When you’re in the throes of conversation, listening intently to the Japanese dialogue you’ve worked up the courage to get involved with, it’s tempting to try and understand every single word being said, but forcing yourself into this nigh on impossible task is a recipe for disaster.
The mind is a strange thing, so much so that naturally when you hear a word you don’t understand, you will fixate on it, causing you miss to the rest of the dialogue, or miss enough to not be able to catch up. This coupled with the panic that’s onset because you’ve missed a lot of the dialogue means that you can’t respond in any meaningful way, and you feel a little silly.
Remember that when you’re out in the wild conversing with speakers of Japanese, you don’t have the luxury of stopping the sentences to look up words as you do when you’re in your private study environment. It would be so great if we all had remote controls to pause our lives so that we could do this, but alas, that’s just a distant dream (but also something to look forward to in the future :-D).
Instead here’s a couple of techniques, each with their own outcomes, to help you get through this suffer point.
Scribble down unknown words but never lose eye contact
This might sound odd, but with some practice it’s achievable. Keep your pad and pen prepared for writing, then whenever you hear something you don’t understand, scribble it down as best you can, but don’t look down at the pad, always maintain that conversational eye contact. That way you keep rough notes, whilst your conversation partner doesn’t get annoyed at your awful conversation etiquette. When your partner has finished speaking you can just interject that you didn’t understand this, that or the other.
On the other hand, the words you scribbled down may have just been words you’ve forgotten, in which case, being able to read them back may jog your memory and everything might just slot into place.
For example, I always get thrown by staccato sounding sentences, even if they are really basic, such as:
どこから来ましたか doko kara kimashita ka
In this case I may have written down ‘ra kimashita’ and after reading back, this would make sense that ‘kara kimashita’ was being said simply because I know the first word was どこ(doko)
Make facial gestures to indicate you don’t understand
Japanese speakers have a lot of etiquette to remember whilst listening to others, largely around utterances like “unnn” and “unn unn” to reassure the speaker that they’re being listened to.
Since we are learners and it’s a given we won’t understand everything, you’d be forgiven for screwing your face up in confusion when you hear something you don’t understand. Hopefully the speaker will either stop and explain, or repeat slowly. Either way you’re helping your partner to get to know your strengths and can subconsciously tailor the conversation to help you.
Give these techniques a go, and don’t forget, if you don’t understand a word, don’t dwell on it, just try to pick up the rest of the sentence and your mind will probably be able to do the rest 🙂