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Getting to Know Vocabulary and How to Speak Japanese Beautifully


Table of Contents

When you read or hear a new word, pay close attention to the meaning, sound, and context. Focusing on these three areas for every word you study will help you use it correctly and pronounce it beautifully.

Let's go through these three areas.


Meaning

Try to guess the meaning before you look it up.

  • Is the word related to some other word you know? Perhaps you learned the verb くすぐる (to tickle) but just heard the adjective くすぐったい (ticklish). It's not rocket science to guess they are related, and proactively looking for relationships like this can make learning new words easier.

If you are an intermediate, use a J-J dictionary before J-E

  • As a beginner, a Japanese-to-Japanese dictionary made for native speakers is too challenging. But for upper beginners and especially intermediates, a good J-J dictionary can give you extra practice, and it is usually much more detailed with more example sentences than a J-E dictionary. It's like a BOGO sale!

Kanji power

  • If it has kanji in the word, what does the kanji mean? Do you know other words that use that kanji? Very often these connections can lead to unexpected rewards.
  • For example, take 過言(かごん) (saying too much). You know 「言」 means "word" or "to say" and when you look up 「過」, you learn it means "too much" or "excess." Other words that have 過 include: 
    • 過大(かだい) (excessive; too much; unreasonable)
    • 過労(かろう) (overwork; strain)
    • 過激(かげき) (extreme; radical)
    • 過酷(かこく)  (severe; harsh; cruel)
  • Be curious and look up kanji in known words to discover connections with other words.)

Sound

Learn to think in moras: 

  • In English we think in syllables. But in order to speak Japanese beautifully, you must pay attention to moras.
  • What's a mora? It's like a beat of sound. A single mora can be equal to a single syllable, but it can also be less than a syllable. For example, しんぶん (newspaper) has two syllables (shin | bun), but it has four moras: し・ん・ぶ・ん. 
  • The easiest way to think of it is each kana, including the combo kana, is a single mora. か is a mora. So is きゃ. But きや is two moras (also two syllables...).
  • One important reason to shriek in horror and run away at the sight of romaji is it does a poor job of showing mora.
  • You can see moras clearly with kana but they can hide with romaji. Take for example, 簡易 (かんい) (easiness). In romaji, it is kani. Is that two moras (ka-ni) or three (ka-n-i)? Granted, you can write it as "kan'i," but with kana, the number of mora is clear. か・ん・い (3 moras and thus three equally spaced beats) The word "romaji" itself fails the test. ローマ字. You could write it as "ro-maji" or "roumaji" but few do. 
  • Okay, I'm sure you get it, but why is knowing the moras important? If you want to speak Japanese beautifully, you need to pronounce each mora as if it is one beat. Japanese is like musical notation. Every mora is an equally-spaced note.
  • In English, when we accent a syllable, we usually make it longer. Take the word "American," for example. The "MER" is not only a higher pitch and stronger in force, but it is also longer than the other syllables. To speak Japanese beautifully, say every mora in equally spaced intervals.

Long vowels & Small っ

  • If you are with me in wanting to speak Japanese beautifully, two important but often overlooked aspects are the long vowels and small っ. 
  • Take 学校(がっこう) (school) for example. How many moras do we have here? が っ こ う - one for each kana (including the small っ). That makes four mora. Therefore 学校がっこう (school) should be pronounced with four equally-spaced beats. It's not "gakko" or "gako" or "gakou" but が・っ・こ・う or "GA - (pause) - KO - O" - four beats of the metronome. 
  • It may be helpful to practice speaking while clapping with each mora. Keep a beat. One mora equals one beat.

Pitch accent

We talk more on pitch accents here and I briefly mentioned this above, but let me repeat myself. In English, we stress syllables in at least four ways:  (again, think of the word, "American" with the stress on the second syllable.)

  1. We make the stressed syllable longer. (Japanese doesn't do this)
  2. We usually go up in pitch (Japanese can).
  3. We usually make the stressed syllable louder. (Japanese doesn't usually do this)
  4. The stressed syllable is also usually a purer vowel rather than a schwa vowel. (Japanese doesn't do this)

Except for the going up in pitch, you have to throw away these English habits in order to speak beautiful words in Japanese. 

In Japanese, you:

  1. Change the pitch one step up or down only once each per word.
  2. Once the pitch goes down in a word, it doesn't go back up until it is reset by the next word.
  3. Keep every mora the same length.
  4. Every vowel is pronounced clearly.
  5. The stressed mora usually isn't pronounced louder (unless it is for emphasis or surprise)

So, keep the length, clear vowels, and single pitch steps in mind.

As you learn words, learn the pitch accents with it. If you use the online dictionary jisho.org (It's my to-go online dictionary), there is a Chrome extension called "jisho-pitcher" which automatically adds pitch accents for your dictionary look ups. 

Also, as you add words you want to learn to your Anki deck, include the pitch accent as a number (See the image below).

The number tells you where the pitch falls (the mora after the number). It's that simple.

  • (0) means the pitch doesn't fall (heiban). It starts low, goes up, and stays up. [LHHH...]
  • (1) means the pitch falls after the first mora (atama daka) [HLLL...]
  • (2) means the pitch falls after the second mora [LHL]
  • (3-?) means the pitch falls after the third (or whatever the number is) mora [LHHL]


Context

Learn words in phrases

  • Understanding how and when words are used can be tricky, especially for abstract concepts.
  • But if you learn words within phrases, you have a built-in usage example.
  • Also, if you add these phrases to your Anki deck, it is because you discovered them and should know the wider context. Mark that wider context. For example, this was from such-and-such drama when so-and-so did such-and-such. 

Are there verbs that go with this noun? Or vice versa?

  • There are many words that pair well with other words. What does the rain do?  (あめ)()る (it rains). It doesn't ()ちる (to fall) but it る.
  • If you learn words as phrases, very often, you'll capture verbs that work well with that concept.


Learning vocabulary isn't easy, but the more vocabulary you gain, the better you can express yourself in Japanese. Keep these three concepts in mind: meaning, sound, and context.

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