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How to Understand Japanese without Translating it — 16 Comments

  1. I would even go so far as to say that unless you understand it without translating, then you don’t understand it. IF you have to plug it into an algorithm first, you’re understanding the output of the algorithm, not the Japanese.

  2. Reminds me of a reading cycle I joined on discord some time ago. We read through a few NHK Easy articles together and then usually would also translate them sentence by sentence. And… I just felt a bit lost, because it felt soooo wrong to do this. I mean I could’ve just presented the polished up English sentence that roughly transmits the same meaning but especially when there were a lot of noun clauses (or whatever they are called) and stuff, that felt way too removed from how I actually parse and get it myself. But translating it on a word by word or pattern by pattern basis took much much longer and would render absolutely unintelligible English as well. And either method felt really forced somehow.

    I mean I always thought that the goal was not to translate in the end. But at that moment the difference between “translating” and “understanding” just really struck me pretty hard. And that was already with fairly simple Japanese overall.

    I think especially for new vocabulary I still sometimes find myself looking for the English equivalent if there is any. But I seem to get better at phasing that out. In general if I read or listen I rarely find myself translating and if I do it’s usually single words as well. But the more I immerse the less I catch myself doing that (probably because my brain is just as lazy as the rest of me), which is a great feeling in itself :)

    If someone doubts that immersion has any effect at all I usually argue that it isn’t that much about learning new words but “getting used” to the ones you already should know. And if I think about it now this “getting used to” is probably mostly referring to “not translating” but instead “understanding” them :) So teaching your brain the shortcuts it needs to keep up at all.

    • Yes. That’s the main misconception about immersion. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you are used to it. Being used to it is so important, and immersion works perfectly to get you there.

  3. I still battle the understanding vs translating thing. Things that have helped me in this battle are:

    Forget how fast I’m going in anki/next. Since I don’t have a set number of cards I have to finish, it lets me focus more on the card in front of me.

    Read the card out loud or in my mind. By reading it out loud or in my mind, I’m making it harder for English words to pop into my head. Either I understand the sentence as it is, or I don’t. I try not to let English get into the equation at all.

    Watch tv shows that I find extremely interesting and that have never been subtitled (or watch them before they are subtitled). I’ve found that when I get into a really interesting show, English just kind of falls away in my mind. I don’t always understand the details of what is going on, but I just let myself listen and I either get it or I don’t.

    • Reading out loud can actually make you understand it better just by hearing the words as you are saying them.

  4. I am actually really terrible at doing translations, which makes it hard for me when I am asked to do interpreting or translating. I suddenly become terrible at both languages.. So while normally enjoying yourself in Japanese, you don’t need to think in English at all, if you can foresee yourself being in situations where you may need to translate/interpret (for work, maybe?), then I would recommend at least spending some time trying to familiarizing yourself with that skillset before it is demanded of you. If you don’t ever see this becoming an issue for you, then I agree that it is best to separate them as quickly as possible.
    To be fair, the times I have been asked to use English since moving to Japan have been very few, I was quite put on the spot, and it was quite frustrating/embarrassing.

  5. When I first began the Jalup Next beginner deck I felt very tense because I wasn’t sure I was understanding what I was reading. I kept clicking on the links hoping I could translate and then understand. But Adam advised me to relax, just go with it and keep adding cards, even if I thought I didn’t understand.

    He was absolutely right. Whenever I felt lost and anxious I took a deep breath and then added more cards. Eventually, the previous cards began to make sense. Now I understand what I’m reading and see that translating into English is both difficult and unnecessary.

    • The less time spent on worrying about whether you understand, and the more time spent moving forward, the quicker you will actually understand.

      • Wondering what you think about moving forward if you miss the reading (pronunciation) of a word in the sentence? I usually get the meaning before the pronunciation because I completed Kanji Kingdom. But I click wrong on the cards I miss the pronunciation and it makes the reviews pile up in anki. More reviews=less time for immersion. Would appreciate any suggestions.

        • This is a judgment call on a case by case basis.

          Do you keep messing up the same pronunciation repeatedly? It might be good to push the card forward just to take a break from it.

          Did you get the meaning and pronunciation perfectly except for one syllable, you might want to still push it forward.

          Was the pronunciation a careless miss (you actually knew it, but due to trying to go fast, you made a mistake?) You might want to push it forward.

          How strict you review can be a session by session basis.

        • I change my review pass/fail standard depending on how I’m feeling for that day. On the days when I know I can handle a heavy load, I grade myself strictly. On the days when I know I will have little time or energy, I don’t grade as strict. It seems to balance out pretty well, as long as I don’t have too many days in a row of strict or easy grading.

  6. Thanks for yet another good post !!
    What ‘understanding language’ actually means is something I’m interested about.
    I’m going for the JLPTn1 on Sunday in Hamborg. Especially for listening exercise you have no chance at getting the grip of it, if you rely on inner translations. You have to understand instantly. This post reminded me of that. Good reminder, I will dig into the test with that mindset.

  7. I’ve lived in Sweden and Germany, and when I was considering learning the local tongues, the introductory textbooks didn’t have a single bit of English in them. They were all Swedish/German from the beginning! They know that pushing out the English as early as possible (in this case, right at the beginning) is good in the long run. Of course, English is far more similar to German and Swedish than Japanese is, but people who take the same courses came from countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran, and would have the same hurdles as we do with Japanese. Though to be certain, if you are not going to a course, it would be extremely difficult to make such a leap, so having the 1000 card beginner deck with English translation is a good idea. Once you get there, just keep pushing forward in J-J, even if you are uncertain. I can see it working already, even though I only started a couple of weeks ago. The English is starting to fade from the mind whilst I review.

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