“The Japanese are Masters of Context”
When you start studying Japanese you will probably read about the sentence pattern 「___ wa ___ desu」 . You’ll probably then go on to learn about verbs and how they fit into sentences 「___ wa ___ wo ___ verb」. You’ll use these to make simple sentences such as 「わたしはりんごをてべます」 (watashi wa ringo wo tabemasu) = “I eat an apple”. Then you might learn about tenses so you can say “I ate an apple” or “I am eating an apple”*.
(*If you need a recap on these see The Basics of Grammar)
Yet as you go on and begin to learn more vocabulary and more grammar, you’ll noticed that often the subject in the sentence is missing, or several words sound the same, some words the same kanji but different readings. How can you tell the difference between these?
Well, to put it simply; context is everything in Japanese.
Same Sound Different Words
Sometimes you might find yourself wondering; “Both of these words sound the same, how can I tell which one’s which?”. For example, あつい (atsui) and あつい (atsui), one means “thick” and the other is “hot”; or しぼう (shibou) which can mean “fat”, “death” or “wish”.
When you learn kanji it’s easier to differentiate between these because the kanji will be different depending on the meaning. Such as あつい being 熱い (hot) or 厚い (thick), and しぼう with 脂肪 (fat), 死亡 (death), 志望 (wish).
But what if you don’t know the kanji, the kanji isn’t used, or you’re in a conversation and something like this comes up? Well, context.
Say you’re talking to someone and they say “きょうはあついですね” (kyou wa atsui desu ne), which means “It’s ___ today”. You can tell from the context they’re saying “hot” and not “thick” because they’re saying “today is hot“, saying “today is thick” doesn’t make sense.
It’s the same with しぼう, I.E “しぼうはけんこうにわるいです” (shobou wa kenkou ni warui desu) or “わたしのしぼうをかないます” (watashi no shibou wo kanaimasu). The first sentence means “___ is bad for your health” and the second sentence is “Grant my ___”. Again, from the context of the situation you can tell the first sentence is referring to “fat” and the second to “wish”.
This is why in the JLPT’s when you’re asked to provide vocabulary in a question, the question is in the form of a sentence.
Same Kanji Different Reading
This is another issue that beginners come across a lot, especially if you read a lot, and that’s when you come across a kanji but you don’t know how to read it.
Let’s use the previous “hot” example with the kanji 熱. You can have: 熱 熱い 熱する 熱帯, all of which are different words. If you study kanji you may know that 熱 can be read as ねつ (netsu) or あつ(い) (atsui), but depending on the context these different readings are used. So: 熱 (ねつ netsu) 熱い (あつい atsui) 熱する (ねっする ne-suru) 熱帯 (ねったい ne-tai). In this case the ねつ on it’s own means “a fever”, but when this reading comes up again in 熱する and 熱帯 the つ is dropped for a pause (っ).
This might seem really complicated and difficult but it isn’t. The more you study kanji, their readings and the vocabulary that uses them, the easier this becomes. You see ねつ is the on-yomi and will appear when the kanji is combined with another kanji, and あつ(い) is the kun-yomi, and is only used when the kanji is used in a Japanese word, which in this case is あつい 熱い (hot).
Bu Sensei explains the differences in these really well, in terms of the Kanji Kentei exam. Again, the examples he provides are in sentences and you use the context of the sentence to work out which reading is used.
Same Sound Different Kanji (Homophones)
You might not have this problem if you mostly talk in Japanese, but if you read and write, and want to do the JLPT’s or Kanji Kentei then this is something you might come up with.
Let’s say you’re writing a sentence on your keyboard and you want to write あんき (anki) to mean “comfort/ease”, but you have the option 安危 and 安気, both of which mean あんき, but one means “safety” and the other “comfort”.
As you study kanji you’ll be able to work out the difference and know which is the most appropriate based on the meaning of the individual kanji.
Bu Sensei describes these, how to learn the different readings and some great study materials.
As you begin to learn intermediate Japanese you might realise the subject of the sentence often gets dropped.
It starts with わたし (watashi). Every beginner learns “わたしのなまえは＿＿です” which means “my name is ___”. But you can drop the beginning of the sentence and just say “＿＿です” or even just “＿＿” and this will be more natural in Japanese.
You might be having a conversation, watching or reading something and suddenly someone goes “あたまがいいですね？” which just means “smart, right?” (as is someone is smart). But the subject of the sentence isn’t given. It could be you, their friend, or someone completely different. You’re expected to know who they are talking about based on what has occurred previously in the conversation. So you may have mention how good looking a guy is, then your friend drop that. Based on the context of the conversation until that point you can assume they’re talking about the guy.
How Do I Learn All This?
A few simple tricks to getting used to the above.
- Talk to people in Japanese as much as possible.
- Read Japanese as much a possible.
- Make mistakes.
- Keep studying Japanese.
That’s it. You begin to learn these things based on the context of the situation, and the best way to do that is to put yourself in those situations. The more you talk to people and/or read Japanese, the more likely you’ll come across problems like these. As you live them in naturally, like a native would experience them, the more you’ll get used to it and this will become a natural thing to you. Supplementary of the kanji helps too (especially for kun/on-yomi), but the best way to learn these is to use them.