I had made—yet another—social blunder.
Our conversation had started normally enough.
My friend greeted me with a “Hey, Niko! What’s up?”
This is where the normality stopped, and everything went downhill as I offered a stiff, “I’m doing fine, thank you. How are you?”
I watched in horror as my friend stiffened, then tried to brush away the awkwardness I had created with a quick, “I’m good.”
This was a line pulled straight from my “Survival Phrases in Japanese” travel book, which sounded way too formal and made it seem like I was putting distance between my friend and I.
Japanese learners might find themselves unwittingly making the same social gaffe during a conversation.
But this is no reason to shy away from a conversation!
By following the five steps below, you can ease your way into conversation, and save yourself some embarrassment by knowing how to talk, listen and respond like a human being.
To reinforce your learning, we highly recommend that you seek a language exchange partner or a professional Japanese tutor who you can try out these tricks on. Then you’ll get feedback on your usage of conversational Japanese! The professional tutor is perhaps the better option, because that person will be totally dedicated to listening, picking up on mistakes and properly teaching you the correct way to do things.
If that sounds interesting, stop by Verbling after reading up on the following conversational Japanese tricks. You’ll be able to search through hundreds of professional tutors and find the perfect one to chat with you online.
5 Easy Tricks to Learn Conversational Japanese for Human Beings
1. Drop Pronouns
The English language loves pronouns. Our sentences are filled with I, me, you, their, and any other form of address we can squeeze in.
Just the opposite can be said for Japanese; often times, pronouns are omitted altogether if the subject can be inferred. In other words, if the subject is clearly yourself or the person you’re talking to, then it’s more natural-sounding if you drop pronouns like “I” or “you.”
お腹が空いたよ！お昼にしようね。（おなかが すいたよ！おひるに しようね。）
I’m so hungry! Let’s have lunch.
(Literally: Stomach is empty! Do lunch, okay?)
お店に行くの？コーヒー買って来てくれない？（おみせに いくの？こーひー かってきてくれない？）
Are you going to the store? Can you get me a coffee?
(Literally: Store going to? Can please buy coffee for me?)
Note how there aren’t any pronouns (like 私/わたし – I, me) in the example above. Although you should avoid overusing pronouns to sound more natural, there will be times where you might feel confused about who or what someone’s referring to. This actually happens a lot in conversation, so feel free to ask for clarification:
A: Did (you) eat breakfast?
A: (He/She’s) too strict.
B: You mean (our) teacher?
A: No, the principal.
2. Interrupt Everyone
The second way to sound more natural in a conversation is to forget what you’ve been taught about how rude interrupting someone can be.
Interjecting an “Uh-huh,” or gasped, “No way!” ensures that you’re appearing attentive and interested in what someone has to say—even if they’re recapping that episode of Sailor Moon. Word-for-word. Again.
A typical conversation might go like:
(イタリアンレストランで しょくじをしてから「うん」えいがをみたの。いいひとだから「うん」、にちようびに こーひーでも のみにいかないって さそったの「いいね」。)
We had dinner, and then we caught a movie [uh-huh]. He’s a nice guy [uh-huh] so I invited him for coffee on Sunday [sounds great].
You get the point.
The “art of interruption” is called 相槌 (あいづち – giving responses). When you don’t use aizuchi while conversing, the other party will think you’re disinterested in what they have to say. If you’re constantly being asked, “Are you listening to me?” in a conversation (despite your polite nodding and eye contact), then make sure you give aizuchi a try. Mastering aizuchi will guarantee you have a smoother, more fluent-sounding conversation!
Some more quick, aizuchi-like interjections that you can use are いいね (it’s good), でしょう (isn’t it?), あのね (you know), 気の毒 (きのどく – what a pity) and 信じられない (しんじられない – unbelievable).
On Facebook, いいね is used to say, “like!”
Depending on your tone, pronunciation and the situation, いいね can have multiple connotations. If you say it with enthusiasm and cheer, いいね sounds like, “That’s great!” If you were to sigh いいね instead, the meaning would sound more like, “It must be great…”
A: He said, “Can I call you again?”
B: That’s great, isn’t it!
A: さとみちゃんは私の携帯を借りておきながら、家に忘れて来ちゃったのよ！おまけに… （さともちゃんは わたしのけいたいをかりておきながら、うちにわすれてきちゃったのよ！おまけに…）
A: Satomi borrowed my cell phone and then left it at home! On top of that…
B: That’s nice…
A: 彼女、また海外に行ってるの？この間ヨーロッパへ行ったばかりじゃない。（かのじょ、またかいがいに いってるの？このあいだ よーろっぱへ いったばかりじゃない。）
A: She’s traveling overseas again? She just got back from Europe, didn’t she?
