The Japanese language is a great language to learn, especially for those who love Japanese art and culture. But it can be particularly difficult for native English speakers. Do you ever question how polite or casual you should be when conversing in Japanese with your friends? Or are you worried that you might unknowingly use rude/bad words that can be perceived as offensive to Japanese speakers? Let's find out how you can improve your Japanese skills to the next level by learning various Japanese speech styles.
This article is part of our extensive series on Learning About Japan through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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What is ‘bad’ Japanese?
“ばか (Baka)”, “ちくしょう (Chikusyo)”, “くそ (Kuso)”, “死ねえ (Shine)”. You've probably heard one of these phrases if you've watched anime, Japanese films, or dramas. In every language, there are some terms that you should use with extreme caution. Japanese is no exception. The vast differences in Japanese lettering, accents, and culture may cause greater confusion than usual for many English learners.
Japan is known for its formality and politeness, and the Japanese people have established a reputation for having outstanding manners. They take great care to ensure that social peace is preserved, therefore they avoid doing anything that may potentially upset it or lead someone to lose face. Even the small things, such as how to stand on the train or how to dispose of trash, seems to have its own set of rules. Did you know that there are different ways in Japanese to speak to your friends and to your bosses? These aspects might not appear (or be entirely clear) in the Japanese media that you have consumed. However, if you're serious about learning this language, you would want to avoid using bad Japanese when interacting with native speakers.
Am I using bad Japanese? Will Japanese people tell me if I am?
As a newcomer to the Japanese language, you might wonder whether you have been using bad Japanese phrases you learn from anime carelessly, or if you have impolitely addressed other people. Well, it is never too late to learn the good and polite way to talk in Japanese!
Luckily, if you are not Japanese, you are not required to fully comprehend how polite and formal Japanese works. When you're unsure of what to say or do, this ‘foreigner pass’ could come in rescue. However, understanding the basics of Japanese politeness will definitely earn you points with your Japanese friends and colleagues.
Avoiding bad Japanese: Politeness and formality
The grammar of the Japanese language is structured so that there are multiple levels of formality built in. Japanese speakers alter their language to show the appropriate degree of respect for their conversational partner depending on their connection with them. Knowing when and to whom to speak Keigo (敬語, respectful language) in Japan is essential for both social and professional reasons, given the country's well-deserved reputation for respect and formality.
The formality of English sentences can be enhanced by the use of certain words and the lengthening of the phrases. But unlike languages without particular registers of formality, Japanese language uses different verb forms depending on the amount of politeness the occasion requires. Using formal language in a first introduction can reveal a lot of information about yourself, which will either show a positive impression or an unforgivable mistake!
The 3 levels of formality in Japanese
There are three primary types of formal Japanese: Teineigo (丁寧語, polite language), Sonkeigo (尊敬語, honorific language) and Kenjougo (謙譲語, humble language). Depending on the situation and the statuses of those involved, the type of formal form you use will also be different.
- You can use Teineigo for everyday interactions with strangers.
- When speaking to a teacher or a boss, Sonkeigo can be used for showing respect.
- If you’re talking about yourself, Kenjougo will show respect to the recipient of your actions, making you sound modest.
Factors influencing formality
Every culture has its own set of expectations on how to behave properly, and Japan is no exception. So, what is the role of politeness in Japanese society?
Social hierarchy or rank
First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind the concept of social hierarchy, or social rank, at all times. How you speak to someone depends on where you are in your relationship with them. In this context, parents are ranked higher than children, teachers are higher than pupils, bosses are higher than employees, and elderly are higher than younger people.
When Japanese people communicate with one another, they consider the other person's rank and alter their words accordingly. Consider the following example, you wouldn't speak to your teacher the same way you would to your younger sister. Additionally, for business clients, strangers, and those of a higher social status, there are different types of formal language to choose from. Once you've built a rapport with your client, you can use more casual language, but only after you've demonstrated respect.
These are some of the examples of the differences in social rank between people that you should keep in mind when speaking in Japanese.
If both speakers have equal rank, such as between two friends or two strangers, degree of familiarity determines speech style.
How close and familiar you are with the other person also plays a part in politeness. While strangers use more formal language, family members tend to communicate more casually with each other. When you're around good friends, you may drop the formalities and let loose with the slang. Want to know more about Japanese slang? Check out our Top 40 Japanese Slang to Know.
What is the difference between casual Japanese and bad Japanese?
Casual Japanese, often known as くだけた (Kudeketa) Japanese, is the language you speak in casual or informal situation, such as with friends, relatives, or people younger than you. In their shorter conjugation forms, Kudeketa uses the base form of verbs.
