JLPT BC 83 | Making Use of What you Got

limited Japanese vocabulary

No, it's not pretty, but it gets you where you want to go.

I finally, finally, finished ほぼ日!  Overall, it was a pretty good book.  I think if you were interested in the web and especially about how the internet is used in Japan, it is a pretty good read.  Overall, Itoi talks about how he built up the ほぼ日 website.  It is kind of a mind dump of everything that happened in his early years.

It also has a few unexpected passages in it.  For example, in one of the last chapters he has a line that goes something like when he was a kid, he knew he was friends with someone when they showed each other their butts.  I little odd, but it is great practice for trying to puzzle out vocabulary and what he is trying to say.

I picked up a lot of colorful expressions as well as some useful vocabulary.  I started to really get used to his style towards the end so I was able to read through the last couple chapters pretty easily.  He tended to use some of the same vocabulary, so it was good review.  Also, I got used to his delivery and flow as well.

I’m looking forward to trying something else though.  I want to take a little bit of a vacation from all the hard work of going through that book and try my hand at Harry Potter.  I feel like I can really speed through something that has a story that I want to know the ending to.  I have listened to all the Harry Potter books in English, so I at least have some background to go off of.

Other than that, I’m really starting to pile on the vocabulary.  I try to learn 20 new words a day on memrise and another 10 or so with StickyStudy on my iPhone. I find that this is pretty much the limit for chewing through new vocabulary with a Spaced Repition System (SRS), anything more and it seems to just all blend together.

I am now officially cracking open and really studying So-Matome N1 Grammar.  Yes, it is about a month away from the July test, but better late than never.  And that will be my excuse for when I fail the grammar section of the exam (j/k).  I’m trying a few different approaches to absorbing the N1 grammar because grammar is one thing that I always seem to have trouble with.

Making Use of What you Have

There is a pretty big misconception out there that in order to be fluent in a language you need a big vocabulary.  The idea is that if you just study the 6000 or so most frequent words in any language you will be able to communicate well enough to be considered fluent.  You can see this in the Kore lists that are floating around the web (one version of the Kore 6000 is at memrise).

So, this would lead you to believe that you need to just drill vocabulary all day and, after some time of this, you will magically become fluent.  Until then, you aren’t fluent and so you can’t possible hold a conversation with someone.

This was at least what I thought when I first started studying Japanese.  I was actually painfully shy with the language and felt like I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone until I had filled my mind up with all that useful vocabulary.

I felt like since I had a small vocabulary I wasn’t able to get my idea across.  I think this is a common mistake a lot of people make because as adult speakers of our native language, we are so used to being able to articulate exactly what we want to say.  We know all the big words and expressions to express ourselves in a casual, slangy or formal way.  So, it is painful to take a step down and not be able to communicate the way we want to.

But Wait! Not so Fast

Actually you can communicate with a smaller vocabulary and it is really beneficial for you to do so.  The reason is because you can, at the very least, practice some basic conversation skills, which are just as important for fluency as knowing all those fancy words.

I would say one of the biggest problems people have when learning a language is that they don’t have very good conversation skills.  I see it all the time in my classes.  There are students that have trouble communicating their ideas in any language even their native one.

And those with weaker conversation skills tend to progress slower through the classes.  The reason for this is simple – they aren’t able to get as much practice in class because they struggle to come up with the appropriate kinds of responses.  In other words, they have a hard time understanding what ‘fits’ in the conversation and how to keep it going.

This problem is made a little worse by the fact that Japanese and English conversation styles differ slightly.  The pattern of conversation that two people have in English  is different than that of Japanese.  This can cause problems with the rhythm of the conversation because you are not sure what to expect.

Start Practicing Conversation Skills Early

It is pretty important to start practicing your conversation skills early.  One primary reason for doing this is to learn the skill of circumlocution.  Circumlocution is a pretty big word that basically describes the process of being able to talk around a word that you do not know.

This is a key skill and something that is important to learn because you will always be able to communicate your ideas no matter who big or small your vocabulary is.  There will almost always be words that you don’t know and that you will need to convey to someone in a conversation, so the sooner you master it the better.

Also, there is nothing to be afraid of by at least trying to use the language in a conversation.  Even the lowest students with a small set of vocabulary can express themselves with gestures, intonation and the fact that a native speaker will be able to anticipate what you want to say.

Are you a chatterbox or a clam?

Did you start chatting at a lower level?  Did you wait?  What were the benefits?  Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Dave Walker

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Andrew June 7, 2012, 5:18 am

    Talking at my job was required so I practiced quick and listened lots. The important thing is to ask them to write a word down for you when you don’t understand and then have them explain it or look it up so you know for next time.

    • Mac June 7, 2012, 2:22 pm

      Good point. I think sometimes people might be too embarrassed to ask for repetition or to have something written down for them, but people love to share their language with you. Especially people in Japan. They love it when people take an interest and are happy to write something down for you.

  • Tim June 10, 2012, 2:33 pm

    I was a bit hesitant for quite a while, because it was (and still is!) just so frustrating not being able to articulate just what I wanted to say — or even a bit of what I wanted to say.

    However, when you at least try to express yourself using what little vocab and grammar you know, people do tend to be patient, on the whole. You may be misunderstood and you may screw your eyes shut in frustration as you search your memory banks for that elusive word; but in the end it is all practice, whether you have a complete conversation or see it fizzle out after half a sentence of stumbling and realising you simply can’t make yourself understood.

    I wish I’d fumbled my way through conversation earlier, as even now, four years after coming to Japan, I feel inadequate in conversation. I miss a heck of a lot of what is being said around me, of what they talk about on TV, and what people say to me directly in conversation. But every time I take initiative and engage people in conversation, it is one step closer to being able to express what I want; even if it is a lot simpler than I would like.

    My greatest frustrations still come in knowing so little grammar and just not recognising conjugations, speech patterns and so many words or phrases that people use. It’s still a long way to go before I am comfortable holding a conversation with a Japanese person, as I am constantly constructing and reconstructing what I wish to say with what little I’ve garnered over these past four years; but every conversation helps and every time I’m exposed to something I’ve heard half a dozen times, I’m one step closer to fixing it in my head for the long term. 🙂

    • Mac June 11, 2012, 2:40 am

      It is hard jump to make when you are at that mid-level (N4ish) because you’ve been studying awhile, and know a lot, but still don’t know enough to go native.

      That’s what was always frustrating for me, too. But the more I tried to jump into simple conversations the more I picked up. It’s like trying to roll a really big stone, at first it goes really slowly, but as you pick up speed it eventually starts to roll itself. After a while, it is moving so fast that it is hard to stop it.

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