Should you ask What a J-J Sentence Means in English?
When you are wading through nothing but Japanese, feeling lost for an extended period of time is the norm. When you get caught up on sentences that are confusing, and then try to proceed, an unsettling feeling can take root. “I just need to know what this sentence means! Then I’ll be right back into Japanese only.” You ask someone for help. Since the people that frequent Jalup are awesome, they’ll give you the answer… in English. Is this good?
I know you didn’t want it to come to this. You want to stay loyal to Japanese-only, but at the same time you also want to avoid that nagging, frustrating feeling. It’s just one time, after all. When I get an e-mail asking me a question like this, here’s how I proceed.
“What do you think it means?”
If the person asking the question didn’t include their best guess, then you need to ask them for it first. It’s easy to forget this step and just give an answer. But people don’t realize how often they already know the meaning but just felt unsure. You don’t want to rob them of the chance to know that they were correct all along and just needed some confidence building.
The other variant to someone giving their best guess is “I think it means A or B.” If one of them is correct, great. You allowed them to internalize the possibilities and merely just push them in the right direction.
Finally, if their guess is wrong, it usually isn’t wrong by much. A word here or there that alters the sentence’s meaning. This allows them to take a look at their approach, what went wrong, and figure out how to make it right next time.
This is similar to the programming community. It’s considered a sin to ask on a website like Stack Overflow how to do something without showing your best coded attempt first. Asking about Japanese should be similar. It’s not about withholding information. It’s about teaching you how to learn yourself, which is way more valuable than any answer.
Giving the translation
Let’s assume for some reason they are completely clueless, or they are off by too much to easily correct it. Now is it okay to tell them what the sentence means in English?
I’d say before that, giving them the meaning of the Japanese words themselves, and then letting them create the Japanese sentence, provides more value. The following is an oversimplified example, but instead of answering that “昨日東京に行きました” means “I went to Tokyo yesterday,” I’d rather give a breakdown.
(I, you, he)
“But Adam, you’ve given me a translation before!” It’s possible. Because the desire to help often conflicts with being really busy. Writing out a breakdown of a complicated sentence takes time. Giving a translation is quick.
While everything in this article is talking about ideals, if you ask what a J-J sentence means, most likely no one is going to ask for your guess. You are going to get an English translation of the sentence. You can’t put the responsibility on other people for how you want them to answer you. You need to take the initiative.
How often is too often?
You ask questions giving your best attempt first, but you were wrong and get a correct answer. How many times is it okay to do this in Jalup Intermediate and beyond? 5, 10, 25, 50 times? While I hope you don’t need to do it this much, I think asking for the English translation of a J-J sentence should be a last resort.
9 out of 10 times when you don’t understand a sentence now, you will get it later. I know your biggest fear:
I don’t get this sentence. I won’t understand the next sentence that relies on this sentence, or the third sentence that relies on the second, and so on.
I promise this fear is rarely realized. Things have a way of working themselves out. I built the decks that way with this fear 100% in mind. Save your “what does this J-J sentence mean?” for the dire moments.
Have you ever asked or answered “what does this J-J sentence means?”
Were you happy you asked or did you regret it and feel guilty? Do you answer others’ questions immediately with an English translation or do you help them work it out?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I dont believe I’ve ever asked for a translation from someone. I believe you when you say it will work itself out. However, a few times in the past I have caved in due to frustration and Google translated. The good thing is, most of those translations I didn’t even remember. Also, Google translate can suck sometimes.
I have noticed some words clicking lately that I felt never would.
I have strived to do this as well but also failed a number of times so far and looked at Google. Mostly though not for the sentence but for the definition part only. The definitions are just so hard to decipher sometimes. I’ve been doing it less and less as I go through intermediate and understand the structure better.
I am going to try to make it super limited in the back half with the goal of never doing it again by the end of intermediate.
And just remember that struggling through the definition is you learning how Japanese definitions work (and not just the Japanese found within them)
I think Google Translate is fine, as long as it is kept to a bare minimum. Think of it as a panic button that you can use when desperate.
“The other variant to someone giving their best guess is “I think it means A or B.” If one of them is correct, great. You allowed them to internalize the possibilities and merely just push them in the right direction.”
When you said this, I couldn’t help but think you wrote that with the emails I’ve sent you in mind! That happens a lot to me: being on the fence with two possibilities, not knowing which one might be the correct one.
