How to practice interpreting in shared space

How to practice interpreting in shared space

If you work in an open office, like I do, it can be very hard to practice interpretation. In the rare free time you have, you will end up just reviewing Anki decks or reading NHK so you don’t disrupt people. While these are valuable ways to study, nothing can take the place of actually practicing interpretation. So, here are some quick ways that you can practice effectively while still being at your desk.

Prepare to interpret

First, select the speech or other media that you are going to use to practice. Do not listen to it now. That would ruin your practice. Just have it ready. Try to select a fairly short piece of no more than 5 minutes on a single topic. (search and selection time: 5-10 min)

Next, begin your background research. Read articles related to that field. Listen to previous speeches by the same speaker. Read current news articles about this topic. (30 min, more if a very unfamiliar topic)

Then, prepare your vocab lists. Make them simple, one-word equivalent lists in excel. You can use these while interpreting as a reference too.  (List writing and study time: 20 min)

Lastly, practice Quick Response using your vocab list. This will help you to memorize the words. You can usually do this whispering at your desk without causing too much of a disturbance. But, you can also do it in your head.

Make sure your mic, recorder, and notes are all set up to begin interpreting.

Do the actual interpretation on your lunch hour

Once everyone in your immediate vicinity leaves for their lunch breaks, that is the time to do the actual interpretation. If you are doing simul, it shouldn’t take you longer than the media track. If consecutive, plan for close to double time. This means you have more than enough time to do multiple takes before everyone gets back. (20 min max)

Review your interpretation

Once the office is full, you can begin listening to your interpretation. Take a notebook and make notes of any pronunciation errors. Then listen to the original again and see if you missed any content.


And there you have it. Complete interpretation practice for a silent office.

Plateauing in Your Japanese Study

Plateauing in Your Japanese Study


I have read several articles recently about plateauing in your Japanese study. (Tofugu, Japanalicious, and The Japan Times articles come to mind) Basically, a plateau is a wall you hit in your studies, usually at intermediate level (though some people hit it earlier). It can be hard to overcome. The articles I linked above give great tips on how to get over this wall. But I have actually experienced a couple different plateaus that I wanted to discuss here. If you have hit any others, please feel free to chime in.

1. The Kana Plateau

A lot of people give up when they hit this first wall. You learn, or try to learn all hiragana and katakana only to find that you still can’t “read” Japanese because of all the kanji. Then, on top of that, you learn that all kana sentences are nearly impossible to read. You get frustrated and a lot of people quit at this point.

2. The Aisatsu Plateau

You have learned to say your 自己紹介 and your basic conversations. Japanese people are impressed by you. But, once you exhaust your pre-memorized phrases, you are lost. You cannot actually hold a conversation (unless that conversation is about whether the book is under or on the table.) You get frustrated because the amount of topics that can possibly come up in a conversation seem endless and all involve words you don’t know.

3. The Kanji Compound Plateau

You have mastered basic conversation skills. You have had many different conversations and you know what kind of topics are likely to come up when you meet someone. You can make appointments with friends and you are feeling pretty confident in your Japanese. Then, you watch the news. You know the word 入れる but 入力? What’s that? 怖い>恐縮, ありがとう>感謝しています, 手に入れる>入手?! Suddenly the world is full of “shu” and “sou” and you know they are kanji compounds that you are hearing but you have no idea what they mean. Was that nyushu or nyuushu or nyuushuu? This can be the most frustrating stage and keeps a lot of people from progressing from intermediate to advanced.

4. The College/Career Plateau

You have conquered the basic kanji compounds. The news doesn’t scare you anymore. You have started to read native language material. Then, you go take college classes in Japan or go to work for a Japanese company. Suddenly, you realize how much you don’t know. The problem is, you have hit the wall where not everything can be solved with a dictionary. Some of what you are hearing/reading is abbreviations (the first and third kanji of a longer compound), some of it is proper names and places that you don’t know, some of it is just modern lingo or technical terms that you can’t look up. At this stage you have to start turning to 国語 dictionaries and websites. You can’t rely on English definitions anymore. You have to let your L1 go.

I have hit this last plateau multiple times. You feel confident going into a meeting, but then you realize, not only do you know nothing about finance and stocks in Japanese, you know very little about it in English. This will blow your mind the first time it happens. But once you start to function as if you were a native speaker of Japanese and start using resources made for Japanese native speakers, it will get better.


Again, if you have any other plateaus to add to the list, please chime in.

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The following is based on an article in the Autumn 2012 edition of 通訳翻訳ジャーナル. The subject of the interview is a simultaneous interpreter named Yayoi Oguma, a woman who went from a TOEIC score of 280 to 805 in half a year. After three years, she was good enough to become a simultaneous interpreter. You can learn more about her on her website or check out one of her books. Below are some of the study tips which I have revised for Japanese learners. Bear in mind that she did each of these things every day.

  1. Take a cluster of 5-15 words concerning on a topic and make groups of 2-3 synonyms and 1 antonym. Review them every day before bed.
  2. Listen to 2-4 hours of Japanese a day. If you are going to listen to the news in Japanese, look up the Japanese news in English first so that you will understand the content. Then listen all in Japanese, looking up words as needed.
  3. Read translated articles, or articles in both languages about the same topic, out loud in both Japanese and English.
  4. When reading aloud, record yourself and review your pronunciation.
  5. Help grow your memory by reading and orally reproducing (not reciting but giving an overview of the content) one article a day.
  6. Get in the habit of translating whatever you are listening to in your head. Start practicing this for 5-10 minutes a day until you can do it for longer or do it automatically.
  7. Do 20 minutes of Shadowing (repeating the speaker’s words in their language a second behind them) a day. If that is too hard, start with 5 minutes a day. Record yourself and review your pronunciation and mistakes.
It’s okay to be afraid to talk to strangers

It’s okay to be afraid to talk to strangers

Many students of foreign languages are encouraged to speak that language out in public. I remember when I had just started studying Japanese. My family went to a Japanese restaurant and they were pressuring me to speak to the waitress. I timidly said 「水をお願いします」and she blinked at me and said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.” She was Korean. I felt humiliated. However, even now it can be hard. I will be out at the Japanese grocery store and the woman behind the counter will speak to me in broken English. Should I talk to her in Japanese or let her go on assuming that I can’t speak Japanese? But then I realize that this is not any different from how I feel in an English environment. When I see that the check out girl at Kroger is having a bad day, I debate whether or not to say something. What if she gets mad at me for mentioning it? What if she wants to be left alone? These kinds of things run through my head in English interactions. It stands to reason that the trepidation would be even more severe in a second language. 

So, what I am trying to say is that, if you are new to learning Japanese, don’t expect yourself to start all kinds of conversations with total strangers. Find someone you know or can get close to, like a conversation partner, to talk to. Don’t try to mix language learning with outgoingness.