How to Understand Japanese without Translating it — 30 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.

      • What I like to do is when I struggle with a sentence is slowly read the sentence, breaking it down into blocks separated by particles. Using the simple example from the article, I might go

        ペンは・・・ テーブルの・・・ 下です。

        And I give myself time to comprehend each part, and often, just doing that the pieces slowly fall into place without the need to translate at all. It also feels like a very natural thing to do, since Japanese is made out of all those little building blocks.

  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.

  8. But… what if you *literally don’t know the words*.
    I can’t understand that something is under the ‘table’ if I don’t know the word table.

    • When first learning a language, you’re introduced to images and their meaning, like in English preschool. This is what I do because you can’t judge a sentence based on the sentence alone, your brain needs an image of what you’re saying. The image doesn’t change regardless of language, the only thing that changes is its’ name. It sounds silly, but my advice would be to watch kid shows or simple introductions to words with images. It might seem like an insult to your knowledge, but everyone is considered at the beginner level of every subject that they’re first introduced to. This message might be 4 years late LOL, so you might’ve already caught on to this, but this also goes for anyone reading this page.

      Good luck!

      • I say this, but I’m unaware of reliable resources. I’ve been learning hiragana and katakana for about a year (it’s easy to learn, it was just my lack of motivation) with Duolingo and other easy resources, but when it comes to expanding my understanding of new words and meanings, I have no clue where to look. It might just be my over suspicion, but I feel like popular resources such at LingQ or JapanesePod101, I get the paranoia that the information I’m given is incorrect. If anyone has a resource they used that is reliable, please let me know!

        Thank you.

  9. I often run into situation where I may understand the context in Japanese (even if I don’t know all the words) but find it difficult to actually translate it when asked too. I really like how you said “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”. I never thought of it in such a way but totally agree with it.


  10. Let me get this right. It is OKAY to learn and translate all the words separately. Like when you’re learning the language for the first time. But what you don’t want to do is try to convert or force the Japanese sentences to be Grammatically correct English sentences. Am I right? Like the other day I translated Japanese words in a manga. I didn’t convert the words into an English sentence but rather got the generally feeling of what the words meant and moved on. By doing this I also learned new kanji.

    • That sounds about right.

      The easiest way to think about it is that you use “definitions” of words, but not “translations” of sentences.

  11. Great article. Translating for me, is one of the hardest things when learning Japanese. There are times when I’m reading in Japanese and I know what it means in Japanese but, my brain wants to translate to English.

    I’m supposed to meet up with a Japanese guy who lives near me so, hopefully, I can talk to him (and listen) in Japanese that will help greatly.

  12. So neko means cat and I understand that without thinking of translation but I’m confused as to how to find out neko means cat if I never knew it in the first place.

    • Japanese-English dictionaries at first, then japanese-japanese.

      It’s fine to think of the english for atomic parts of a sentence from time to time, especially if the sentence is difficult to you, the point is to learn to “understand” the sentence rather than translate it into your native language. Think of english (or your native language, but I’ll assume english here for simplicity), what do you translate “cat” to? There’s no “brain language” where things are translated to, you just read something and understand it. The goal is to reach that point in your target language too

  13. I get this article and I think this is better when learning japaneee to become fluent.

    But for example, and this has been stuck on my mind, if i read the word おはようございます and know it says ohayogozaimasu, then what? I read the Japanese word and spelled it with English letters for English speakers to pronounce it, but how do I know what that means in English? Ohayogozaimasu, cool, it’s a a Japanese word I can read but how do I and others know that means ‘good morning’ in English? Does the ohayo equal good and gozaimasu equal morning?

    • Maybe it helps not thinking about it in terms of “Good morning” or おはようございます but more in terms of “Thing English/Japanese people say in the morning to greet each other”. There does not need to be an exact representation of each word to each other (and often, there isn’t anyways).
      When you immerse you will eventually pick up these situations (people always saying this thing in the morning to greet each other).

    • Imagine – once upon a time someone told you repair is “fix, but you can only use it for machinces” a shop is “a place people go to buy things” and take is “pick up something and leave”. Take is when you pick up somthing and leave”
      these definitions are the English
      And maybe the first 5 times you hear these words – repair, shop and take you think of the definitions. but eventully you are not translating “I took my car to the repair shop” into “I picked up something and left my car to the fix machine place where people go to buy things”
      うわ、マフラー素敵な! is a complement. does 素敵 mean lovely? supurb? fabulous? doesn’t matter, just say ありがとう. お疲れ様です is a hello and good bye used by my coworkers and teamates. Is that the same sama as 姫様 (hime-sama)? doesn’t matter. Just bow and say “おつかれさまです”

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