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How to know what meaning is being used when? And some other stuff...

Nocturnia

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Hi.

I recently started studying Japanese. I really like the language and am further motivated to learn it by my plans to travel to Japan and stay there for awhile while working as an Assistant Language Teacher. I've run into many problems, but for now I'm just going to ask about the one most on my mind right now, and that problem is...

How do I know what a word means when I hear it spoken? As I learn vocabulary, on one hand I feel like I'm getting somewhere because I can recall various words and what they mean. However, when a word has more than one or two meanings, how am I supposed to figure out what meaning is being used? When writing, this problem is avoided by using different Kanji for the same word - but you can't see Kanji when people speak! For example, here's a word I recently learned: 'hazama' (I'm using Romaji because using Kanji would make the meaning clear).

When I looked up 'hazama', this is what I got:

1. Interval; threshold; interstice
2. Valley; gorge; ravine
3. Loophole; eyelet

For me, the easiest meaning to remember was 'valley'. And because 'valley', 'gorge', and 'ravine' are all similar land forms, I can just combine them all into one idea that I associate with 'hazama' (basically, I can think of it as "a dip in the land"). The third list of translations seems to have meanings that aren't likely to appear in conversations, so I can just ignore it until later, when/if I am learning more advanced Japanese.

The first list is a lot more difficult though. 'Interval', 'threshold', and 'interstice' may all relate to the concept of 'space', but they all have very different meanings. So when I hear 'hazama', my first thought is the combined idea regarding land forms, and my second thought is 'threshold' (because that's what stuck in my mind from the first list). But what about 'interval' and 'interstice'? How do I know when that meaning is being used. For instance, in this line from a song, I can't figure out if it means 'valley', 'threshold' or 'interval'. The song itself seems to be about sound (it's called 本当の音, by KOKIA). Here's the line:

Genjitsu to yume no hazama de hisshi ni tatte iyou to shita

I'm still really bad at particles, but I know the basic ones. I know 'genjitsu' means 'reality', 'yume' is 'dream', 'hisshi' is 'frantic' or 'desperate'. I looked up the others just now, but they seem somewhat vague in translation, or at least they aren't standard vocabulary words that can be plainly translated (tatte = strongly hoping? iyou = strange? shita = to do; past tense?) In any case, on one hand, 'hazama' is followed by the particle 'de', which usually indicates the location of an action(?). A 'valley' would make the most sense in terms of location. However, you could also say that a 'threshold' can be the location of an action. I'm just going to guess that the 'to' after 'genjitsu' is indicating a comparison (#37 at Japanese Grammar – Particles – NIHONGO ICHIBAN So I guess the line would mean something like: "Reality is like a (the) dream of the valley..."

I'm sort of blanking on the rest. Relying on only the basic 9-10 particle meanings is probably causing me a lot of trouble. I don't understand how 'hisshi' can be a location ('ni' particle), when it's still probably still being used as an adjective because it's used as such at another point in the song.

Thanks for helping!
________________________________________

On another note, how do you recommend approaching the study of Japanese? I've always been bad at organized planning and routines, so I have a bad habit of 'starting in the middle' of anything I'm trying to learn. I did start by learning Hiragana and Katakana, along with some basic grammar. I've also learned about 200 Kanji. Or at least, I can recognize 200 based on their meaning, but I only know the 訓読み for around 50-70 of them. I've always communicated better with writing, so I wanted to start with written Japanese, and I also felt it would be best to avoid studying via Romaji as quickly as possible (but I haven't made it that far yet...) More recently, I've been working more on being able to understand Japanese when I hear it, so I've mostly been working on vocabulary. People always tell me that you should always learn to speak a language before trying to learn to read/write it. I'm starting to understand why, but it also seems difficult to pick up grammar from only speaking/listening.

Thanks again!
 
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When people talk about a "crane" in English, you also have no trouble distinguishing between the bird and the machine used for construction, right? Same goes for distinguishing between homonyms in Japanese.

Either way, considering how you tried to translate the song line, it's evident you still need to spend time learning grammar first, more so than vocabulary. The "ni" in "hisshi ni" is used for turning the adjective into an adverb, not for marking a location; "tatte" is the te-form of the verb "tatsu"; "iyou" is the volitional form of the verb "iru"; and so on.

For reading vs. listening as practice, eventually you'll need to do both of course, but I think it's best to start with reading. That way you have all the time in the world to dissect each sentence and there's no danger of mishearing or missing words. And start with something easy like simple news articles, not song lyrics.
 

Mike Cash

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Start with a textbook, not reference materials.
 

Nocturnia

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When people talk about a "crane" in English, you also have no trouble distinguishing between the bird and the machine used for construction, right? Same goes for distinguishing between homonyms in Japanese.

Either way, considering how you tried to translate the song line, it's evident you still need to spend time learning grammar first, more so than vocabulary. The "ni" in "hisshi ni" is used for turning the adjective into an adverb, not for marking a location; "tatte" is the te-form of the verb "tatsu"; "iyou" is the volitional form of the verb "iru"; and so on.

