I 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 memrise.com or readthekanji.com. 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