Using Categories to Speak Fluently

Using Categories to Speak Fluently post image

You might have heard that a core of about 2000 words of any given language make up somewhere around 80% of all communication in that language. And that if you can master those 2000 words you can use the language fairly well.

And you might have already learned a good 2000 words in Japanese. Just to put that in perspective, N4 requires you to know close to 2000 words. And it is hard for a lot of people to think they are fluent after passing that test. But, to be honest, you pretty much have all the tools you need to communicate pretty well. It will definitely help for you to add a lot more words, but you are pretty much set for grammar for everyday conversation.

And I think for a lot of people passing N4 is pretty much as far as you need to go. From there you can start conversing and talking and expanding your ability more naturally. If you’ve passed N4, you might be saying to yourself that there is no way you can start talking to a native. And it can be pretty daunting to get started with speaking and practicing fluency.

You probably feel a little uncomfortable, because there are so many things you want to express, but you just can’t. You might feel that all you can convey at this point is just boring sentences like “This is a pencil.” which might be useful in some situations, but isn’t going to make you the life of the party anytime soon.

This discomfort comes from the fact that your own native vocabulary is huge. If you have graduated from college, you have probably consumed massive amounts of material in the form of textbooks, TV shows, daily conversation, and millions of other sources. That gives a massive pile of phrases and words you can use to express yourself. In a second language, you will probably never reach that level (unless you really immerse yourself). And so there is a gap there.

This gap can mislead you to believe that you are not good at communicating in your second language because you don’t know the word for X. So, understandably, you might not feel all that confident talking to natives.

How my 3 year old communicates

What about a 3 year old? They have a very limited vocabulary. Some people estimate that they have somewhere around 900 to 1000 words that they can use. That seems pretty limiting and it can be. There are a lot of things my 3 year old wants to communicate but gets frustrated when the idea doesn’t get across which usually involves breaking down into a tantrum.

But, she does manage to communicate a ton of stuff with her limited vocabulary. It’s not always clear, but the general idea gets across. For example, she will say “Mommy’s turn” when she wants mom to do something for her (and not me). Now is this perfectly correct? No, it isn’t. Does it get the message across? Mmm, more or less.

If she doesn’t know the exact word for an object she will say things like ‘pink one’ or ‘big one’ to refer to things she is pointing at. Again, there is a slight delay in understanding, but we can get the general idea of what she is trying to communicate.

And at times she will explode if we can’t understand something right away. But, she keeps trying until she gets what she wants. She is very head-strong to put it lightly.

But, of course, what do us adults do? When we can’t communicate what we want we break down, we whip out our dictionaries and look for the word we want to use. Or we just resort to our native language (usually English) and hope the idea gets across. But, what if you couldn’t resort to that? What if eating meant you get something communicated and there was no dictionary. In a way that is what it is like to be a young kid.

Leverage categorizing to speak fluently

What can we learn from my 3-year old? Categorizing. If you don’t know the word for something you are trying to say, think about what category it belongs to. Is it an animal? Is it a toy? And add on adjectives to get what you want to say. This is one way to expand your vocabulary ‘on-the-fly’ without having to resort to that conversation-ending moment where you reach for your dictionary.

It is also handy to categorize new words you learn into these groups so that you can keep them sorted in your head a little better. Try to think about what kind of situations you might use this particular word in and its connotations.

This method of categorizing is actually what a lot of teachers use with small children to check their comprehension of vocabulary. I find it to be a way to think about new vocabulary more clearly and from a different angle than simply what the English definition is. Japanese even kind of lends itself to this categorization because it has kanji that can be used for several different, but related words.

Another way to think of this is watching TV on an old black and white cathode TV. This is obviously not ideal, but people use to do it for several years. It still got the message across of what was happening on the other end of the line right? The image was fuzzy and it was hard to convey nuanced meaning at times, but the general message got across.

That is what your communication skills are like when you first start using the language in conversation. This fuzzy image is created because you don’t have the exact words to convey every detail. But, the main message still gets across. As you gain more vocabulary, phrases, and grammar, the resolution of your message becomes sharper. At first you get full color, then flat screen, then hi-def, full hi-def, 4k, 8k, you get the idea. The message keeps getting sharper and clearer.

Most people only need the black and white cathode TV to communicate with. I mean after all, just having a TV is pretty cool if you think about it. But, if you work really hard you can be sending your message in ultra-mega 3d TV. But, just like the real ultra-mega 3d TVs, it’s expensive (in terms of time) and in the end might not be worth it for everyone.

But, then again having an 8k 85″ TV is pretty bad ass.

What kind of TV do you want?

Do you want to become incredibly fluent in Japanese? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by John Thorton

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Niall Hamilton April 12, 2015, 11:54 am

    Good post – I was recently reading Benny Lewis’s “Fluent in 3 Months” and his whole concept of communication being easier through usage is just want you’re written.

    When I was over in Japan, most people spoke English (regardless of their level) towards me until I said “日本語はいいですよ”. I still don’t know if this is really all that correct, but it worked for me.

    • Clayton MacKnight April 13, 2015, 1:48 pm

      Benny Lewis has a lot of great tips. I don’t think everything he preaches can be used by everyone, but there are a lot of ideas you can take and apply them to yourself.

      My favorite thing to say to people is “簡単に話してください。” or “カジュアルに話してください。” when they are speaking to polite for me. I sometimes just say this these days so the conversation will go faster. There are just so many formal things people say just to say, and I lose focus, waiting for them to give me the main point. 🙂

  • Tim April 13, 2015, 8:37 am

    Very comprehensive Mac. You’ve nailed the problem that we all suffer from for a time: frustration at not being able to convey things how we are used to doing so. I found that when I was writing daily reports when I worked at a Japanese school, at first I had my wife translate what I’d written; but then I realised that it wasn’t worth going to twice the effort, and started writing them myself. Within a short span of time I was able to summarise the day using the vocabulary I knew; and if I didn’t know a word or wasn’t sure of how to convey something, I tried doing it in a more simple way than I otherwise would in English.

    Long story, short (and despite that fact that I have lost a lot of what I learned that year), most people are patient enough to bear with you as you struggle to explain things or even to engage with them.

    If you don’t understand what someone is saying to you, ask them to repeat it, try using gestures, try repeating back a word or phrase you are unsure of, prompting them to explain – in Japanese – just what they mean. Of course, trying to watch the news is a whole other bag of tricks. >.<

    My Japanese is very rusty now; but I know that if I put the effort in again to try and raise my level, using the words I know over and over would only be beneficial to solidifying their usage and example situations where I may be able to use them. Building on that foundation definitely does take time and effort. Perhaps one day I'll be able to focus again on doing that. 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight April 13, 2015, 1:52 pm

      I think you just need to approach getting back into the swing of things, step by step. Add on some new habit once a month or so, and take it easy. It seems like since you’ve moved back to New Zealand? you have had a hard time getting back to it, which I can totally understand. You are not surrounded by it anymore, so it is hard to see the importance of it.

      Anyway, I hope you can get back to it.

      • Tim April 15, 2015, 9:37 am

        Thanks for the encouragement. Yeah, being surrounded by and using so much English makes it very hard. With my mother-in-law staying with us right now, though, it is a golden opportunity to be using Japanese a lot more.

        Small increments while taking the opportunity to solidify what I already know might be the way to go. Because the more I exercise what I know (or am half-confident of; or am really rusty with), the more solid and sure things will become. 🙂

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