B: Yeah. It must be nice (to be her).
でしょう ・ だよね
でしょう and だよね are ways to show agreement. This sounds like, “I know, right?” or, “Isn’t it?” A more masculine for of でしょう is だろう.
A: 映画は本当に感動的だった。（えいがは ほんとうに かんどうてきだった。）
B: でしょう！私もそう思う。（でしょう！わたしも そうおもう。）
A: That film was really moving.
B: Wasn’t it? I think so too!
A: これはなかなかいい曲だよね。（これは なかなか いいきょくだよね。）
A: This is a pretty good song, isn’t it?
B: Heck yeah, it is!
あのね is a way to start off a sentence. It’s similar to the English phrase, “You know.” Depending on your tone, あのね could serve as a small reminder or afterthought: “You know, now that I think about it, he was kind of rude.” Or if you’re getting angry, “You know — you’re way too ungrateful!”
Say, don’t you think Yuuki is cute?
I’m telling you, it’s not that easy.
Hey, try this cake.
You know… I wanted to buy the gold iPhone…
気の毒 (きのどく) means “that’s a pity,” and just like in English, this phrase can have different connotations depending on the tone you use. “What a pity,” “that’s too bad,” and “what a shame,” can all sound empathetic with a sincere tone in English, but can also be used sarcastically or with little sympathy—just like 気の毒 in Japanese.
That’s a pity.
I’m really sorry to hear that.
You can also use 気の毒 in an informal context as a way to say, “Too bad,” or “Tough luck.”
A: 携帯がトイレに落ちた！（けいたいが といれに おちた！）
A: My phone fell into the toilet!
B: Ha! Sucks to be you!
信じられない (しんじられない – unbelievable) is a way to express that something is beyond belief or comprehension. You can use it to express your astonishment like exclaiming, “Oh my gosh!” or even say something is too unbelievable to be true (think: the very idea of it!).
No way / Get out!
しん君から今聞いたこと、信じられないんだけど！（しんくんから いま きいたこと、しんじられないんだけど！）
You won’t believe what Shin just told me!
信じられないよ！君は私にダイエットしろって言ったのに、それが今じゃ自分はガンガン食べるってわけか！（しんじられないよ！きみはわたしに だいえっとしろっていったのに、それがいまじゃ じぶんは がんがん たべるってわけか！）
I can’t believe you! You told me to diet, and now you’re the one pigging out?
Use these interjections, and your speech with automatically sound more smooth and natural in conversation.
3. Keep it Casual with Conversational Sentence Patterns
So far, we’ve covered what not to do in a conversation (overuse pronouns and be a passive listener). Now it’s time to stop talking like a walking textbook and use real Japanese sentences and expressions.
The Backwards Sentence
A lot of Japanese textbooks will introduce their readers to the basic sentence pattern of “subject + object + verb” to construct sentences like, “私はコーヒーを飲みました（わたしはこーひーをのみました – I drank coffee).”
This kind of structure is very useful and still exists in conversational Japanese, but it’s used less outside of formal contexts. Many conversational sentences will seem “backwards” when compared to the “subject + object + verb” structure, so instead of これは何ですか（これはなんですか – (literally) this is what?) you’ll probably hear a friend say, 何これ（なにこれ – what’s this?).
There are two really convenient situations where this particular sentence structure is used:
1. To clarify a sentence, or add something as an afterthought (which is very helpful when subjects and pronouns are dropped):
行ったこと [が] ありますか？パリに。（いったこと [が] ありますか？ぱりに。）
Have you been before? To Paris.
2. To combine two sentences:
それは何（それはなに – that is what?）becomes 何それ（なにそれ – what’s that?).
Replace Words with Onomatopoeia
If you take away anything from this post, let it be onomatopoeia!
Japanese onomatopoeia are a language-learner’s secret weapon to sounding like a native speaker in a conversation. Onomatopoeia are words that are used to represent sounds (the onomatopoeia of a bird chirping is tweet tweet). Not only is onomatopoeia used to replace adjectives and emphasis verbs in daily conversation, but it’s super easy to remember.
Even if you don’t use it, you should know some common onomatopoeia like ぺこぺこ (the sound of your stomach growling), わくわく (the sound of being excited) or ニコニコ (にこにこ – the imagined sound of someone smiling broadly).
A friend or family member is likely to say お腹がぺこぺこ (おなかがぺこぺこ – My stomach’s growling) once in a while instead of お腹が空いた (おなかがすいた – I’m hungry).
In every language we tend to slur or shorten sounds in conversation. In Japanese, the “r” sound (ら、り、る、れ、ろ）often gets reduced to the ん sound. You’ve probably already heard this in dramas, movies, and even podcasts. An example of this is when 分からない (わからない – I don’t know) changes into 分かんない (わかんない):
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Another common example is してる (doing), which turns into してん:
What are you up to?
