Are you fluent in your native language?
Before you shrug the question off with a quick “Of course,” consider this:
If you’re a native English speaker, could you handle yourself with legalese or convoluted medical terms?
Japanese spoken in Japan is no different.
If you want to become fluent in Japanese, you should consider in what situations you want to be fluent: At the gym? Shopping for clothes? Opening a bank account? In a job interview? Because no one, not even a Japanese person, is completely fluent for every conceivable situation that arises.
To become “fluent” in day-to-day situations, we need to learn some new phrases. When I first thought of moving to Japan, the only words I knew were こんにちは (hello), 三菱 (みつびし – Mitsubishi), and 任天堂 (にんてんどう – Nintendo) (Okay, that last one doesn’t really count!).
I wasn’t sure how I would be able to communicate with storeowners and bus drivers, passersby and waiters/waitresses – anyone I might need to interact with on a regular day. But I went and I learned, and now I’m here to share that knowledge with you.
I’d like to offer some of the words and phrases needed for anyone to become on-the-street fluent in Japan.
Tossing out a few “survival Japanese” words and phrases properly pronounced in the correct intonation can do wonders for communication, over poorly strung together sentences that just happen to use the right vocabulary.
We’ll begin with our basic greetings.
Greetings and Hellos
How are you?
It’s ______, isn’t it?
Small talk in Japan as in the rest of the world can be initiated by subtly commenting on everyday occurrences like the weather:
暑いですね？ (あついですね？) – It’s hot, isn’t it?
寒いですね？ (さむいですね？) – It’s cold, isn’t it?
良い天気ですね？ (いいてんきですね？) – Great weather, isn’t it?
Goodbyes are very situational in Japan. Though most are familiar with さようなら (goodbye), it’s rare to hear that outside of long goodbyes, for which one party may not see the other for months or years. Katakana English has even infiltrated casual goodbyes, with many women using バイバイ (ばいばい – bye-bye) amongst their friends.
I used most of the following for casual and formal situations, respectively:
Casual goodbyes (among friends, family)
Formal goodbyes (among coworkers)
Thank you for a hard day’s work
Excuse me for leaving before you
お先に失礼します (おさきに しつれいします)
I’m going out
Please come back safely
Goodbye (i.e. I won’t see you for a long time)
Asking for Something
Even the most inept language learner will probably peruse a Japanese phrasebook for a few days in the country and discover quickly that ください (please) is an easy word to pronounce for requests. I’m not against using this “please” at all; on the contrary, it’s a necessary part of the Japanese language and commonly spoken by locals.
However, it requires more than simply one word to ask for something specific. Although the Lawson convenience store worker might take it in stride if you were to simply respond to his query to heat up your bento box with “ください,” and if you were to ask for one pastry by pointing and saying “ください,” you might be understood, but you would definitely be mistaken for a non-native speaker. Consider the following:
Please speak slowly.
一つください (ひとつ ください。)
As an alternative, you can use:
Please (perform this action)
May I take your order? / A coffee, please.
ご注文はお決まりですか？ (ごちゅうもんは おきまりですか？) / コーヒー、お願いします。(こーひー、おねがいします。)
Is a coffee, ok? / Please.
コーヒーでいいですか？(こーひーでいいですか？) / お願いします。(おねがいします。)
This can be used on its own as a request for both actions and objects without necessarily requiring a verb or noun for clarification.
If you’re simply trying to get attention, you can use the following:
This is a polite way of calling someone over (and, in this writer’s opinion, much better than the “you, you, you!” we hear in Southeast Asia).
With the transaction completed, should you just say your goodbyes? Of course not. There are probably chapters upon chapters in any language textbook about the proper way to say “thank you,” but a few phrases will do for new learners:
Thank you (casual)
Thank you (formal)
Thank you very much (formal)
We’ve previously summarized aizuchi (相づち, あいづち – back-channeling), the words and sounds necessary to show that one is listening to Japanese conversation. What I would like to expand upon is how useful these phrases are, even if you can’t understand what you’re listening to.
I’ve been able to get through entire conversations over the phone using:
Hello (when answering a call)
Yes (also said to show you’re listening)
Although this doesn’t make it any easier to understand what’s going on, putting native speakers at ease by making them believe you understand provides solid listening practice and opportunities to practice your 相づち.
1. If you’re asked a question, cock your head to the side and suck air through your teeth.
2. It’s perfectly alright to interrupt people mid-sentence with へー？(oh?) or うそ！(no kidding!)
相づち accounts for a huge percentage of Japanese spoken in public.
On the Street
Where is the _____?
… train station?
How much is this?
What time is it?
Cheers! (for making toasts)
What is this/that?
これは何ですか？ (これはなんですか？), when referring to something close to you
それは何ですか？ (それはなんですか？), when referring to something close to the listener
あれは何ですか？ (あれはなんですか？), when referring to something far away from speaker and listener
In Japan, nothing is said in response to someone sneezing or coughing, with the possible exception of:
お大事に (おだいじに), i.e. I hope you feel better
However, there is no equivalent to “God bless you” when you may hear someone sneeze in public, even between friends. In fact, with face masks prevalent among sick people going to work, you may even notice sneezers avoiding people’s eyes to not draw attention to themselves. Although sneezing is considered a necessary disturbance, blowing one’s nose is extremely coarse.
While it could take a lifetime to become fluent in Japanese for every situation (even for a native speaker!), these phrases should help you get through your basic, everyday situations in Japan. Good luck!
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