An effective method for practicing the dialogues in your Japanese textbook


When you’re starting out with the study of a language, much of the input you receive comes from the short dialogues in each unit of your textbook.

However, input alone is not enough. Even at a basic level it is important to engage in output activities that will allow you to quickly internalize new vocabulary and structures.

In this post, I will introduce you to one of the many techniques that can help you do this.

‘Read, Look Up and Say’

This is a technique that I’ve used many times in my courses and my students love it. You can also use it on your own.

The original idea comes from a website on teaching English (see link here) which I have adapted to Japanese.

As in the title of the paragraph, this technique is called “Read, Look Up and Say” and it is divided into three steps:

  1. Read all the dialogue aloud.
  2. Read the dialogue silently. Stop after each line, look up and try to say it aloud without looking at the text.
  3. Flip the book over and try to repeat the entire dialogue by heart. Focus on concepts and ideas rather than on memorizing the exact words

The first time I tried this technique with my students, I soon noticed that they found it very hard to complete the third step. They wouldn’t be able to remember some of the words by heart, and more importantly, they couldn’t reconstruct the sentences according to the Japanese syntax.

So I found a way to help them. I provided them with a written support which would allow them to reconstruct the original text without too much effort.


Reducing a dialogue to its basic concepts

The idea I had was to trim down each line of a dialogue to a string of text which contained keywords corresponding to the basic ideas they were expressing.

Let’s see a concrete example using the following dialogue:

田中    :はい。
田中    :ええと。まずJR山手線に乗ります。
田中    :そして浜松町で降ります。
田中    :ええ。
田中 :そうですねえ。15分ぐらいです。
田中   :いいえ。

Jon : Tanaka-san!
Tanaka : Hai.
Jon : Tōkyō Tawaa made dō yatte ikimasu ka.
Tanaka : Eeto. Mazu JR Yamanote-sen ni norimasu.
Jon : Hai.
Tanaka : Soshite Hamamatsu-chō de orimasu.
Jon : A, sō desu ka.
Tanaka : Ee.
Jon : Tōkyō-eki kara dono gurai kakarimasu ka.
Tanaka : Sō desu nee. Jūgo fun gurai desu.
Jon : Sō desu ka. Wakarimashita. Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita.
Tanaka : Iie.

Jon : Tanaka-san!
Tanaka : Yes?
Jon : How can I get to the Tokyo Tower?
Tanaka : Erm… First, you need to take the Yamanote Line.
Jon : O.K.
Tanaka : Then you get off at Hamamatsucho.
Jon : Oh, really?
Tanaka : Yeah.
Jon : How long does it take from Tokyo Station?
Tanaka : Let me see… I’d say 15 minutes.
Jon : I see… Got it. Thanks a lot!
Tanaka : You’re welcome.

Once you’ve read, listened to and fully understood the text, you just need to trim it down to the single ideas expressed in each line, while at the same time trying to keep the syntactic structure of Japanese.

Note that you’re not going to translate it. You’ll just be using keywords which will then act as a “clutch” for you to remember the original sentences.

I will use the third line of the dialogue as an example:


Tōkyō Tawaa made dō yatte ikimasu ka.

 How can I get to the Tokyo Tower?

We’ll start by dividing the sentence into its “semantic blocks” by using this symbol (/), and then go on with reducing the single components to the basic ideas they express. The end of each sentence can be indicated by using the symbol (//).

The result will be:

Tōkyō Tawaa    /  made   /     dō yatte   /    ikimasu    /     ka   //

Tokyo Tower    /   up to   /        how      /      to go      /     ?    //

You can simplify the structure even more by using symbols (or icons) for certain words (such as ‘tower’), whereas for particles you can use the symbol ([ ]) and then make the effort to remember which one to use when you will reconstruct the sentence.

Tokyo      /     →      /    how    /     to go    / ?  //

Tokyo      /   [    ]     /    how    /     to go    / ?  //


Here’s how our dialogue will appear once we trim it down to its basic concepts:

Tanaka  //

Yes    //

Tokyo     /     [     ]     /  how       /       to go     /    ?   //

Hmm   /    first    /    JR Yamanote-line   /     [      ]     /    to get on   //

Yes //

Then   /  Hamamatsucho    /    [      ]     /    to get off    //

Ah     /    so     /    to be    /     ?    //

Yeah //

Tokyo St.     /    [      ]     /     how long     /   it takes  /    ?     //

Let’s see…   /   15 mins   /    about    /    to be     //

So   /   to be   /   ?   //     Understood     //     Thanks a lot (past)    //

You’re welcome (= No)   //

That’s it!

Now you just have to practise reconstructing the dialogue out loud based on this structure.

To sum up…

 If you’ve just started studying Japanese, the technique I’ve described above will help you review and assimilate the dialogues in your textbook in a fun and creative way.

By analysing each sentence in this way, you will gain a better understanding of its syntax, and you’ll also have the opportunity to practise speaking while memorizing new vocabulary and structures without too much effort.

Don’t worry if you can’t reconstruct the text straight away. Try it several times and don’t forget to always refer to your textbook for instant feedback. You’ll notice how, after a few attempts, you’ll have perfectly assimilated the whole dialogue and you’ll be able to say it out loud without having to refer to the book any more!


If you are a beginner and you find this technique interesting, try it out and then leave me a comment below! I’m curious to know how it worked for you!




  1. Avery says

    I am a high school student and have been taking Spanish classes for 6 years, so I would like to be an exchange student in a Spanish-speaking country one day. I became interested in learning Japanese after a year of watching anime, but I realize now that anime is not even a reasons why I want to learn the language. Sure, anime has helped me learn quite a few common phrases and pronunciation/tone, but I really would like to become as close to fluent as I can. Is it an impossible dream for me to become fluent in English, Spanish, and Japanese? It seems so far away. Languages are pretty easy for me to pick up because my nack for memorization; I have learned about 30 characters of hiragana since I began yesterday. Even so, Japanese sounds like such a difficult language to learn. Where should I start? I suppose I should get a textbook. Do I begin with reading or writing? This is how I spend all of my free time now. I do not think being self-taught will do much good, but I want to learn this language so badly. What should I do?

    • lucatoma says

      Hi! Thanks for your comment! Having exposed yourself to the language through anime will definitely help you when it comes to develop your listening skills. However, now that you have realized that anime is not the main reason for learning Japanese, it is important to really find out WHY you want to learn it.

      Becoming fluent in three languages is not an ‘impossible’ dream. Your English is already very advanced, as I think your Spanish will soon be. As for Japanese, it takes time and persistence. There is no correct method for learning it. Just do what you feel is useful and helps you learn best.

      And yes, you can start following a textbook. It helps you build a ‘basis’ in the language. I suggest you choose between Colloquial Japanese (one compact volume) or Genki (2 volumes). Also, try to practice all of the four skills together going from INPUT (reading and listening) to OUTPUT (speaking and writing). There are a lot of pleasant activities that you can think of for practicing and enjoy at the same time. And yes… you can do everything on your own! Considered you are very motivated, I’m pretty sure you will succeed if you keep learning a bit everyday with your final goal in mind 🙂

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