Fluency in a second language can feel like an elusive goal, and I think one of the main reasons it feels this way is because fluency appears to be something that it isn’t: improvised.

Yes, you want to be able to respond naturally on the spot, but this fluidity is built upon hours of robotic repetition. What you really need to gain fluency is a game plan to create this repetition.

Which is why I’ve recently created a document that I’ve titled “Break In Case of Emergency Japanese.”

The goal of this document is to be a resume, of sorts, for my Japanese language needs, and I have literally scripted out situations I expect to encounter. Now I just need to practice these phrases over and over and over until the robotic delivery disappears and all that’s left is practiced fluidity.

This activity involves a little creativity on your part. What kind of situations can you imagine encountering? And how will you need to respond?

I use Japanese with business partners, and I know I’ll need some standard 自己紹介 (jikoshōkai, self-introduction) phrases.

These will range from the utilitarian ダニエルです (Danieru desu, I’m Daniel), to the polite ダニエルと申します (Danieru to mōshimasu, I’m Daniel), to the concise and substantive: 3月から新しくA社の職員として勤めております、ダニエル・モラレスと申します (Sangatsu kara atarashiku A-sha no shokuin to shite tsutomete-orimasu, Danieru Moraresu to mōshimasu, I’m Daniel, and I’ve joined Company A as a worker since March). Replace 職員 and A社 with your specific position and company.

I want to be able to respond with humility and poise both when I’m praised and when I’m scolded, so I have a part of the document dedicated to phrases that are useful in these situations.

I’ll never forget when I was teaching on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme, and the woman in charge of the school lunches for the whole town received unexpected praise. Her initial response was the quick and effective: 大変恐縮です (Taihen kyōshuku desu, I’m extremely obliged). While 恐縮 has several usages, one is to express gratitude for praise.

You can follow this up by sharing the success: 今までの成功は皆様のご支援のおかげです (Ima made no seikō wa mina-sama no go-shien no okage desu, My/our success to this point has been because of all your support).

If scolded, I want to have an apology ready. A good generic starting point is ご迷惑をおかけし、申し訳ありません (Go-meiwaku o o-kakeshi, mōshiwake arimasen, I’m terribly sorry for causing this inconvenience). It can be good to start here, or with a shorter お詫びの言葉 (o-wabi no kotoba, word of apology) like すみませんでした (sumimasen deshita, I’m sorry), even if the problem wasn’t your fault.

Another important part of an apology in Japanese is to express 対応策 (taiōsaku, countermeasure/remedy). This will vary based on what happens, but you can imagine a scenario and create an appropriate sentence like this, which would be if you made a mistake with a document: 早速修正して明日の朝までに提出させていただきます (Sassoku shūsei shite ashita no asa made ni teishutsu sasete itadakimasu, I’ll revise it immediately and resubmit it by tomorrow morning).

Another situation I find myself in frequently and for which I could usually be better prepared is a one-off 挨拶 (aisatsu, greeting), which sometimes happen at dinners or conferences I’m coordinating. I usually combine one of my self introduction phrases with a description of the kind of work I’m doing.

This phrasing will obviously vary based on the kind of work you do, but the construction “Xなどを担当しております (“X” nado o tantō shite-orimasu, I am responsible for things such as “X”) is useful. The really critical part of this exercise, however, is actually writing out the sentences and then practicing them.

After you’ve described what it is you do, you can end the 挨拶 with よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu, lit. “please treat me well”), or you can dress it up into a form that also recognizes a business partner’s contributions to the work you do: 今後とも、ご指導ご鞭撻のほどよろしくお願いいたします (Kongo tomo, go-shidō go-bentatsu no hodo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu, I ask that you continue to provide guidance and encouragement).

There are countless situations that you could add to your stash of emergency Japanese. Maybe you add some phrases of condolence (www.bit.ly/JTcondolences) so that you’re ready for those (hopefully) infrequent moments of loss. Or maybe you’re applying for jobs and need 自己PR (jiko PR, lit. “self public relations”; www.bit.ly/JikoPR)

Whatever you decide to add to this document is up to you, and you’re also responsible for making sure you get enough practice to transform the writing on the page into fluent language that will help you effect change in the real world.

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