For reading vs. listening as practice, eventually you'll need to do both of course, but I think it's best to start with reading. That way you have all the time in the world to dissect each sentence and there's no danger of mishearing or missing words. And start with something easy like simple news articles, not song lyrics.
Thanks. I figured my translation was probably god awful, seeing as I was basically just taking the individual vocabulary words and creating a sentence based on that, with minimal understanding of grammar.

I'm not really trying to listen and comprehend spoken Japanese yet (like you said, I'm not ready for that). It's more that I'm listening to Japanese songs, then taking their lyrics and learning vocabulary from them. I was working in that way because it gave me stronger motivation and interest. While rote learning can be useful, I've always felt learning through real context is better (i.e. literally having to ask someone to pass the table salt, or taking a hike up a mountain and learning words associated with mountains). Rote memorization has a tendency to just slip right out of one's memory shortly after "learning" it, because there's no context there to remember it by. Song lyrics gives the word some semblance of context insofar as songs get stuck in our heads. Every time I sing the line to myself in my head, I reinforce my memory of the words.

Anyways, that's a bit of a digression. I will go back to the drawing board on grammar. Does anyone have any suggestions for where I can effectively learn grammar (keeping the above in mind)? I initially used Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese (the online version). That wasn't particularly interactive though, and I only found it moderately helpful. I'm not looking to buy expensive textbooks; I've never liked taking a textbook approach (it tends to be rote memorization). I'll borrow something from a library if it's available though.

Thanks again.
 
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Yes, the correct translation of that line would be something like "I desperately tried to stand in (find a foothold in) the space between dreams and reality". As you see, a dictionary alone is absolutely not sufficient.

I don't see how language textbooks would focus on rote memorization though. They do typically start each chapter with a vocabulary list, but then dedicate the rest of that chapter to dialogue, text fragments and exercises using that vocabulary - and most importantly, they don't use vocabulary or grammar that you haven't learned yet. If you try to understand real-life "in the wild" Japanese text right from the start, you'll get lost for sure, as you've noticed by now.

Some textbooks that are frequently mentioned on this forum are Genki and Minna no Nihongo.
 
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Nocturnia

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I put it into the wrong words. Instead of "rote memorization," it would be more accurate to say textbooks are isolated and out of context. Trying to learn a language without interacting in that language is very inefficient. Textbooks just make you do exercises or memorize things by doing them over and over. It's true that repetition is the key to remembering anything, but it's just that textbooks are always 'detached'. I think it would be better to find other ways to repeat things (hence the songs, even if it did turn out I wasn't at the stage to work with those yet).

Anyways, thank you for the book recommendations regardless. I will go back and take a hard look at grammar. Hopefully it will make a bit more sense now, since it won't feel as completely alien as it did the first time.
 
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Indeed, textbooks are detached from the real world. Especially in the beginning, the fictional conversations they give you for reading practice are so simplistic that they're really not representative of real life. And that's exactly what makes them so useful, since you can't learn everything at once. You need to build up slowly, making sure you fully understand what you're learning every step of the way - without getting distracted by words and grammar that you'll only be taught in a later chapter.

You need quite some preparation time in an isolated, "made by foreigners for foreigners" environment before you can hope to step into real, "made by Japanese for Japanese" content. Even this one short lyric line uses grammar spanning several chapters of Genki.

Whichever route you choose though, I wish you good luck :)
 

mdchachi

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One problem with lyrics is that they don't always use every day words.
They are often there for poetic reasons. Hazama for example.
It's not a word I ever recall hearing in real life. (Though it's possible it went over my head and for whatever reason it didn't make it into my vocabulary.)

> 'hazama' (I'm using Romaji because using Kanji would make the meaning clear).
Actually no, not in this case. All three meanings use the same kanji. As others said, it's simply a matter of context. If you hear ame ga futte imasu. You should think it's raining and not that candy is falling. Of course if you're trying to dissect a poem or song, it could be more ambiguous.

I disagree with your take on textbooks. Good textbooks take pains to use real, grammatically correct sentences that are useful. Songs... not so much.

You might like Mangajin. It's a defunct magazine that parses comics in extreme detail for the purpose of language learning. It's long gone but you can find copies online.
 
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I remember when I first started learning Japanese I also found the number of possible meanings to be very daunting. So many homonyms, and at such elemental levels. How could anyone know what meaning the word, for example, "ka" was supposed to have? It seemed like such a basic sound, very common as a part of a word, and by itself it can also have multiple meanings: mosquito, or, interrogative particle, or a million other things.

Then, as you become familiar with the language, this dread subsides. Context is everything. And, I don't know if this will be any encouragement, or if it will scare you away, but I've been studying for a long time and I didn't know that hazama could mean threshhold or interstice. But from the song, I could figure out that the guy was standing between two juxtaposed situations...so you pick up these things one by one, and in a mere 30 years, you get to feel you are starting to get the hang of it. ;)

Also, i never heard the word interstice before. Which is another interesting thing about learning Japanese: it makes you realize how much English you have yet to learn. :facepalm:
 
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