When preparing for the JLPT or the TOEIC (a popular English test in Japan), I usually tell students to do some speaking practice along with all the other studying that is required (drill practice, practice tests, reading practice, etc…) I mean, in general, you study a language to use it and so a lot of people are already doing a lot of speaking. They just need to fill it in with some reading and listening practice.
But, some people rebuff this idea. Even though a lot of people use speaking to become fluent in a language. And I know more than a handful of people that can only speak Japanese and not read it and are doing okay in Japan.
The basic argument is that since these tests (JLPT and TOEIC) only cover reading and listening there is no need to practice speaking. However, I think speaking practice is critical, and almost certainly necessary, at least at the higher levels. Even if the sole reason you are studying Japanese is to understand anime and do translation work, speaking practice will benefit you tremendously. In fact, any kind of production work will do. Speaking just tends to be the easiest to practice.
Can you Learn by Reading and Listening Only?
Imagine that you would like to take a tango dance test. The test consists simply of pictures and text descriptions of the dance moves, and maybe a few dance songs that you should choose the appropriate dance for. In other words, you don’t have to actually perform the dance moves, simply answer questions about them.
So to study you read up on all the latest moves. You watch hours of dancing and take clear notes on it. You can see people dancing in your sleep. You have memorized everything they do, move by move, which is an absolutely painstaking process. But, you’ve mastered it.
Or have you? You can’t really say that you know how to tango, if you’ve never danced it, can you? You’ve formed assumptions about how to dance, how to move, but you’ve never tested those assumptions.
So you take a practice test to check your assumptions before you take the real test. But that test can only cover so many assumptions. And there only so many practice tests you can take. What if you could test all your assumptions that you made?
Well, there is a way to do that. There is a way to test all your assumptions through trial and error. Just do it! Just go out and dance with somebody and you’ll start to feel what is wrong with your assumptions. Better yet, dance with an instructor and they will help you even more. Any tutor or private teacher will help you with that, and you will quickly see what you are good and bad at.
Speaking makes it Automatic
When you practicing your speaking, you are practicing your muscle memory, or implicit memory while at the same time reinforcing your declarative or explicit memory. Muscle memory is what you use to ride a bicycle. You can’t easily explain how to do it, you just do it automatically. Whereas declarative memory is more like the kind of memory you use to remember facts. So, by speaking you are using both systems.
And speech production and comprehension share the same region of the brain, so it is a reasonable hypothesis that if you exercise one you will improve the other. In fact, in young children, if you inhibit an infant’s tongue movements they have a hard time distinguishing sounds. This again lends some evidence that doing speaking practice will help your comprehension.
Now, I’m not saying that you absolutely have to practice speaking in order to pass. I’m sure that people have passed the test without doing that much speaking at all, especially at the lower levels. But, I strongly believe that becomes close to impossible to pass N2 or N1 without regular speaking practice. At the very least, it will take significantly more time.
Get Speaking Today
If speaking isn’t a part of your regular study routine, try to make it part of it today. At the very least it will break up the tedium of everyday practice. I still use JapanesePod101 and FluentU scripts from time to time to liven up my studies, but there are tons of other materials you can use as well. And you will be able to actually make it work.