All right, so you learned all the vocabulary for the test right? You probably spent several hours a week with your flashcards, Anki, or Memrise. You know your kanji backwards and forwards. You are a vocabulary learning machine.
And if you look at the number of words you need to get through a level, it doesn’t seem so bad. For N5, you only really need around 800 or so words. And with the proper techniques, you could master that in a relatively short period of time with some focus, piece of cake right?
Well, the JLPT (and real life) will require you to be a little more comfortable with words than just knowing their translation in English. The JLPT is really good at surprising you with its vocabulary questions because they require you to think about the words in a different way.
Similar but Different
You have probably heard the language learning advice that you should never translate anything. You should try to use Japanese to Japanese dictionaries as soon as possible and that using too much English in your studies can be a bad thing. And although only Japanese all the time is a little overboard, there is some truth to the whole no translation thing.
The main reason you shouldn’t be translating is that there are no direct translations. This is even more true for Japanese, where for example, there is no adjective for hungry. Instead, you have to say your stomach emptied (おなかが 空いた。 [Onakaga suita.]).
Actually, there is a word for hungry in Japanese – ハングリー(hangurii), but this is just for the title’s of books and things like that not in every day conversation. But, how would you know that just by studying word lists?
Ok, so there are some direct translations. For example, most concrete nouns can be directly translated. I mean, a book is a book, generally speaking. Needless to say, not many concrete nouns come up in the vocabulary section, except the occasional katakana word. Those are kind of freebies for us native English speakers.
Use it or Lose it
The words ‘get’ and ‘take’ can sometimes have similar meanings in English. But these two seemingly simple words are actually incredibly complex. Why can you say ‘get a haircut’ but not ‘take a haircut’? ‘get some rest’ but not ‘take some rest’? These kinds of differences drive English learners nuts.
So, you not only need to know the meaning of the word, but how to use it. Ask yourself things like the following:
Where do you use this word?
What other words does this word usually appear with? (collocations)
How does this word sound? Is it formal? Polite? Rude?
Does it have a bad connotation?
Of course, the best way and most fun way to do this is to simply use the word. Try to use it as much as possible and take note of these things when you are using it. It reminds me of one of my first interactions with someone in Japan. I wanted to go the bathroom so I asked:
お手洗いは どこですか？ (Where is the lavatory?)
Because, I was taught that お手洗い meant ‘bathroom’, which it does but it is the word that is only used on signs for the bathroom like ‘lavatory’ in English. What you actually use to ask for the bathroom in Japanese is トイレ(toire) from toilet in English. Although it sounds dirty to our ears, it is actually quite common in Japanese.
Go Out and Use it Already!
Be sure to have fun with the words you are learning, apply them to your every day life and ask questions about how they are used. You’ll be a better test taker and language learner if you do.
Have you ever misused a word? Let me know in the comments.
Photo by Nelo Hotsuma