Are you still studying?
Think of this like abbreviating the words “going to” and “want to,” into “gonna” and “wanna.” It’s best not to use this speech pattern in a formal context, but it’s useful to know—especially if you need to search for a word or phrase in a dictionary.
4. Speak Like a Girl or Guy
As you learn conversational Japanese, you’ll notice that females and males tend to use distinct speech patterns. Depending where you are, female speakers will often use a polite form of a word (even in casual situations) while male speakers use plain forms of words more often. Sentence-ending particles are also used differently between genders.
You don’t have to be a specific gender to use feminine or masculine manners of speech, but it’s important to be aware of the slight differences as it will help you better understand your friends, and help you recognize any nuances in your own speech.
でしょう vs. だろう
In this case, でしょう and だろう are both used when you’re presuming something:
ひろくんの部屋は汚いだろう。（ひろくんのへやは きたないだろう。） (m)
Hiro’s room is probably messy.
ゆきちゃんは風邪引いたそうで、今夜来ないでしょう。（ゆきちゃんは かぜ ひいたそうで、こんや こないでしょう。） (f)
ゆきちゃんは体調悪いそうで、今夜来ないだろう。（ゆきちゃんは たいちょう わるいそうで、こんや こないだろう。） (m)
I heard Yuki’s sick, so she probably won’t come tonight.
As you saw earlier, you can also use でしょう and だろう to show agreement:
A: This cake is delicious!
B: Isn’t it?
A: 美味い、このケーキ！ （うまい、このけーき！）(m)
A: This cake is delicious!
B: I know right?
Since でしょう is more formal sounding, it’s considered more feminine if it’s used in casual conversation. In formal situations, however, it’s gender-neutral and can take the place of でしょうか:
How about this color?
How does three o’clock sound?
ね vs. な
The particles ね and its masculine counterpart な, serve many purposes. Their main uses are to seek agreement from the listener (as in “right?” or “isn’t it?”), to make a statement or request sound softer, or to get someone’s attention (like “hey”).
The particle ね can be used by both genders. It does have a gentle ring to it, so it’ll make your speech sound softer (thus, it’ll sounds more feminine at times). If you’re asking for a favor, or making a request then go ahead and use ね:
Please wait here.
Say hello to Tom for me.
Amongst friends, guys may use な and だろう in place of ね:
It’s hot today (isn’t it).
The “の” misconception
The particle の serves many purposes. Aside from being a possessive particle, の can be placed at the end of a sentence to create a question or to give an explanation. It’s a common misconception that when の is placed at the end of a sentence, it sounds feminine. It can at times, but males use this sentence structure often enough! The particle の is gender-neutral when you are asking a question and expecting an explanation. For example:
A: You’re buying that?
B: It’s cute, isn’t it? (I’m buying it because it’s cute.)
B: 朝ご飯を食べなかったの。（あさごはんを たべなかったの。)
A: You’re eating?
B: I didn’t have breakfast. (I’m eating because I didn’t have breakfast,)
The particle の becomes more feminine when it’s used to ask/answer questions that don’t call for explanation, or when making a statement:
このかばんは高かったの。（このかばんは たっかたの。) (f)
This purse was expensive.
It can also be feminine when you combine の with other sentence-ending particles:
He’s pretty annoying, isn’t he?
You said it!
5. Learn to Embrace Slang
Personally, I tend to shy away from the term “slang.” I hear “slang” and think “street terms,” or “language-I-should-only-use-with-really-close-friends.”
Unfortunately, doing this can be detrimental if you’re trying to make “really close friends.” This is because using formal speech can distance yourself from close colleagues, friends, and even host families. If someone is trying to have an intimate or friendly conversation with you, then replying to them in a formal manner can sound impersonal. You can use the following two dialogues as an example:
A: Hey, what’s up?
B: I’m very well, thank you. And yourself?
A: Hey, what’s up?
B: Nothing much. You?
It’s the same in emails or text messages. What message would you expect from a friend:
Would you like to get lunch with me at noon?
Wanna grab a bite later?
Which conversation sounds more friendly and intimate? In other words, which conversation makes the speaker sound more fluent?
The point is that by adopting speech habits, using conversational speech patterns and natural interjections, and embracing a few conversational (slangy) terms, we can make ourselves sound much more friendly and natural in a conversation.
Remember, your friends, family and that vendor down the street will all forgive you if you make a few mistakes during a conversation. The most important thing is to talk, keep talking, and talk some more!
習うより慣れろだよ。 (ならうより なれろ だよ。) Practice is the best teacher!
And One More Thing…
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