Understanding Spoken Japanese

Understanding spoken Japanese – especially when done at speed – is hard.

It’s hard for several reasons, but I think the primary reason is that the Japanese language tends to take a lot of shortcuts in speaking.  Vowels are much more important in Japanese language than in English – especially considering the fact that every syllable ends in one – and they tend to run together.  Couple that with the fact that vowels are often silent simply because the syllables are spoken so quickly that they kind of run together, and it’s hard to pick words out.

Add to that the fact that even the Japanese borrow words from English sound very different, and even just picking words out can be a great challenge.

It just takes practice – a lot of practice.  You have to get your ears attuned to the vocal patterns in Japanese speech, and you also have to be familiar with the more common word patterns.  One you do, though, it actually becomes intelligible.

Once it becomes intelligible, though, you’re hit with even more of a challenge:  Japanese is so dense and contextual that you have to add things to it.  Just last night I heard the word “ikimasu” by itself, and it was translated “okay, I will go in now”.  Everything but the word “go” was contextual and not a part of what was actually spoken.  So we’re now in the rather odd position of, even after we learn all the speech patterns, can understand the words, and know what the words mean, of still having to infer quite a bit that was never actually spoken.

And that is something that will never go away, no matter how fluent you get.  You just, I guess, have to learn to deal with it.

I imagine the Japanese have the opposite problem.  There are things in English that they have to drop out and allow to be contextual.  Like “Okay, I will go in now” could be translated “ok, watashi wa ima naka ikimasu” (私わ今中行きます) but “ikimasu” (行きます) would actually be a legitimate way to translate it.  It would be fairly easy to do a literal translation (I did so without assistance!) but translating from one culture to another?

Yeah, that’s biting off a lot.

Guess there’s more to take into account than just mechanical considerations.

5 thoughts on “Understanding Spoken Japanese

  1. Correction just for the sake of the learning aspect. It should be 私は今中に行きます.

    Though I know, in spoken language a lot seems to be left out, and particles and personal pronouns are the first to go. Especially when speaking “impolitely” or rather “without politeness” among friends or family it’s easy to forgo particles completely, nevertheless they are quite important.

    Also, in the example above “going in” would probably not be translated with 行きます but rather 入ります, if you are about to enter a building.
    If you translate word by word 行く is not wrong, because you “go” somewhere. The problem in the beginning of learning Japanese is learning the nuances of where which words are used.

    I hope you don’t mind me butting in here. I just know how hard it is to learn Japanese, but also the rewarding feeling when you finally understood something 😄


    1. I don’t mind. I would point out that the “ikimasu” was used by a native speaker on a native Japanese variety show. I can point you to the exact show if you’re interested. Maybe she made a mistake, but I’m going by what I heard, not so much by my own knowledge on that one. I can see where the “enter’ kanji makes more sense, but that’s my rationale.

      You’re right, of course, about the “ni” particle. I honestly forgot about it, and I ran it through google translate to check my work, and, well, it seems to be stupidly tolerant to mistakes.

      You can keep correcting if you want, but keep in mind please that I’m very early in the stages of learning, and that this is not so much intended to be a “how to” blog as a “discovery” blog – so I’m a little less concerned with getting little details wrong as I am with detailing things I discover about the language. But with that in mind, please, correct away. I want to improve my language skills. 🙂


      1. I don’t doubt that you heard it correctly and it was used as such. My point was only that it very much depends on context (as you said) because in a normal conversation 入ります would probably used more often.


  2. Pingback: Interesting Language Tidbits – Gaijin Learning Japanese

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