Do you Want to do my Nether Regions or Exchange?

Long Vowel JapaneseI don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than my fair share of embarrassing misunderstandings in Japanese. I find it to be a good way to learn something new and remember forever. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Coming from an English speaking background, vowel sounds are often times not so important. After all, we have 20 different vowel sounds in English, so we have a few to spare. In comparison, Japanese only has 5 vowel sounds. This is actually the case for a lot of languages. I guess English is just special.

On top of that, Japanese has pauses in words (marked by a っ) that aren’t as common in English. We do have short pauses in words like ‘bottle’ and ‘mission’, but in Japanese there seem to be a lot of examples of these pauses all throughout the language in words like ‘いっしょう’ and ‘けっこう’.

To make matters worse, long vowels and short vowels usually have two different meanings. We do have this in English as well though, for example, ‘eat’ with a long vowel is different from ‘it’ that has a short vowel. But in Japanese it is a little bit different because it is the same sound just held a little longer. The classic example of this is おばさん (aunt) and おばあさん (grandmother).

This is easy enough to remember right? At least I thought so.

Do my Nether Regions or Exchange?

One day when I was playing with my 4 year old Japanese nephew, I had a soccer ball that he wanted. He happened to have a ‘novelty flying disc’. So, I asked him ‘交換(こうかん)したいの?’ (Do you want to exchange?) or at least that’s what I thought I asked. But, for some strange reason (maybe because I hadn’t heard the word only read it) I asked ‘股間(こかん)したいの?’ (Do you want to do my nether region?).

My nephew, being only 4, luckily didn’t know the word for nether region and simply just misunderstood me. My wife and mother-in-law weren’t so kind though. They simply laughed at me and then explained my blunder to me.

So, the moral of the story here is that こうかん and こかん sound very similar and almost identical to someone who is used to hearing English, but they are in fact two separate words. These are the kinds of things that the JLPT tests you on. Maybe not exactly this set of words, but other sets like this one.

How do you Prepare for This?

Well, doing a lot of good listening is helpful with this. If you get used to hearing the difference between two words like these, it’ll be a lot more easier to naturally choose the correct kana for the kanji on the test.

It’s also helpful to read the script (hopefully in kanji with furigana) while listening to the dialog or listening that you have. This will help reinforce the pronunciation to the reading and keep you from making embarrassing mistakes because if you say it wrong it will actually sound wrong to your ears.

One problem that I’ve ran into while studying is if I do too much reading and not enough listening, I lose track of the pronunciation. My mind is only able to recognize the word on paper and not by ear. This is a common problem among Japanese learners as well because they study mostly from books and not from conversation or listening in junior high and high school.

Another thing I’ve been doing recently is practicing with vocabulary systems that require you to type in the word, like or I feel like this forces me to see the differences between the long vowel and the short vowels as well as other small things that are difficult to pick up just by listening.

You’ve got my Ear

Can you think of any other such confusing word pairs that are hard to keep apart? Let me know in the comments below.

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Photo by David Goehring

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Amy V October 2, 2011, 5:11 pm

    Ah the foibles of that dratted long vowel! Yes, I can attest to embarrassment helping me remember a few things better too.

    I’ve been using iKnow for my flashcards so I hear the word, hear it in a sentence or two, see it, see it in a sentence, type it, and fill in the word in a sentence. It’s helping me a lot with my Skype conversation practices. I like Read the Kanji too – but it’s not helping me with the hearing aspect.

    • Mac October 3, 2011, 5:25 am

      I keep hearing good things about iKnow. I might have to give it a look and see how I like it. I do like the idea of hearing the word while you are practicing it.

      Where do you meet people for Skype conversations?

  • Arno October 10, 2011, 9:06 am

    I too, though way below your level, can relate to those misunderstandings. As you say, reading and listening are not the same. There are words I know from but when I hear them in a conversation, I often can not grasp them. I guess this will take a lot of practice.

    Actually, I just solved one of these riddles last weekend. The word I finally managed to connect to its sound is 雰囲気. It’s almost emberrasing when I think of how commen this word is in spoken Japanese. But somehow, the pronounciation feels so strange to me, with the ~んい~ in between, I always thought what im hearing is some kind of katakana word or so.. ウィンキ?? フーンキ?? No wonder I coulnd’t look it up in a dictionary.

    By the way, how do you learn or train those pitch accents? It seems to me I’ll never be able to hear that difference, no matter how hard I try. I’ve gone trough 履く and 吐く with various friends at least a houndred times, and still don’t get it. It’s always the same. I try to start high, then lower ect. and at somepoint I’m even told that I got right now. But even then, when the others hear the difference in my pronounciation, I myself don’t. Sigh, a kingdom for a hint on how to master these.
    And another one for onomatopoeia X|

    • Mac October 10, 2011, 9:53 am

      I still struggle with being able to hear this slight difference in sounds. I have an advantage I guess in being a language teacher and having to train my ear for the pitch accents in English. It helped me with the pitch accents in Japanese.

