Master these and you can convince anyone you’re a native Japanese speaker…over the phone anyway.
For anyone who’s studied Japanese, it can be an interesting experience talking with people who are less proficient in the language. Often they’ll ask the question “Isn’t it hard to memorize so many characters just to be able to read and write?”
My usual response: “I wish that were the hardest part of learning Japanese.”
With that in mind, here’s a list of seven Japanese nuances that foreigners frequently get wrong, as chosen by one of the reporters on our Japanese sister site. Keep in mind that these aren’t mistakes that would necessarily prevent you from being understood, but rather mistakes that, if you can fix them, will make you sound more like a native speaker.
1. Differentiating between は (wa) and が (ga)
Non-native speakers often misuse wa (written は and sometimes romanized as ha) and ga. Both are particles, meaning that they come after nouns in a sentence; wa marking the conversational topic of a sentence, and ga marking the grammatical subject.
Differentiating between the loose connection of topic and comment that wa gives and the solid connection of subject and predicate that ga gives can be very difficult for non-native speakers. But just that one particle can make all the difference.
Let’s take a look at two sentences where the only difference is wa and ga. The particles are represented by flags marking the noun in the sentence.
▼ Here’s a sentence using wa, the topic marker.
Because of the loose connection between topic and comment that wa gives, this sentence has two possible meanings. The first one is straightforward: (1) “As for me, I am a fish” or simply “I am a fish.”
However, in a different context, such as giving your order to a waiter at a restaurant, it could mean: (2) “I’ll have fish” or “As for me, fish.” The topic and the comment are loosely connected by the wa, so the meaning depends on the context.
▼ Now let’s look at the same sentence but with ga, the subject marker.
In this sentence, watashi (“I”) is the grammatical subject marked by ga, so the meaning of the sentence is “I am a fish.” There’s no loose connection between topic and comment, just the solid connection between subject and predicate. If you were to say this one to your waiter, you’d probably get some strange looks.
One more note: ga can be used to zero in on the subject and exclude other possibilities. For example, if you were a fish, then you would introduce yourself using the standard Watashi wa sakana desu (“As for me, I am a fish”). However, if you spotted someone wearing a fish-suit and wanted to declare that you, not the imposter, were a fish, then you would say Watashi ga sakaka desu (I, not you or anyone else, am a fish).
With so many nuances and rules, making some wa and ga mistakes is inevitable. So don’t worry and just speak! It will take some practice and probably a few strange looks, but eventually your brain will sort it all out.
2. Honorific language
Almost every language has ways of talking more politely to people you want to show respect to. French has vous vs. tu, Chinese has nin vs. ni, and even in English you’d say “May I use the bathroom?” to your teacher instead of the more casual “I gotta take a crap.”
However in Japanese it’s taken a step further. Rather than just switching around some words or using new expressions (which can also be done, of course), Japanese verbs conjugate into polite/honorific/humble forms. It’s almost as if rules dictated that you had to say “I eat fish” with your friends, “I thou-eat fish” with your boss, and “I forsooth-thou-eat fish” with the president.
The good news: the verb conjugations into the polite/honorific/humble forms aren’t that difficult. In fact, most people learn the polite desu/masu form first in Japanese since it’s a little easier than the casual forms.
The bad news: knowing when to use polite/honorific/humble language requires a whole new mindset. It’s easy enough to know that you should speak using polite desu/masu with your teacher or boss, but what about the more nuanced cases, like if you’ve grown close to a teacher/boss and don’t want to sound so formal, but still want to avoid being impolite? Do you speak using humble forms when meeting people for the first time, or will that come off as too distant and cold? At a business meeting, which side is supposed to speak using honorifics: the clients or the suppliers?
Thankfully, there’s more good news: even Japanese natives sometimes have difficulty keeping it all straight. Many companies give their new hires a training course in how to use honorific language properly, so if you’re ever in a position where it’s important for you to get it right, chances are someone will help you out.
Until that time comes though, just keep this in mind: if you’re talking with someone who you’d say “May I use the bathroom?” to, then stick with polite forms. If you’d say “I gotta take a crap” to them, then feel free to let loose with casual forms.
Japanese is great in that it’s (usually!) pretty easy to pronounce words. English vocabulary often feels like a bunch of random letters thrown together that can be a struggle for the tongue to get around, but in Japanese, there are only five vowels, a handful of consonants, and that’s that. They’re mostly all pronounced the same way all the time, so you can read any word and sound like a native in no time.
However, one thing that sets Japanese apart from other languages is the relative lack of intonation. Aside from the occasional pitch-accent, Japanese has no stress, no tones, and is mostly spoken in a “level” intonation. This doesn’t mean it’s spoken in monotone, just that individual words are spoken “evenly.” This can be a problem for speakers of English who are used to certain syllables in words having stress or more emphasis put on them.
For example, in the sentence we saw before, watashi wa sakana wo tabemasu (“I eat fish”), often beginning Japanese learners will pronounce it something like: waTAshi wa saKAna wo tabeMAsu, putting stress on all of the capitalized letters. This sounds very strange to native Japanese ears that are used to hearing the whole sentence spoken with the same intonation level.
