I Understand the Words, but not the Sentence

All Japanese learning starts off the same. Simple sounds become simple words. Simple words become simple sentences. Simple sentences become not so simple sentences. In the beginning, confidence flows like a river. When you get used to confidence, you expect things to be that way forever.

Very few people have trouble learning “hello” or “good morning” or “this is a pen.” But slowly start combining things, and life can get confusing fast. Everyone reaches the point of “I know the words but I can’t understand the sentence.”

You can’t understand the sentence. If you can’t understand this sentence, you won’t understand the next one. And the next one. And the one after that. Your entire Japanese language future is dependent on you understanding this one sentence right now.

The Jalup decks make the problem seem dire. I don’t give you the sentence translations, unlike most other learning tools.

“Whyyy?!” you ask.
“Just tell me!” you proclaim.

There are 3 reasons behind this.

1. I want you to learn Japanese

Sentence translations are the English way of putting it together. You need to learn how to put it together in Japanese. The time spent combining the pieces is an invaluable experience that will pay off sooner than you think.

2. I want to challenge you

You may think you hate challenges, but small challenges are what makes this fun. Ultra-easy is boring.

3. I want to build your confidence

Every sentence you figure out on your own, every tiny challenge you overcome, brings satisfaction and a drive to learn more. Winning builds confidence, and this is something you can’t live without.

“But……….” you say.

Let’s say you used learning materials that you gave the full English translations of every sentence. You’d still eventually reach a point of confusion and frustration. Just slightly later. And it’s harder to build resistance to this later on.

You still have an issue to face.

You know all the words of a sentence, but you can’t understand it.

What do you do? Throw it into Google translate? Ask a Japanese friend? Pray to the Japanese gods?


You use your knowledge you have. You make a valiant effort. Then you move on.

“But I don’t understand it!”

First, this isn’t true. You probably don’t understand one small part, meaning you actually understand 80-90% of it. The last link in your mind just isn’t there yet. So you move forward. Does your Japanese wall come crashing down? No, because you absolutely will acquire that small missing link as you move forward.

Your understanding of words, but not the sentence, often is solved in one of the following ways:

1. You don’t get it at the current moment, but just needed to look at it again later.
2. You need to see that confusing piece of a sentence used in a different way.
3. You need to see that confusing piece of a sentence used in a simpler, later sentence.
4. You actually understand the sentence, but just doubt yourself and think you don’t.

These solutions present themselves only after you’ve moved on from where you currently are. You can’t stand still. Stop fearing what won’t happen.

I sometimes get e-mails from people telling me they don’t understand a sentence and to explain it. These e-mails usually resolve themselves in one of the following ways.

1. Before I even reply, a few hours later, I get a followup e-mail saying they figured it out.
2. In the e-mail, they say they think the sentence means X, but aren’t sure. I tell them that they were correct.
3. I reply, and they reply to that saying “ahh, that’s what I thought.”

While not everything always works out so smoothly, moving forward takes care of the rest.

The next time you think you feel you understand the words, but not the sentence, you are in nowhere near as bad a place as you think. If anything, you are exactly where you should be. That place is going to make you fluent. Work with that momentum. Don’t fight against it.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


I Understand the Words, but not the Sentence — 18 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this encouragement for me to go with the flow and be patient. I was feeling lost in Jalup beginner and getting confused and frustrated over one sentence. After an email from you I decided to relax and move on, even though I didn’t have full understanding of what I’d just read.

    You were right. My understanding is increasing. The next time I feel stressed and confused I’ll remind myself to relax and keep going. You’ve reminded me that we always learn the most when we’re willing to wade through the chaos and have trust that the process will work for us eventually.

    And if I forget that wisdom, I’ll reread this post!

    • You just need to remember, it’s just one sentence. One sentence, or even multiple sentences, isn’t going to stop you.

  2. I loved this article, thank you!

    The “moving on” part is what I was having the hardest time with in the beginning. I thought that I couldn’t move on until I learned that one word or phrase that was giving me difficulty. It wasn’t until I just tried and failed but moved ahead anyway in the lesson that I was studying that I soon started understanding or remembering the word. It just took time and realizing that not knowing that one thing was not a learning block making me unable to continue.

  3. The hardest part for this with me is when there are a number of “don’t understand” cards, and they keep popping up regularly. I think one thing that has been useful for me, is to not press “again” so often. I usually keep them on a relatively short cycle until I can recall the reading and the kanji key word, then let the interval slide further away. This way there is at least some sense of achievement. Eventually things make sense. If not now then 10, 100, 1000+ cards down the track they will! (that, and exposure to them in the immersion world)

    • You and Jesper both touch on this, and I think it’s very important to reiterate- It’s OK to not use “Again” when you fail a card. Sometimes pushing it off for a bit longer (with the other answer buttons) will actually give you better results the next time you see it =)

      • Matt gave me this advice early on, and it made my studies way more enjoyable. Also became a lot more efficient as my immersion doubled or more.

        if you’re struggling with individuals sentences, spend less time in srs environment and up immersion !

    • Very good point. It’s okay to push off cards in the future even when you don’t understand them. Because sometimes seeing them a dozen times in the next few days isn’t going to change anything, and they need to be viewed later.

  4. Having finished Jalup 5000 about a year ago, I can attest to this being totally true. While learning the cards I often encountered sentences that made no sense to me at all, even though I felt that I knew all the bits. I now find that these sentences often feel obvious when I review them. Somehow my brain connected all the bits over time. This is actually very encouraging when it happens, because I obviously still encounter sentences that I don’t understand in my own studies. But this simply doesn’t worry me, because I know that if I just learn the new words and grammar, I will eventually connect the dots.

    I might also add that I don’t pick “again” if I don’t understand a sentence. I only measure myself on the specific word or grammar that is new on the card. I only find it necessary to have one card to establish each concept in my mind.

  5. It wasn’t until I hit the J-J cards that the beginner cards started to clear up for me. Just be sure you are using the J-J cards as they were designed (there are some good articles on here about how to properly use them).

    It’s a struggle at first and you won’t do as many cards per day, but that’s exactly what’s needed. If they were easy, we wouldn’t be expanding our circle of knowledge.

  6. This came just in time. I was feeling so guilty feeling like I didn’t understanding full sentences and still marking them as passing because I knew all the words.

    • Never feel guilty about this. Marking them as passed when they are presently causing you trouble can sometimes be the best possible thing for you.

  7. I will say from experience that this is 100% true. There are many cards where it took me a good dozen times to finally understand it. Usually, the main reason was I saw another example somewhere else – whether it was another card that used the grammar structure or vocab word that eluded me, or a manga or book did.

    Basically, do more immersion and keep pressing on. Things will fit together eventually. While Japanese isn’t some ~mysterious elusive language~, it does not have easy English equivalents for sentance structure or certian grammar forms, so learning it this way is actually really beneficial.

    There are so many times I almost emailed Adam, only to figure it out on my own a few hours to a few weeks later.

    • And those cards that take a dozen times, when they finally clear up, you sometimes wonder why they ever gave you trouble in the first place

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