How does a listener know what the speaker is talking about?

I’ve done some vocabulary lessons in WaniKani and have discovered that the word for population and artificial translates to the same hiragana. It would be easy to differentiate in writing as the kanji is different… but what about speaking? How would a listener know what the speaker is talking about?

Is context important? Is the listener meant to just assume what the speaker is talking about in Japanese?

人口 / じんこう / [person] [mouth] (population)
人工 / じんこう / [person] [construction] (artificial)

I’d really appreciate some help, or just some resources online if you have any. I really wanna get over these stumps early so I don’t have to worry about little things like these.

Thank you! :heart: :heart:


The ____ of the city is decreasing.

My _____ intelligence is getting smarter.


How do you know whether an English speaker is saying “their”, “they’re” or “there”? How do you know whether they mean “too”, “to” or “two”? How do you differentiate the verb “bank” from the noun “bank”?

It’s going to be clear from context. Every language has words that sound the same, but you don’t use words in isolation. It’s tricky while you’re learning a language, but for someone reasonably fluent it’s not going to be confusing which is meant. It’s not like someone’s going to be talking about “the artificial of Tokyo” or “population sweeteners”.


Thank you both for your quick answers. :slight_smile:
Makes perfect sense. :heart:


produce = noun
Produce = verb


Maybe that’s why you chose a one syllable word.



Pitch accent - in addition to what others have said before about context being a clue. Kind of similar to what Kazzeonさん mentioned some English examples of.


Learning a foreign language is quite humbling, sometimes you get outraged at something it does, only to realize that you do the same or worse in your language :sweat_smile: (I had the same thought as you, and then realized that in my language, French, you can ask for a say that something is towers the green glass, Vers le verre vert, they are all pronounced the same. Also when my children started speaking, and they knew well what “pâtes” is (pasta), and here I went talking about the cat’s legs “pattes”, they got really confused!). So yeah, even native can get confused, but they can eventually figure it out :slight_smile:


“How is the listener supposed to know what the speaker is talking about?” is a question I ask myself all the time in all languages and all aspects of life, tbh :sob:


Usually homophones aren’t a problem in conversation, but I once read an article by an interpreter about the struggles of dealing with Japanese homophones. Since when simultaneous interpreting you have limited time to wait for additional context, etc.

For anyone interested (it’s in Japanese):


The far more likely scenario is someone will say something that isn’t confusing at all (a word that can’t be confused with any other) and you simply won’t know it.

That will happen hundreds of times for every time you’re confused by 1 homophone.


Yes, but this is of no use for distinguishing verb/noun pairs that really are pronounced the same without even a difference in accent. Demonstrating a pair which do differ by accent doesn’t cause the words which don’t have accent differences to go away, and so there remain cases where you must rely solely on context to distinguish.


I must confess, I can never remember whether the London Underground station Bank is named after the side of the river or the place where you store money. :slightly_smiling_face:

It’s the latter, says Wikipedia.


If there’s a difference in accent, that works. That’s not always going to be the case, though.

Even in Japanese, I see people mentioning pitch accent for this problem, but context is the way bigger clue honestly. There are more words pronounced こうしょう than there are pitch accent patterns, but I can’t see that leading to a lot of confusion - and I can’t see using the wrong pitch accent pattern leading to a lot of confusion either when asking a restaurant for a bridge or trying to buy some rain in the candy shop.

By which I don’t mean to say pitch accent isn’t worth learning, you’ll definitely be easier to understand and you just won’t sound as weird if you’ve got it down, as well as having yet another clue to things like word boundaries and which homophone someone’s using, but it’s not going to be the defining factor. Much like how imitating some stereotypes comes with weird stress accents but is still perfectly understandable in English.


Makes sense with what @Kazzeon stated earlier, you can’t really say that ‘the artificial of the city is decreasing’ :slight_smile:

I’ve also just now learned a new word called ‘homophone,’ thanks James! :laughing:


Afaik, these are pronounced differently :grin:


“They’re” can be enunciated, but they can all be the same too.

I suppose some dialects might also distinguish each one, but I dunno.


Depends on the accent’re

They can be pronounced differently, but often aren’t


The real secret is that nobody in Japan knows wth anyone else is saying :shushing_face:


What’s even worse, sometimes their also spelt the same :sweat_smile:


No there not! That’d be two weird! :smile:

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