When you tell your close friend about what you did on the weekend, you can say:
“I went shopping at the mall."
|Regular Polite||Casual Japanese|
Mooru de kaimonoshi ni ikimashita.
Mooru de kaimonoshi ni itta.
Japanese casual forms are not often taught until later on in classroom lessons. However, you'll come across them just as frequently as formal forms. Casual Japanese does not equal bad Japanese when you use it appropriately. Casual forms are used in comics, social media, and even certain advertisements. Being able to converse with people on a more intimate level is essential to being fluent in Japanese, thus learning casual form is essential.
Best time to use casual/informal Japanese
Knowing when it is and is not appropriate to use casual form in Japanese is critical to communicating effectively while also avoiding using bad Japanese. Casual Japanese is suitable for communicating with friends, family, and children. Always remember that elders and those of greater position are still treated with more respect.
Ultra-formal Japanese or Keigo: What is it? How and when should I use it?
Keigo (敬語) is written with the kanji “to respect / admire” and the kanji for “language”. Keigo is a super polite form of Japanese used to either express respect or humility. Using Keigo is a way of expressing your consideration and respect for a person older than you and who holds a different job or has more experience in a company than you. Your speech will change according to who you are speaking to and what you're referring to.
Learners can get a sense of Japan's culture of respect and honor through this unique and beautiful element of the language. It's a unique and lovely component of the language that teaches students about Japan's honor and respect culture. At first glance, you might conclude that keigo is of little benefit to you. There's a good chance you are thinking, "I'll never use this." You'd be completely wrong. As a tourist or resident in Japan, you're likely to encounter keigo in practically every public interaction. Whether it's said by the cashier at the restaurant when you pay for your meal or by the computerized voice of the cash machine when you take money from the ATM, keigo is a phrase you'll quickly become accustomed to.
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Teineigo (丁寧語: showing politeness)
How to use it
Teineigo is a Japanese word that refers to the concept of politeness. Not only are the verbs changed, but nouns and other parts of speech are sometimes adjusted to be more polite when speaking in keigo. Teineigo is considered the easiest of the three types of keigo and is also regarded to be less daunting because it is technically part of learning the fundamentals. Using "desu" and "masu" at the end of your sentences is an example of teineigo.
|To come||来る (くる)
When to use it
You might hear a store clerk asking you to wait for some time:
“Please wait a little.”
Syosyo omachi kudasai.
Before asking your employer or boss something, you can ask:
“Is now a good time?”
Ima, yoroshii desu ka?
Sonkeigo (尊敬語: showing respect)
How to use it
Sonkeigo is the language form used to express respect for others. Only when speaking about someone with a greater social position than yourself do you conjugate verbs into sonkeigo. This includes people older than yourself, your superiors at work, etc. That is why you would never use sonkeigo when referring to yourself, someone close to you, or a member of your family.
|To go||行きます (いきます)
|To eat||食べます (たべます)
Meshi agatte kudasai
|To eat||飲みます (のみます)
Meshi agatte kudasai
When to use it
If you need to ask whether your teacher is present or not, you can say:
“Excuse me, is Mr. Yamada here?”
Yamada sensei wa irasshaimasu ka?
At your work, when you bring some treats to share to your colleagues, you can say say:
“Please go ahead and eat them.”
Douzo, meshi agatte kudasai.
Kenjougo (謙譲語: showing respect by humbling yourself)
How to use it
Kenjougo is the language used to express humility when speaking about yourself. Only use kenjougo when speaking about yourself or others in your "inner circle," such as close family or friends. Obviously, you wouldn't use kenjougo if you were talking about someone else, especially if they were in a higher social position than you.
|To go||行きます (いきます)
|To eat||食べます (たべます)
|To eat||飲みます (のみます)
When to use it
During an interview, when a potential employer asks you when you came to Japan, you can answer:
“I came in June of this year.”
Kotoshi no roku gatsu ni mairimasu.
If you are doing a presentation and need to introduce yourself, here is what you can say:
“I am Maria”
Watashi Maria to moushimasu.
Importance of learning keigo
In the Japanese language, honorifics have a significant role. They describe underlying power dynamics and assist the speaker in expressing deference to the listener without being explicit. Every day in Japan, from store clerks addressing customers to employees conversing with their supervisor, the polite form is used. You don’t want to offend other people unknowingly by using rude or bad words.
Therefore, mastering keigo is critical for anyone, not limited to people hoping to work in Japan. In the eyes of employers, foreigners who can correctly use keigo can be considered more desirable. However, it would also be a great learning experience for those who are looking for ways to establish better relationships with native speakers or simply trying to improve their language skills.
