What to do when you can’t understand.
When Japanese people learn English, they are taught to say, “Could you repeat that please?” or “Could you speak more slowly, please?” Consequently, when we learn Japanese, we are taught to say the same kind of things. Sounds like a good idea, but there’s just one problem: it doesn’t work.
It’s just not natural
If you think about it, when you are talking to your friends, if someone says someone that you didn’t quite catch or could understand, you don’t use those phrases. Japanese people don’t use those phrases either. Furthermore, Japanese people aren’t used to talking with non Japanese people so when someone can’t understand they often don’t know how to react. So when you ask someone to repeat something or to speak more slowly, it often has the opposite effect. It stops the conversation.
What to say
There is a way in Japanese to indicate a quote. It’s a glottal stop in front of the syllable, TE (て) (pronounced teh) Because it’s a glottal stop, you hold back your breath before pronouncing the “T”. It kind of explodes, but don’t do it too strongly. You don’t want to spit on anyone!
This way of quoting is written like this; って. The small つ (TSU) indicates a doubling of the consonant that follows. The pronunciation changes to a glottal stop. The word or phrase in question comes first and the って comes last. It’s kind of like saying, ” ____ you said?”
Here is a simple conversation.
Daisuke: さば は すき です か？(approximate pronunciation) Saba (WA) ski dess kaw?
Do you like makeral?
John: さば って？saba tteh
You said, “Saba”?
Daisuke: はい、魚です。(approximate pronunciation) hai saw kaw naw dess
Yes, it’s a fish.
Of course the conversation would go on but John could quickly, naturally and easily get at least some idea of what Daisuke was talking about.
Where the rubber meets the road
So learning those phrases aren’t a bad thing, but most of the time they will not bring about the desired result, even when talking with your Japanese friends. As I listened to Japanese people talk to each other, I picked up on this gem, and it has helped me ever since.