Knowing what to listen for in a Japanese sentence, the gistful way

You’ve been there. You’re Japanese speaking friend has just reeled off a question in your direction, everyone looks at you, and all you can think to say is “すみませんさんわかりません”, only problem is you’ve said that about five times in as many minutes 🙁

“Why can’t I understand even though I’ve studied for hours everyday? “

“Why does it sound so fast and yet so natural? “

“Why doesn’t my brain hurry up and catch up??”

It’s so natural to kick yourself down when you can’t understand dialogue, but one way to improve listening and conversing is to simply admit that you are only going to understand some of a sentence.

You’ve probably read and understood that Japanese sentences are constructed from a subject, topic and verb in the most basic state.  Sentence fillers like adverbs, adjectives, pronouns etc. get added of course, but the fundamental building blocks are the subject, topic and verb.

Now if we take this fundamental rule, and study enough vocabulary to recognise frequent subjects, topics and verbs, we can focus our minds on trying to listen out for these parts of the sentence.  Once you’ve done this for a sentence you will have the gist of it and most likely be able to construct a coherent response.

Okay so the response might be extremely simple and child-like but at least your Japanese speaking friend has been responded to along the lines of their question.

Here’s an example

マイケルさんは何時どこで昼食を食べましたか?

The first bit’s fine, I can always hear マイケル, my name 🙂 and in this case, the subject. Then as long as I listen out for 昼食 ‘lunch’ – the topic, and 食べました ‘ate’ – the verb, I have a pretty good chance of guessing what was being asked.  In this case “at what time and where did you eat lunch?”

Have a go at listening to some Japanese news, drama and anime, pausing after each sentence, and try at first to write down what you hear as the subject, topic and verb.  After some practice you’ll find that writing down isn’t necessary and you’ll be able to repeat these words and have a gist for the sentence.

Next time you chat with your Japanese speaking friend, focus on getting the gist of what they’re saying. You’re imagination and life experience should be able to fill in the blanks 😉