To fix this, one thing I recommend is recording yourself speaking Japanese. If you have a favorite scene from a Japanese TV show or movie, try to recreate it yourself with your own voice, and record it. Listen to what you sound like compared to the original, and you may find that you’re carrying over some intonation habits from your native language that shouldn’t be there.
It can be embarrassing to listen to your own voice, but there’s no better way to improve, and you can always delete it immediately after so no one else in the world gets the honor of hearing it.
4. Differentiating between iru and aru
In English, the sentence “There are fish” could mean either “There are fish (swimming in the aquarium)” or “There are fish (on the table to eat).” In Japanese however, there is a distinction between saying “there is/are” something depending on if it’s alive or not.
For example, if you say Sakana ga aru, that would mean “There are fish (on the table to eat).” But if you say “Sakana ga iru,” that would mean “there are fish (swimming in the aquarium).” The word aru is used for inanimate objects, and iru is used for animate objects.
▼ For those who prefer a more visual representation.
The most difficult part about differentiating between aru and iru is simply not getting into the habit of using aru all the time. Most of the time you ask someone if they have something, or you’re telling them you have something, that something is non-living. Money, cars, video games, food, and more are all discussed using aru.
Since aru is used so often then, it’s easy for the Japanese learner’s brain to assume that it means “there is/are” in all circumstances and get in the habit of using it all the time. But then they might run into trouble when they say asking a Japanese person if “there are any children” in their family using aru, and the Japanese listener gives them a confused look.
Just do your best to catch yourself when you make the mistake, say the correct version out loud, and eventually using the right one will become second nature.
5. Differentiating between sono and ano
In English, we only have two words used to refer to objects at a distance: “this” and “that.” In Japanese there are three, commonly taught as: “this ___” (kono), “that ___” (sono), and “that ___ over there” (ano).
Because the three levels of distance are often taught this way, it can be easy for students to mess them up, especially sono and ano, which both essentially mean “that ___.” There’s not much difference in English between “that” and “that over there” in the first place.
However, the most common way to differentiate between sono and ano is easy: sono means “that thing near to you, the person I’m talking to,” whereas ano means “that thing far away from both of us.”
▼ That fish is near you and away from me, therefore it is sono sakana.
▼ That fish is far away from both of us, therefore it is ano sakana.
Again, probably the hardest part about this one is Japanese learners falling into the habit of just using sono or ano all the time to mean “that ___.” Just like with differentiating between aru and iru, do your best to catch yourself when you make the mistake, and then be sure to say the correct version out loud. Eventually the right one will just come out on its own.
6. The nuances of end-of-sentence particles
Just like particles can come after nouns to explain the noun’s role in a sentence, they can also come after the verb at the end as well, to give a certain “flavor” to the whole sentence. There are the obvious particles like ka that turn a sentence into a question, or ne that ends the sentence with something like “right?” or “you know?”
But then there are the not-so-obvious ones. For example, yo which highlights an assertion, (na)nda which is used for “explanatory emphasis,” or ze which makes the sentence masculine or tough-sounding.
▼ Here’s how the end-of-sentence particle can change the meaning of a sentence.
It can get a little confusing, and since there are so many sentence-ending particles, the best thing to do is to just hear them used by native speakers, then do your best to use them in the same context. You’re going to make mistakes, but if you want to achieve that delicious fish-omelet of fluency, then you’re going to have to crack a few eggs.
7. Using kare for “he” and kanojo for “she”
Japanese loves to drop subjects (and objects, and verbs, and basically anything) from sentences if it’s already obvious from the context. For example, in English we would say: “I saw Bob yesterday. He was eating fish.” But in Japanese, we could say: “Saw Bob yesterday. Eating fish.” The person who saw Bob (I/the speaker) is obvious from the outset, and we already know we’re talking about Bob in the second sentence, so there’s no need for the “he.”
But old habits die hard, so for English speakers especially, it’s tough to stop using pronouns like “I,” “you,” “he,” and “she.” And when it comes to “he” and “she” especially, there’s a special reason using the Japanese equivalents could be troublesome. In Japanese the word for “he” is kare and “she” is kanojo. Unfortunately, kare and kanojo also mean “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” respectively. So if a non-native Japanese speaker says something like: “I saw Bob yesterday. He was eating fish,” it may come out sounding like: “I saw Bob yesterday. Boyfriend was eating fish.”
What’s the best way to avoid talking to Japanese people about your boyfriend/girlfriend when you don’t mean to? Just stop using pronouns altogether. Need to talk about someone? Use their name. Need to talk about yourself? Just say what you did and don’t bother with “I.” It may sound awkward at first and it is a bit extreme, but it will help get your brain used to not using pronouns.
So there you have it, the top seven mistakes that foreigners make when speaking Japanese and some tips on how to help fix them. However, the most important tip comes at the end: when learning a language, far and away the most important thing you can do is not worry about making mistakes and just speak. Eventually the correct way to say something will just feel right, and that’s the best feeling in the world.
Still need some help with your studies? We’ve got a bunch of articles on learning Japanese, essential Japanese learning tools, and how to have fun learning Japanese. Oh, and we also have an article on learning Japanese from cats! Now you have no excuses!
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