Hahaha, yes your emails perfectly fall into this category, and were a bit of inspiration for this post. So you are doing things right :)
Adam, are you trying to get people to email you less? haha
Hahaha no, I’m happy to answer emails and have done so without a second thought for years. I’m just saying that you might just get a translation from me if you catch me at an off time, when it would be better for me to just give you assurance of your own interpretation.
What are your thoughts on this situation: doing J-J and a new word is introduced but I don’t understand the definition at all. Using the RTK keyword though, the sentence makes perfect sense (however I still don’t understand the definition so I feel like I’m going to miss out on the nuance of the Japanese word).
So far what I’ve been doing is just pushing on provided I understand the sentence even if I don’t understand the definition.
Using the RTK keyword (or Kanji Kingdom keyword for those using that) is fine. However, you should still spend the time to try to work through the definition. You don’t have to understand the definition 100% but work for a general grasp where possible. And if it is completely beyond your reach right now for some reason, try coming back to the definition later when the card returns to reviews.
Adam, it has been so helpful when you’ve asked me what I think a sentence means. When I guess correctly, I feel great, and when I’m close to correct, I still feel great.
It reminds me of how I practice psychotherapy. I always ask the client, “What do you think you should do?” They either know the answer and they feel great. Or if they don’t know, I ask them to give several possible solutions to their problem, and they finally figure out the correct one for themselves.
Glad to be of assistance :)
It definitely feels better to know you were correct/near correct all along, rather than someone just giving you the answer.
I know this is an old post, but I’ve been trying to understand the way these definitions work and I’m not sure how much sense they are supposed to make at my level. I don’t want to look up translations, but I’m having to memorize the translation that I’m not able to understand in order to clear the card. For instance:
which roughly speaking is you don’t know if it’s real or not
uses the same form as the previous word but replaces a word with it and builds on the definition recursively.
i cant help but think, you dont 怪しい if it’s real or not, but that makes no sense to me.
Another example would be
The one thing I think I’ve really learned about these definitions is that I can’t substitute the definition for the word in a sentence, but at the same time i haven’t confidently clicked the green button in a while since my lack of understanding forces me to base that success it on whether I memorized the definition as opposed to understood it. I’m a bit behind on the kanji cards, so hopefully catching up on those will shed light on some of the harder to grasp concepts.
I’m hoping that these cards become more clear as I go on, as well as the way some of these words are defined, but at the moment, it just feels like I’m piling on cards that I don’t understand and memorizing the sounds of the sentence as opposed to their meaning.
In the beginning of Jalup intermediate, it’s more about getting a feel for the card, rather than memorizing it, or being able to replace English words with their equivalents.
Over time, as you see them more and more in different situations, you’ll get a feel for the nuanced differences.
But try not to let a “perfect understanding” keep you from pressing the green button if you generally get the card.
That makes sense, and right after I posted this I hit a string of cards that I realized were all synonyms and it struck me how if asked to tell the difference between certain synonyms in english, I would only be able to do so by giving a situation in which one would be used over the other and what implications would follow. Ill save the greens for “generally get it” over definitions for now, and then try to evolve it’s usage as I get to the end of intermediate
As an English speaker, I’ve shifted into the mindset that I shouldn’t use English at all when I’m attempting Japanese. However, this confuses me greatly, because when I’m shown images and their Japanese name, I recognize them as their English name.
I’ve been looking for a way to study Japanese like a native, born into the language, but I can’t find the resources. I’m surrounded by English everywhere, but I want to understand Japanese. The English words for Japanese run through my head constantly when I’m introduced to Japanese.
This is an example of my thought process:
taberu = to eat
nomimasu = to drink
Of course, this expands, since my English vocabulary is broadly widened. I don’t know how I was taught English, besides with images and sounds. When I see images with Japanese sounds, I immediately translate them to English, because it’s drilled into my brain all the time.
This confuses me and is the main reason why I’m struggling so much with Japanese. I’m paranoid about the process. I wonder if the English will slowly fade away the more Japanese I’m introduced to.
“I wonder if the English will slowly fade away the more Japanese I’m introduced to.”
It takes time, a long time at least for me to stop translating everything in your head. That is normal that your brain tries to translate. Firstly find a good Japanese to Japanese resource like jalup where you can learn how to read a Japanese dictionary, learn more Japanese through Japanese definitions. If you are looking for a tool you are at the right place, buy the flashcards on this site.
Keep doing it for years. In my case finally after 3 years of continuous study and immersion your brain gets so used to Japanese it doesn’t try to translate everything.
Find a way to enjoy the process and the study so you stick with it.