I set a high bar here when you learn Japanese through the Jalup decks. I don’t give you the full meaning of sentences like every other Japanese learning resource does. I tell you to understand, not to translate. Well what does that mean? Aren’t they the same thing? How can you understand it without translating it first?
The word “understand” is normally straightforward in most of your life. You see, hear, learn, experience something and you know whether you understand it. When it comes to Japanese, you are expecting that same “understand.” However, because every other thing you’ve learned in life has been in English, understanding in Japanese is going to be foreign. This brings you to an unfortunate conclusion:
Being able to translate the sentence (“understand what it means in English”), is how you understand Japanese.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Translating a sentence is not the same as understanding it. Translating is conversion. Within your native language, there is no conversion. The goal is to achieve the same in Japanese.
People get confused, because while beginners absolutely need English to start studying Japanese, that English is there for a specific reason. English creates your foundation for understanding Japanese. It’s not there to teach you to turn Japanese into English.
Every Japanese learner’s goal, and what every fluent speaker has, is the ability to listen to/read Japanese and understand it, without English ever playing a role. This is how the bilingual brain works. Languages are separate. This is why a bilingual is not a natural translator/interpreter. My aim on Jalup is to recreate this distinction and remove the translation step right from the beginning. You don’t need it, and you’ll learn Japanese faster without it.
How do you just understand?
Besides avoiding translated sentences, how do you sit there and review a Japanese sentence and just understand it, and know that you understand it. It’s actually a simpler process than you think, but everyone second guesses it and wonders if they are doing it right.
First, when you learn simpler words and sentences, there is an automatic translation process in your head. This is how your English brain works in the beginning and it’s impossible to avoid. Don’t fight it.
A ねこ (neko) is a cat. When you hear ねこ, for many months to come, the English word cat may pop into your head. Until eventually it doesn’t. Once you are in a fully immersed Japanese situation (ex. a fast paced conversation, or watching a tv show), your brain will not give you the time to translate ねこ to the English word cat. It’s not efficient and your brain hates the inefficient.
The real challenge is when you are putting together sentences.
Sentences in Japanese range anywhere from slightly to extremely different than their English counterparts. Verbs, particles, conjugations, and sentence order are often in a different world than English. This leads you to know the parts of the sentence but feel like you can’t understand the whole.
When I see a classic textbook exercise say the following:
“Translate this sentence into English.”
I can’t help but shout “WHY?!!!”
There is no need to do this. The English sentence structure will be nothing like the Japanese. Why are you gonna sit there and spend the time rearranging the words, finding matches in English, and then compiling that into some sort of English Frankenstein?
What’s the alternative to translating a sentence?
Here’s a standard textbook sentence:
You have 6 parts here.
は: topic particle
の: of (possessive particle)
下(した) : below
です: polite sentence ending
Don’t figure out the perfect English sentence by rearranging it. Instead, ask yourself:
With these parts you’ve learned, and how they are ordered in Japanese, is the meaning transmitted to you. Do you get what is happening? If your friend said this to you, would you nod your head sarcastically and think, “yeah thanks…”
If this happened, you understand it. That’s it. Move on. Nothing else.
Of course this is a simple example. What happens when there are more moving parts? If you had spent the time on the above sentence, you probably could’ve easily translated it to English if you wanted. But there will be many sentences you would struggle with. Good. Because you aren’t translating, so it’s irrelevant if you could create an English sentence or not. What matters is whether you have the parts, see the structure, and know what it means.
You won’t necessarily have a clear image of what it is in English. You may not be able to explain what it means in English. Lucky you, you don’t have to explain what it means. Understanding is an internal process, with no explanation required. Only you can know whether you get it or not.
What happens when you don’t know whether you understand?
The more complicated a sentence becomes, the sharper the decline of your confidence in whether you understood it. You can’t be sure if you understand because without a translation, the answer isn’t there.
To understand Japanese you need to learn how understanding Japanese feels. It’s a hazy feeling for beginners. You’ve never understood Japanese before, so how do you know what it means to understand it now? Without a translation, there is nothing to compare it against. Remember first: translation is not a check on your understanding. It is a check on your ability to translate.
That hazy feeling is natural. You are reteaching your brain what it means to understand. This takes time. It will result in plenty of:
- You think you understand it, but don’t.
- You think you don’t understand it, but do.
- You think you understand a lot, but only understand a little.
- You think you understand a little, but actually understand a lot.
This is the process. This is how you learn how to understand Japanese. This is how you become fluent in Japanese.
The understand vs translate struggle
How did you deal with the difference between understanding and translating? What impact did focusing on understanding and removing translating do for your Japanese ability over time?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.