Don’t stop listening

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.

Sound familiar?

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:

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 🙂

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


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 😉