      I would say the best practice for this is to practice some overlapping. That is where you speak at the same time as the CD. Try to match the native speaker as closely as you can. You should be able to hear where you are saying it incorrectly. If you don’t have the script to a piece you can do some shadowing, which is about the same thing, but a little bit further behind the CD (or MP3 or whatever).

      As for onomatopoeia, a book that helped me a lot with that is Michey’s Word Play. It has a pretty comprehensive list of all the onomatopoeia words and cool little cartoons to help you remember. Reading through it a few times can really help you get a feel for the words. I think these words are a lot more visual than other Japanese words and need to be treated as such.

      If you want something a little bit more ‘academic’ and available internationally, you can try Nihongo Tango’s book. I’ve leafed through it in the bookstore and it looks like a great little practice book.

  • Tim October 10, 2011, 10:48 am

    I also find it hard to remember whether a word has a long or short vowel. And on that note, I just discovered recently that because of all the different accents in our own language, there are a number of vowel sounds that as a Kiwi I just can’t hear the difference, or simply don’t differentiate.

    I discovered that ear and bear are pronounced differently (by Americans, at least – not sure about other speakers). I never knew this until last week! I was aware that we don’t differentiate between bear, beer and bare – at all. Also, there is supposed to be a difference between the two tears (rip and cry)! We don’t differentiate. The vowel diphthong is exactly the same for us. But it’s interesting that in all this time I hadn’t realised that we Kiwis have such a lazy way of using vowels.

    I’m not sure if that means I will have a harder time of getting extended Japanese vowels down or not – but for now, yeah, I struggle with remembering when it is long or short. The greatest example I can think of is しょ/しょう. It’s just hard to remember. Forget picking it up from spoken language, either, hahahaha.

    • Mac October 14, 2011, 3:08 pm

      Yeah, しょ and しょう comes up often in the language (and on the test). There are a few listening textbooks that practice the differences but even then I still have a tricky time of it. Right now I’m working through the New Kanzen Master Listening Book for N2 and goes over those differences, but WOW, really difficult. I spent a good couple of minutes with my wife trying to practice the two and listen for the differences. I’ve kind of gotten the hang of it, but it can still trip me up if I’m not careful.
      I think in English, consonants are the most important, we can usually guess the vowels, but in Japanese if the vowels are even slightly off natives sometimes have a hard time understanding you. At least we don’t have intonations to deal with like in Chinese!

  • Rebecca December 3, 2011, 12:26 pm

    I had trouble with ん for a while, because it’s pronounced differently in different words!
    雰囲気・ふんいき・fu(nasal n/ng)iki
    反映・はんえい・ha(nasal n/ng)ei
    and how many times have you heard TV announcers say ~~だが、~~ but it sounds like da・nga…

    The nasal n (or ng like siNGiNG) is apparently how Japanese listeners can differentiate はんえい from はね from はえ. Meanwhile in romaji it’s all hane.

    And I still have trouble with pitches too! You have to make sure the friends you ask are from the same part of Japan, because 標準語(standard Japanese) is famously different from dialects like 関西弁 (Kansai dialect) and if you ask different people you’ll get different answers.

    The only one I successfully remembered was 箸(はし、chopsticks) vs. 橋(はし、bridge) because I remembered the phrase 橋を渡る(to cross a bridge) and the intonation goes up in the middle like you’re crossing a bridge. But I’m not sure if that’s Kansai or standard…

    • Mac December 4, 2011, 3:58 pm

      When, I first started learning Japanese, I think my Japanese teacher (a native English speaker) told me Japanese had flat intonation. I don’t know where he got that. It definitely has a variety of ways to say almost the same word. I remember I had a serious issue with a word that I had to say during my wedding, and every time I screwed it up while I was practicing my wife laughed at me, and then quickly told me to, whatever I do, don’t say it like that during the wedding. I managed to pull it off, but only after a lot of practice.

      Btw, going up on 橋 and down on 箸 is standard Japanese. If you every want to check stuff like that you can cruise on over to WWWJDIC, which has sound files for most of the major words provided by JapanesePod101.

  • callum January 5, 2012, 12:22 pm

    My friend was at the diner table for her japanese exchange and they asked her any english phrases for a ” Toast ” to someone like drink up.
    So she said ” Chin-chin ” and if you know your japanese you can imagine that brought her great embarrassed when the kids ran and got a dictionary to show her laughing their heads off.

    • Mac January 8, 2012, 11:17 am

      Haha, that’s a good one!

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