Skip The Translation: How To Truly Understand Japanese

Skip The Translation: How To Truly Understand Japanese

Students in their early days of taking Japanese classes in Singapore will undoubtedly make quick progress to the point that they can understand simple sentences in a matter of days or weeks. However, there is an important distinction to note here in that this understanding is more often than not just translating. You may ask, “Are they not the same thing?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question is no.

Understanding something is normally straightforward: we experience and learn and know whether we understand them. When learning Japanese, students expect the same level of understanding. However, because most people learn and use English most of their lives, understanding Japanese will not come naturally. This leads to an unfortunate conclusion—understanding what a Japanese sentence means in English is how you understand Japanese.

Since translating is conversion, it is entirely different from understanding something. Such a conversion does not exist within your native language, and this is the goal students must aim for when learning Japanese. This can sound confusing because English is necessary when starting Japanese, but it is only used for a specific reason: to build the foundation you need to understand Japanese. Thus, it is not meant to teach you to convert Japanese to English.

How Do You Just “Understand” Japanese?

Now, you may wonder how to review a Japanese sentence, understand it, and be sure that you got everything correct. The process is simpler than you think.

First, an automatic translation process occurs in your mind when learning simpler words and sentences; this is how your English brain works at first, and there is no point in fighting it as it is impossible to avoid. For instance, let us take the word いぬ or dog. Whenever you hear いぬ for the first few months of learning Japanese, its English equivalent will come to mind. Over time, this will no longer happen. Once you get fully immersed in Japanese-speaking situations like watching TV shows or having fast-paced conversations with natives, your brain will no longer have to translate いぬ as it is no longer efficient, and your brain dislikes being inefficient.

The Best Alternative to Translating

Whenever you encounter or read Japanese text, do not waste time rearranging it and trying to figure out the perfect English equivalent; instead, ask yourself whether the message comes across after analysing the parts of the sentence and how they are ordered in Japanese. Do you understand what the text is trying to say? If you do, there is nothing else to do, and you simply move on to the next sentence.

Of course, this is not as easy to do when reading more complex sentences with more moving parts. Nevertheless, since your goal is to understand and not translate, all you need to focus on is whether you get the parts that make up the sentence, you see the structure, and you can piece them together to understand what the text is all about.

You will not necessarily have a clear image of the sentence or explain what it means in English. Luckily, these are all unnecessary since comprehension is an internal process that needs no explanation. Only you can know whether you understand it or not.

What To Do If You Are Unsure Whether You Understand

As mentioned, you will be less confident as to whether you understand a sentence the more complicated it gets. This uncertainty stems from the fact that the answer is not there without a translation.

Understanding Japanese requires learning how understanding this new language feels like. Since you have never understood Japanese, you will certainly be clueless about what it means to understand it now. There is nothing to compare it against if there are no translations. But keep in mind that translation does not verify your understanding, only that you can translate.

A good way to think of this is by looking at the differences between translating and interpreting. Translating a sentence to another language simply requires finding the equivalent words and components and stringing them together into a new structure without fully understanding its meaning. In contrast, interpreting goes beyond by looking at what the original sentence means in context and the nuances it may have in the original language to come up with the appropriate equivalent in the target language. Despite the result not always being exactly word-for-word, interpretation delivers the message of the original sentence in full. It avoids that “lost in translation” phenomenon that often leads to misunderstanding.

Understanding and becoming fluent in Japanese (and any other new language for that matter) requires reteaching your brain what it means to understand by repeatedly going through the process where you:

  • Understand something, but not really
  • Think you do not understand something, but you do
  • Think you understand a lot when you only understand a little
  • Think you understand a little when you actually understand a lot


The goal of every Japanese learner is to achieve what every fluent speaker has, which is the ability to read and listen to Japanese and understand it without any English being part of the equation. As such, it is vital to eliminate the translation process as soon as possible in your learning since you do not need it, and, more importantly, you will learn Japanese much faster without it.

To further accelerate your progress, consider enrolling in a Japanese lesson in Singapore today. At Japanese Explorer, we provide personalised courses taught by native Japanese teachers that ensure you get the effective learning you need to achieve your desired fluency.

For more details about our courses and scheduling, don’t hesitate to contact us anytime!


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