Language | BILINGUAL

Get in tune with the sound of Japanese vocabulary

by Daniel Morales

Contributing writer

Whatever you do, don’t read this article! You need to listen to this one. Grab the closest person to you — gently — and hand them this text. Recline on the closest object you can and close your eyes. Then ask the person to read it aloud to you.

I was in Japan for business in early June and found myself drinking on a boat floating off Minato Mirai in Yokohama. Life was good. Then I remember my colleague saying ちゃくがんしましたら (chakugan shimashitara), or something, and I was shaken. What the precise phrase was is somewhat beside the point — I’m not giving you the meaning yet because I want you to experience it as I did on that boat.

Sit with the words for a moment — ちゃくがん (chakugan) and しましたら (shimashitara). I was suddenly doing that thing where you divide your attention — one part was needed to decipher the tricky vocabulary and another part had to physically catch the words that came after the one I didn’t fully understand.

You likely know the latter word: しましたら is a conditional form of する (suru, do), implying that the next clause (whatever that clause is) would happen once the prior action is completed. For example, 完成しましたら、送ります (Kansei shimashitara, okurimasu, When I finish, I’ll send [it to you]).

ちゃくがん is likely less familiar. It’s the word that I didn’t know … yet also did know. I’d never heard it before, but I felt like I’d been primed to understand it because I’d just arrived in Japan a few days before and heard (or maybe even unconsciously just thought) the word 着陸 (chakuriku, land/landing) when we touched down at Haneda. This obviously brings to mind other words like 着席 (chakuseki, sit down), 着うた (chaku-uta, ringtone) and 延着 (enchaku, late arrival). Clearly the meaning “arrive” was wrapped up in ちゃく for me, but where would we be arriving? What and where was the がん?

I somehow knew that it actually meant “when we arrive at shore” after our little pleasure cruise, but to be honest I initially misheard and thought it was 湾 (wan, bay). Looking back, that’s clearly not right. We couldn’t arrive at a bay, we were already on a bay. After a little Googling upon disembarking, I was able to confirm the actual word:

がん was the other pronunciation of 岸 (kishi, shore). 着岸 meant to arrive at the shore, or to dock.

The whole experience made me think about how students learn Japanese. So much emphasis is placed on the Japanese writing system, which creates an easy-to-gauge set of milestones for new learners, and on pronunciation, which is rightfully important if you plan to actually use the Japanese you’re learning.

Obviously there’s a listening element to all courses and studying, but I don’t remember such an emphasis being made on how meaning and sound get connected. Linguists study a phenomenon called 音象徴 (onshōchō, sound symbolism) in which meaning is “systematically” correlated with sound. This phenomenon tends to relate specifically to the Japanese language’s large library of onomatopoeic words — you can virtually hear the bloated wobble of ぶよぶよ (buyo-buyo, flabby) and feel the softness of ふわふわ (fuwa-fuwa, soft and fluffy). But I think the ordinary sounds of Japanese also come to take on meaning as we study, as

ちゃく did for me.

On the same trip as my bay cruise, I was eating with a friend and his family at a restaurant with Japanese-style seating. His kids were standing and playing around, so in an attempt to get them to sit and focus on the food, he said, “ざしきのざはすわる” (“Zashiki no za wa suwaru”). Does this one come to you more easily as it did to me? The ざ is 座 (za), which contains the meaning “sit,” and 座敷 (zashiki) is the tatami flooring upon which you 座る (suwaru, sit). My friend was emphasizing that “The ‘za‘ in ‘zashiki‘ means sit down.”

ざ brings to mind 座禅 (zazen, seated meditation) and 座業 (zagyō, sedentary work), two very different activities that involve sitting and not moving, and both are linked through that first syllable.

So what do we make of this? How do language learners take advantage of this and polish their listening skills? Two strategies come to mind. One is 聞き取る (kikitoru, to catch a person’s words by listening) practice. Practice writing out what you hear. This will help strengthen your ability to retain phrases in your memory longer, giving you more time to figure them out.

Podcasts are another great way to practice your listening. With the right apps, you can slow down or speed up the language to your level, and you can hone that meditative focus that it sometimes takes to prevent yourself from doing a running translation of what you’re hearing and just immerse in understanding the Japanese.

My personal recommendation is “NHKラジオニュース” (“NHK rajio nyūsu,” “NHK Radio News,” www.nhk.or.jp/radionews). It is exactly what you think it is: the clean, beautiful 標準語 (hyōjungo, standard Japanese) of 日本放送協会 (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation, aka NHK) right on your smartphone or personal computer. The podcast gets updated numerous times each day so you can enjoy a quick news blast or holdout for the longer ジャーナル (jānaru, journal) episodes that go into more depth.

More than anything, though, you just need time to develop these aural associations. Time standing on train platforms to associate つう (tsuu) with 通過 (tsūka, pass through) as a train blows by without stopping. Time crooning at karaoke while き (ki) becomes 奇跡 (kiseki, miracle) and also 奇妙 (kimyō, strange/odd).

Time and immersion will build the scaffolding needed to create these associations, but you have to really be present with your awareness and ready to climb higher.