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7 Tips to master different Japanese speech patterns
1. Find opportunities to talk in casual form with your Japanese friends
The most common type of communication used by Japanese people is the casual form, as it is used most frequently among family and friends. If you have made acquaintances with native speakers, it will not be long until you can practice using casual form with them. If you are unsure whether you can drop the formalities, simply match their speech patterns instead of directly using casual form. If you're looking for Japanese individuals to practice your casual speech style, you can also use an app to do it. HelloTalk and Hinative are two of the most popular apps used for language exchange with Japanese people. Here's some Top 15 Tips to Make Japanese Friends and Top 15 Japanese Conversation Tips to help your journey along the way.
2. Take Japanese lessons that focus on communication
So, you want to learn Japanese, but you’re one of those people who need a little push first before diving into self-study? Don’t worry! nowadays there are many Japanese language schools that are available online. If you’re looking for more affordable options, definitely check out Japan Switch! We offer both private and group lessons that enable students to accomplish their language goals. Moreover, the teachers at Japan Switch are native Japanese speakers, allowing you to learn and speak in a natural way.
3. Do a part-time job and learn to use polite form of Japanese
If you treat your part-time job as an immersive learning tool, you’ll definitely improve your written Japanese as well as your keigo. Depending on the job, some roles might require you to talk in polite or honorific form. Roles in services such as waiter/waitress, receptionist, and cashier have to constantly interact with the customers in a respectful manner. Therefore, if you want to learn keigo while earning money at the same time, you can try these part-time jobs!
4. Use proper keigo when sending email to your superiors or clients
There are a number of distinct rules when it comes to composing business emails in Japan. If you do not stick to them, you risk making a negative impression on the recipient from the very first sentence. So, when you are crafting written correspondence such as email with superiors or clients, using keigo or honorific form is a must.
It's important, however, not to confuse sonkeigo and kenjougo. Kenjougo elevates the recipient, whilst the sonkeigo incorporates humble terms used when speaking about oneself or one's group. You must be very careful not to mix them up, as doing so may give the impression that you are looking down on the recipient of the email.
5. Read from various resources
While it is more challenging to learn Japanese solely from a textbook, it is not impossible! There are many textbooks and online resources that can help you learn various speech patterns. Japanese textbooks like Genki, Minna no Nihongo, Nihongo Fun & Easy, and Tobira provide brief explanations regarding various Japanese speech styles. Furthermore, you are always one search away from finding informative sources on the internet. However, if you want to focus more on learning keigo, you can try reading 新・にほんご敬語トレーニング and 敬語の正しい使い方. These are high-rated books for Japanese on how to use keigo that take you through lessons in a chapter-based format and provide clear guide-like explanations.
6. Have fun learning by doing quizzes and using flashcards
Flashcards can be used to learn almost anything. They are, of course, fantastic for learning and retaining new words. You may not have known, but you could use flashcards to help you learn conjugation as well or even assist you in studying a new grammar point you're attempting to master! Furthermore, with the availability of digital flashcards, you can basically learn anywhere and anytime from the tip of your finger. Anki is an incredibly popular flashcard app among language learners. On top of the countless decks available to download, you can also create your own deck and maximize your studies.
7. Immerse yourself in Japanese by watching anime and drama
Language learning relies on periodic repetition, and TV shows are ideal for this. The same words and lines keep popping up again and over again. Hearing the same sounds repeatedly will allow you to become acclimated to the pronunciation and speed of a few different people over the course of a few weeks.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself is to revisit your old favorites paired with pen and paper. Of course, just watching anime isn’t going to work wonders for your Nihongo. It’s all about active watching. In other words, watch a show with the intention of learning. Try to distinguish the casual and formal speech style in the dialogue in each episode. Notice the context and try to mimic how the characters speak naturally. You can also note the bad Japanese phrases to avoid using. If you make an effort to learn different Japanese speech styles, you’ll be able to apply it properly the next time you are in conversation.
Keep going, keep learning!
It is clear to see that Japanese formality has numerous layers to it. There are several factors that influence how you speak in Japanese, including the situation, the status of the people you're speaking with, and many more.
While politeness and formality in the Japanese language can be intimidating, it becomes a lot easier to study once you break down the different aspects of it. Additionally, as a foreigner, you will receive a break on minor details. You won't be expected to know exactly how to bow to the manager of a branch business in Japan. Trial and error in using various speech styles will be beneficial to you! When the occasion arises, don't be afraid to apply the knowledge you learn and avoid using bad Japanese!
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