You come across a new Japanese word while watching an anime, reading a manga, etc., and you say “let’s find out what it means!” You put the word into your bilingual dictionary. You get instant gratification and a decent representation of the meaning of the word. But we all know the problems with studying Japanese this way…
For a while I’ve been doing J-J sentences, yet up until recently, I’ve still been guilty of doing this. I get stuck on a hard J-J flashcard and say “I’ll just have a quick peek at the English word. No harm, no foul.” I needed to break this addiction and it took a few eye-opening experiences to get there.
I was with some Japanese friends recently and I used the word 懐かしい (なつかしい). One of them asked, “how do I say that in English?” I replied “you can’t!”
懐かしい is a great example of a word that is hard to translate using a bilingual dictionary. For those that aren’t familiar with the word, I would describe the meaning as a sense of nostalgia derived from doing something or seeing something for the first time in a long time, that also brings back fond memories of the past.
My best bilingual dictionary just says: “dear, desired, missed” (ironically the French meaning is nostalgique, which I feel is closer to the actual meaning…).
This brought the problem with using bilingual dictionaries to my attention. A single keyword often misses the many nuances of the actual meaning of the word. If bilingual dictionaries gave a detailed description that correlated to the meaning in Japanese, it might not be as big an issue. But a simple keyword like “missed” doesn’t convey the true meaning of 懐かしい. By cheating on my J-J flashcards, which always filled me with regret, I was causing confusion for myself by trying to make the English keyword fit in with the Japanese definition.
In answer to my friend’s question, I told him in English we would usually tell a story.
“Oh I used to play this game all the time when I was a kid!”
“It’s been ages since I watched this movie!”
But in Japanese you can just say 懐かしい. Nowadays, even when I’m with non-Japanese speaking friends or family I still say 懐かしい because it’s a magical Japanese phrase that conveys that simple emotion that I can’t express using just one word in English. I strongly believe it should be introduced into the English lexicon.
It’s an example like this that motivated me to go completely monolingual. However, due to my previous J-E experience, my mind still temporarily goes through the following:
This is temporary. After making the J-J switch, over time English keywords have started to fade away.
For example, if I hear the word 雨 I don’t have to think ‘rain’ in English. 雨 is 雨. The Japanese portion of your brain grows until one day you can only remember the Japanese word for what you want to say. It has happened to me a few times already and I’m only around level 35.
What about when you don’t know the Japanese word you want to say?
Sometimes you think you need a bilingual dictionary to translate from English to Japanese when you don’t know the Japanese word for what you want to say. What do you do in this situation? You describe what you’re trying to say with the words you already know. There’s always a way, even if you sound a little stupid. It’s okay.
My favorite example is from an old episode of the Simpsons, where Homer attempts to use a subliminal cassette tape to lose weight, but accidentally continuously listens to a vocabulary-builder tape instead.
He becomes super articulate. But after eventually scrapping the tape, his vocabulary returns to “normal.” When he takes some ice cream from the fridge, and requires a certain utensil that people use to eat that ice cream, he can’t think of the word anymore. His response?
“Marge, where’s that… metal dealy… you use to… dig… food with?”
Conversations where I conveyed the meaning when I didn’t know word
I do regular Skype conversations every week through Cafetalk, and this situation happens often, always resolving itself in a pleasant way.
1. I didn’t know the word for sand.
2. I didn’t know the word for shopping center.
The great thing about these types of conversations is that after going through this “what’s that’s word” back and forth with a Japanese person, it gets firmly ingrained into my memory.
So I’m done cheating on J-J. Not even a little. The power is apparent and I don’t want to miss out on any of the benefits that come from it. While it took me a little while to get here, it was worth it.
Do any of you have any stories that allowed you to finally break your dependence on a bilingual dictionary?
Been casually studying Japanese for about 2.5 years. Big fan of retro games, anime and manga.