Sunday, October 25, 2009

Secret #2 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Explanatory Phrases

How to Communicate Despite Not Knowing the Right Word

The third post of the series -13 Secret Techniques to Put You on the Fast Track to Fluency in Japanese.

If there is one tip to take away from the book 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese, it is knowing how to use a substitute phrase for the word you want but don't know. The one thing I come back to time and time again with my students is that an exhaustive vocabulary doesn't necessarily make a good communicator, the ability to talk around sticking points and repair conversation does.

Lost in Translation Too ? Shibuya Crossing Tokyo
Lost in Translation Too ? Shibuya Crossing Tokyo by hitthatswitch, on Flickr

The technical term is circumlocution, but all you need to know is that you can't always have the words you need at every given stage of learning. I've seen students with highly specialised vocabulary in their field of interest, start reaching for their dictionaries as soon as they are taken out of their comfort zone into novel topics. The trick is to sacrifice a little eloquence for a rough and ready description.

The technique is simple, describe something completely, without hesitation, with words you already know. Say for example you don't know the word for 'ambulance' in Japanese, but you do know that it is a car that takes people to hospital. Choose a descriptive phrase like 'びょういん まで ひと を はこぶ くるま (byouin made hito wo hakobu kuruma | a car that transports people to hospital) and leverage words you already know to describe something new.

There is a certain redundancy to this technique, which allows the listener to guess at a word even when mistakes are made. If you mistakenly utter 'hold' (もっつ) instead of 'transport' (はこぶ) it doesn't make much difference in conveying meaning because of the other words in support. This technique works best with a forgiving listener, but even in the most difficult situations with strangers it can get you out of a bind.

The best way to practice is with a partner in a game like Jeopardy. If I describe either a thing (もの), an action (こと), a state (じょうたい), a place (ところ), a person (ひと) or other noun (くるま、どうぐ、どうぶつ、ほん、しょるい). My partner attempts to guess what I mean by phrasing their answer as a question. My description doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to contain enough clues for them to guess what I am thinking of.

Let's try it together! Read the explanatory phrase and then select the text in the square brackets [like this] to discover the word I'm trying to describe.

Things | もの

とり は たまご を おく ため に 
つくる もの

Q: tori ha tamago wo oku tame ni tsukuru mono
Q: Something a bird makes to place eggs upon.

とり の す」 は なん でしょう?

A: [tori no su] ha nan deshou?
A: What is a 'bird's nest'?

Photo: Wunderkammen!! by peppergrasss, on Flickr

Actions | こと

Japanese Tea Garden
おちゃ を のむ ため に 
みず を あたためる こと

Q: ocha wo nomu tame ni mizu wo atatameru koto.
Q: The act of heating water to drink tea.

わく」 って なん でしょう?

A: [waku] tte nan deshou?
A: What is 'boiling'?

Photo: Japanese Tea Garden by heather, on Flickr

States | じょうたい

[Shibuya] Sad Rain
め から なみだ が でて 
とまらない じょうたい

Q: me kara namida ga dete tomaranai joutai
Q: The state when tears don't stop flowing from someones eyes.

かなしい」 は なん でしょう?

A: kanashii ha nan deshou?
A: What is "sadness"?

Photo: [Shibuya] Sad Rain by scion_cho, on Flickr

Places | ところ・ばしょ

りょうり を する ところ

Q: ryouri wo suru tokoro
Q: A place where you cook

だいどころ」 は どこ でしょう?

A: [daidokoro] ha doko deshou?
A: Where is the 'kitchen'?

Photo: Untitled by Andrew McLucas [tokyogoat], on Flickr

Others | なんでも

1950s ambulance used on a film location; Tsu, Japan
びょういん まで ひと を 
はこぶ くるま

Q: byouin made hito wo hakobu kuruma
Q: A car that takes people to hospital

きゅうきゅうしゃ」 は なん でしょう?

A: [kyuukyuusha] ha nan deshou?
A: What is an 'ambluance'?

Photo: 1950s ambulance used on a film location; Tsu, Japan by jsteph, on Flickr


The exercises in this second chapter of 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese are arranged according to word types introduced above. They each include illustrations, a word in English, and a substitute phrase in English, Japanese and romaji. The answers to the explanatory phrases are included in the English - Japanese glossary at the back of the book. There is no suggestion of using this technique with a partner as I have demonstrated above.

In his introduction Giles Murray makes clear that his book is aimed squarely at independent and motivated self-studiers, but perhaps he doesn't go far enough to encourage working with others to improve language acquisition. Personally, I can't learn a language in a vacuum and I've always need others around me to bounce ideas off. After all, learning a language is all about communication and if you aren't doing that with someone else then you aren't communicating.

If you haven't tried this kind of thing before the quiz at the end of the chapter is a real confidence booster. Almost every time I'm stumped for a word I come back to the principle of thinking like a dictionary. This 'secret' frees you from having to know the exact word for the concept you want to explain, and it's something that can leverage your existing language ability immediately, and for a long time after learning it.

The technique is a valuable one, but by Murray's own admission many of the techniques in his book are things that you might "encounter at random" after several years in Japan. It's a good thing he has done us the favour of compiling all of them in to one handy paperback volume!

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