Advanced Japanese technique: changing a thought mid-stream

By | April 18, 2023

As we learn a foreign language, we gradually improve our vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, and at the same time gain other more abstract skills that help us understand and communicate better. Often these things happen subconsciously, but you can also learn these types of skills explicitly and try to apply them to your daily language usage.

One important skill, especially in verbal communication, is being able to change what you are expressing in the middle of speaking in a natural way. 

In Japanese, a beginner might try this by using the following language:

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。車はオレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta…kuruma wa orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color…the car was an orange color.

Here the speaker is basically stopping mid-sentence and then starting over, leading to a somewhat wordy and unnatural result. Here is another option which is a little more natural, but still quite wordy.

  • 車は赤い色だった。違う。車はオレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta. Chigau. kuruma wa orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color. No. It was an orange color.

Here the speaker makes separate sentences, and negates what they just said with an explicit “chigau” (literally meaning “(it is) different”).

One more natural and efficient way to do this is say じゃなくて [ja nakute], meaning “…is not, and…”

  • 車は赤い色。。。じゃなくてオレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro…ja nakute orenji iro datta.]
  • The car [was] a red color…or not, it was an orange color.

Another good phrase is “というより” [to iu yori] that literally means “…rather than saying…”

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。というよりオレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta…to iu yori orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color…or rather was an orange color.

Notice that in both cases the “kuruma wa” is not repeated since it is obvious from context.

One more good phrase that can be used for this purpose is “というか” [to iu ka], which can also be abbreviated as っていうか (tte iu ka).

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。っていうかオレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta…tte iu ka orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color…or I should say an orange color.

Another option is to explicitly say how you thought one way but clarify that you were wrong.

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。と思ったけど、実際オレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta…to omotta kedo, jissai orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color…or so I thought, but it actually was an orange color.

Here’s yet another simple option that is useful for casual conversations:

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。いや、オレンジ色だった。 [kuruma wa akai iro datta…iya, orenji iro datta.]
  • The car was a red color…no, it was an orange color.

In order to change your mind (or correct yourself) in a natural way, it is important to have a good transition word or phrase, and try to avoid large pauses or repeating unnecessary words. Keep in mind that the English translations don’t give you a good idea of the flow since the word order is different between the two languages.

You can also be more creative with adding things at the end of a sentence to change the nuance. For example,

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。かな? [kuruma wa akai iro datta…ka na?]
  • The car was a red color…or was it?

Alternatively,

  • 車は赤い色だった。。。なんてことないよね? [kuruma wa akai iro datta…nante koto nai yo ne?]
  • The car was a red color…actually, there’s no way it was.

Also, keep in mind the above are just examples, and in practice you will want to adjust depending on when you realize you are wrong. For example if you realize you’re wrong while saying the “akai” word, you can simply and immediately follow with “ja nakute…” instead of other words that you will have to repeat anyway.

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