language learners to practice their target language.
The app is basically free, with some of the handier tools available as a subscription service. But the base package allows you to tap and get a Google translation of what someone is saying. This Google translation isn’t the best thing in the world. But, it will give you the general meaning of what is trying to be conveyed.
I really like the app because it is nice and simple. You just login and do some chatting. It isn’t complicated by a whole heck of other utilities. This makes it easy to pick up and do some chatting and then go about doing something else.
And it’s key selling point for me anyway, is that you can have asynchronous conversations with people. Skype is great, but it can be difficult to squeeze in a chat session or find people that are free when you are. With asynchronous communication, both of you don’t have to be present at the same time.
Of course there are other platforms to chat with like Line or Facebook. But, Hello Talk is designed with language learning in mind. I mean Line probably has more native speakers of Japanese but if you can’t read a particular kanji you have to copy and paste to get a definition. Hello Talk helps you out with a very approximate Google translation.
Some hurdles to deal with
I have had a few problems getting a few conversations going and keeping them going. This is partly my fault as I tend to start a few conversations and then get suddenly busy and I’m not able to respond to everyone I’m talking to. Also you can have a good conversation and then the other person just up and disappears. This isn’t that big of a deal because there are plenty of people using the system and you can just go back and look at who else is available.
There also tend to be a lot of the usually suspects that you find on services like this. The overly ambitious talker that assaults you with long welcoming messages asking you to answer a list of riddles or shoving their Skype id in your face in hopes that you will suddenly call them up. But, their numbers are relatively few. Most of the people I met like to chat and keep a conversation going. The demographics, not surprisingly, skew young. There are a lot of college students majoring in English that have some free time to chat. But there are others from all walks of life.
Some Quick Tips
I’ve found that if you blast someone with a huge message, you don’t get a response more often than not. Another dead end to starting a good conversation is playing the interrogator – こんにちは？ 仕事は？ / しごとは？(What is your job?) どこに住んでいますか? / どこにすんでいますか？(where do you live?) etc… A lot of people ask these questions when they first meet someone and chances are there are a lot of people meeting people on a service like this. So anyone you message may have heard this a gazillion times already.
So, my tip is to instead of bombarding them with the standard questions, ask how their day or week was – 今日の調子はどうですか？ / きょうのちょうしはどうですか？ (How is your day?) or 今週の調子はどうでしたか？ / きょうのちょうしはどうでしたか？ (How was your week?) These tend to get a variety of responses and then you can ask questions and talk about your week as well. Be sure to have some somewhat interesting story prepared. Even if you tell a story about something that happened at a different time, telling a story is a good way to introduce yourself that is more interesting than chugging through the standard questions. It also gives you good, real world talking practice.
Have you Used Hello Talk or Something Similar?
What is your experience like with conversation partners? Have you been able to maintain a good connection? Let me know in the comments below.