Let’s indulge ourselves for a bit.
Japanese learners have it rough.
We’ve got to learn multiple character sets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
We’ve got words that look reassuringly familiar but actually mean something else.
And we need to deliver perfectly timed interjections to show that we’re listening.
Not only that, Japanese people often talk about something without actually mentioning that something.
Not sure what I’m talking about?
Well, it’s a good thing that you found this post.
An Introduction to the Japanese Language’s Omission of Subjects
One of the reasons why even basic Japanese can seem so brain-meltingly incomprehensible is that sentences don’t typically use subjects. In English, the subject is always stated clearly at the beginning.
For example, while introducing yourself in English you’d probably start nearly every sentence with “I…” In Japanese, since it’s a given that you’re talking about yourself, you may not even use it once:
English Translation: “My name is Takamiya. I am from Kyushu. I work for ABC Corporation. I’m single and I have no children. I like golf, space exploration and anarchism. My favorite foods are okra, persimmon and waffles. Nice to meet you.”
As you can see, in the Japanese version, Mr. Takamiya makes no mention of himself directly. There is no “I” or “my.” Meanwhile, the English translation is slathered with them. This definitely takes some getting used to.
It’s quite simple, really. Listen to Japanese until you become more familiar with this way of speaking. You should get the hang of things after hours upon hours of listening to lovely Japanese music, language learning podcasts, and great television shows and animes.
If you’re not sure where to find all that, head on over to FluentU.
But before you do that, take a look at the following tips to expedite the process.
8 Great Tips to Infer Subjects and Improve Your Conversational Japanese
How on Earth can you get by without subjects? How do you know who people are talking about? These tips will help steer you in the right direction.
1. In Japanese, we generally don’t use subjects if it can be avoided.
If it’s clear from context who or what you’re talking about, you make no reference to it. The problem is what qualifies as “clear.” In a highly contextual language like Japanese, the subject can be very obscure and hard to figure out.
2. Consider the way we use pronouns in English.
After first introducing the subject clearly by name, you afterward refer to this subject as “he,” “she” or “it.” Just like Japanese, if you come into an English conversation late, you’ll wonder who or what the “he,” “she” or “it” is.
Luckily, there are a few ways out of the confusion of subject-less Japanese.
3. Learn how to talk about yourself in Japanese.
When there’s never any subject to begin with, the speaker is usually talking about themselves or a group that they are included in. When a person makes a simple statement in Japanese without the rising question inflection at the end, you can automatically assume that they are probably talking about themselves. Take a look at the following examples of how this rule plays out in everyday Japanese conversation:
“眠い / ねむい”
Literal translation: “Sleepy”
Actually means: “I’m sleepy.”
“ お腹がすいた / おなかがすいた”
Literal translation: “Stomach is empty”
Actually means: “My stomach is empty”
“絶対許せない / ぜったいゆるせない”
Literal translation: “Definitely not permitted”
Actual meaning: “I definitely can’t permit that”
4. Distinguish between yourself and someone else.
This is admittedly tricky to navigate. If you leave off the subject when actually talking about someone else, it can sound like you’re talking about yourself. You may mean to say, “you’re hungry” but actually end up saying, “I’m hungry.” In the case that you are making a simple statement, not a question, you should use a subject to clear up any confusion.
5. Keep track of the subject of any Japanese conversation.
As I said in the introduction, the subject is often mentioned at the beginning of a conversation, and then not referred to again unless necessary.
The は or が post-participle in Japanese indicate the topic of the conversation. Once this topic is stated, everyone’s utterances afterward refer to it until someone mentions another topic with the は or が markers.
6. Learn the secret Japanese word endings that are dependent on the subject.
Luckily for us English speakers, who suffer from an unreasonable insistence that people actually mention the things and people they’re talking about, there are grammatical markers that can be used to indicate subject without saying it directly. These are verbs you can add to the verbs at the sentence’s ending. These verbs literally mean “to give.”
The Giving Verbs
あげる – This means “to give,” but it helpful when determining subject and the direction of speech. あげる indicates giving something away from the speaker to someone else. If you give someone a present, this is the form you would use. In other words, when you attach あげる to a verb, it means you, the speaker, are doing it. It serves to add an invisible subject to the sentence. In effect, you’re saying “I.”
“お金をあげる / おかねをあげる”
“I’ll give (someone) money.”
“I gave (someone) a present.”
When you attach あげる to the end of a verb, it means not giving something to someone, but doing something for someone. Remember that the verb you attach it to will be conjugated in the “-te” form.
“電話してあげる / でんわしてあげる”
“I’ll call you.”
“次のビールを奢ってあげる / つぎのビールをおごってあげる”
“I’ll buy you the next beer.”
くれる: This is another commonly used “giving” verb that indicates the opposite direction from あげる. When you use くれる, it means someone is giving something to you, the speaker:
“(Someone) gave me a toy.”
In the same way as あげる, you can attach くれる to the “-te” form of a verb, and it means that somebody is doing something for you:
“助けてくれてありがとう / たすけてくれてありがとう”
“Thank you for helping me.”
“明日、東京スカイツリーに連れて行ってくれる / あした、とうきょうスカイツリーにつれていってくれる”
“Tomorrow, (he’s/she’s/you’re/they’re) taking me to Tokyo Sky Tree.”
This makes the other person the subject of the sentence. You’re the receiver of the action. Japanese speakers use these two verbs, あげる and くれる, at the end of sentences to indicate who is doing what for whom.
Other Ways of Giving
There are a few other giving verbs. They’re not used as often and they carry serious social connotations, so you should probably master the above two first and then move on to these:
貰う / もらう – Like くれる, this is something being given toward the speaker. It has the nuance of having something done for you.
頂く / いただく – Same as くれる and もらう but very polite. This is used often in 敬語 (けいご) , the super-polite register of Japanese used for customer service or other formal situations.
やる – This is used to indicate giving away from the speaker like あげる, but is giving much further downward. It’s used for children, people of lower social position and animals.
If you want to learn some more useful Japanese verbs, you’ll love this post.
7. Use subjects sparingly.
When I first started learning Japanese, I started nearly every sentence with 私 (わたし). Then, a very kind Japanese acquaintance told me to stop. He said it sounded like I was obsessed with myself.
In Japanese, it’s best to use subjects sparingly. Try to only use subjects when it’s absolutely necessary. Use voice inflection, giving verbs, and other devices to suggest who you’re talking about without actually referring to them directly.
8. Go ahead and ask for help.
Finally, don’t get discouraged by the confusion of subject-less sentences. I’ve heard Japanese conversations where someone interrupts the speaker and says, “Wait a minute… who’s doing this?” Feel free to jump in and ask if you find yourself getting lost along the way!
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