Are you Making this Mistake with your Japanese Vocabulary?

Are you Making this Mistake with your Japanese Vocabulary? post image
Japanese Vocabulary Usage

It’s all about how you use it.

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?)
otearaiwa dokodesuka

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


{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Willian June 23, 2013, 1:37 am

    Great post! I think a good way (but definitely not the best) to understand how each word works is to watch Japanese dramas with Japanese subtitles (unless you have no problem to process this kind of information while listening). In general, you will only fully understand a word with time, I mean, I think is meaningless try to master each word, just read and listen a lot and eventually you will be able to get the meaning.
    Now, a question: Maybe I’m wrong but, 空く is a intransitive verb, so the correct isn’t お腹が空いた instead of お腹を空いた?

    • Chokoeito June 23, 2013, 2:29 am

      “Those are kind of freebies for us native English speakers.”

      Correction: Those are kind of freebies for ALL English speakers. 😉

      “These kinds of differences drive English learners nuts.”

      This English learner disagrees. xD

      ” I think a good way (but definitely not the best) to understand how each word works is to watch Japanese dramas with Japanese subtitles (unless you have no problem to process this kind of information while listening).”

      I completely agree with Willian. I think it’s best to encounter words in context (movies/dramas/books/interviews/articles/news). I myself am getting into the habit of watching all my jdramas with Japanese subtitles. But even if I study with lists (which I do, a lot) I try my best to look up example sentences for every word.

      “Now, a question: Maybe I’m wrong but, 空く is a intransitive verb, so the correct isn’t お腹が空いた instead of お腹を空いた?”

      You’re right, “お腹が空く” is an expression that only works with the が particle.

      • Clayton MacKnight June 23, 2013, 10:53 am

        Do you like the minute differences between get and take? My (Japanese) students learning English always complain about those little verbs.

        • Chokoeito June 25, 2013, 2:51 pm

          Sorry for the late reply!

          “Do you like the minute differences between get and take?”

          I can’t say I am ~too~ found of them but since I seem to have learned the correct combinations from watching American movies and TV series I think I had it easier then other people who have to learn this stuff in a classroom by the sole means of memorization. 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight June 23, 2013, 10:50 am

      That’s right Willian on both counts. My current rough strategy is to practice some lists in preparation for looking at native materials so I don’t end up looking up every single word, but then keeping only the words I don’t regularly encounter.

      And yes, it’s お腹が空いた。I left my brain somewhere when I was writing this. Thanks for the correction!

  • bunalz June 23, 2013, 6:44 am

    Wow, I didn’t know about the toilet stuffs… Good thing I’m used to saying トイレ when referring to it.

    And for that last part, I agreed with Willian.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 24, 2013, 1:56 pm

      yeah, learning in context is obviously the way to go. Finding native materials that aren’t too difficult and aren’t too hard can be a little tricky though. I’ve made the mistake of choosing something a little too difficult before my time and it was a tough hill to climb.

      • Willian June 24, 2013, 2:04 pm

        Do you know this website? If don’t, I think is a nice idea introduce it to Japanese learners.

        Yeah, it’s only 200 Kanjis, but I think it’s great to find new words and practice reading skills a little. I believe is easy to understand, if you have at least intermediary level. And, it’s fun to read.

        • Clayton MacKnight June 30, 2013, 11:32 pm

          That’s a pretty cool link. I’ll have to look into it more when I have time.

  • Ashley July 13, 2013, 9:02 am

    Unfortunately, I misuse or get similar sounding words mixed up in Japanese ALL the time. Fortunately my Japanese friends tell me it’s cute. I don’t believe them, but I do think the embarrassment of the situation helps me remember not to make that mistake ever again.

    I’ll give just one example. In one of my first Japanese lessons, I learned of course that どういてしまして is what you say after someone says ありがとうございます. In my mind, I thought that since ありがとう is like “thank you”, that means ,どういてしました means “you’re welcome.” So, silly English speaker that I am, I went around saying it ALL the time, to everyone, young and old alike.

    It was only when one of my friend’s children, a little girl about 5, scrunched up her nose at me when I said it to her that I realized there might be something more to it. And sure enough, that’s when I learned that while yes, you should sometimes say どういてしました, it’s a very formal word that is rarely used among friends and almost never said to children.

    Embarrassment breeds memories, and memories breed learning. Of course I don’t go out of my way to embarrass myself, but I’m grateful for the silver lining of increased retention.

    • Clayton MacKnight July 15, 2013, 10:08 am

      It’s like the time that I wanted to know the opposite of a word, which I can’t remember what it was at the moment, so will say I wanted to know the opposite of たかい, so I said 「高いのへんたいは何ですか?」, which means something like the ‘What is the expensive sexual perversion (へんたい)?’ What I wanted to say was はんたい (opposite). It was, of course, over coffee with a group of women.

      • Ashley July 15, 2013, 11:18 am

        While we’re swapping embarrassing stories…

        My father is an identical twin, and–coincidentally–my husband’s father also happens to be a twin. While trying to explain this in Japanese, I made it sound like we were brother and sister and our father was a twin. Usually my Japanese friends can figure out what I MEANT around my mistakes, but in this case it must have been too much to handle because I got the most disgusted look followed by “。。。。なーなーなーなに?!”

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