- 1) Stop using ‘watashi wa’ (私は) right now.
- 2) Stop saying anata (あなた) too.
- 3) Learn the neutral forms of verbs and use them in casual conversation
- 4) Un (うん), ee? (ええ？): aizuchi is key
- 5) Sou desu ne (そうですね) / Sou desu ka （そうですか） / Sou nan desu ka（そうなんですか)
- 6) Tashika ni (確かに) and yappari (やっぱり)
- 7) Use -yo (～よ) and other emphasis particles
- 8) E- to (えーと)
- 9)Nanka (なんか)
- 10) In casual conversation, use contractions
1) Stop using ‘watashi wa’ (私は) right now.
This is the most surprising fact for Japanese language learners, but also the biggest clue that will immediately tell your Japanese counterparts that you are still a beginner in the language. As you may have heard before, the Japanese language is highly contextual, which means that any element that can be implied by the context will be erased from the conversation.
Japanese people will not say watashi wa (私は) unless the context is unclear enough to wonder who you are talking about.
Let’s say you would like to say ‘I am from the USA’. You have probably learnt to say:
私はアメリカ人です。 Watashi wa amerikajin desu.
Instead, just say:
アメリカ人です。 Amerikajin desu.
If you would like to say you like apples, don’t say:
私はりんごが好きです。 Watashi wa ringo ga suki desu.
りんごが好きです。 Ringo ga suki desu.
By the way, if you are a man, you will also probably want to change the pronoun watashi (私) for one of the two most commonly used by men: boku (僕) or ore (俺). Watashi is fine in a situation when you need to be polite, like in business, but in a casual conversation it will sound too polite or even feminine.
To sum up roughly, boku is a pronoun used by males, but is still a bit polite and more on the soft side, while ore is a more relaxed, manly kind of pronoun (never use this one in business situations).
Choose according to your character or where you live in Japan (usage of one or the other may vary depending on the location, and local pronouns may also appear. When I was living in Kyushu, many girls used ‘uchi’ instead of ‘watashi’).
2) Stop saying anata (あなた) too.
The same rule applies to anata wa (あなたは), anata ga（あなたが, anata no（あなたの）…etc. In the case of anata wa, if the context allows it, just drop it, like for watashi wa.
For Japanese people, being told anata actually sounds kind of rough! If you really need to say ‘you’, it’s better to address the other person by their name.
This can feel a little bit strange at first, like you’re talking to them as if they were a third person, but you’ll get used to it quickly.
If you want to ask Mister Tanaka where he lives, don’t say:
あなたはどこに住んでいますか？ Anata wa doko ni sundeimasu ka ?
But say :
田中さんはどこに住んでいますか？ Tanaka-san wa doko ni sundeimasu ka?
どこに住んでいますか？ Doko ni sundeimasu ka?
If you watch Japanese TV series or anime, you surely have heard the pronouns omae (お前) or kimi（君）. I’d advise to never use omae, unless you are REALLY good friends enough to joke around teasing your Japanese friend, or you are REALLY angry at someone.
And unless you’re speaking to a child less than 10-years old, I don’t recommend using kimi or you’ll sound like extremely patronizing.
3) Learn the neutral forms of verbs and use them in casual conversation
Another giveaway that you are still a beginner at Japanese conversation is the usage of the desu, masu (～です、～ます) forms in all contexts.
A Japanese friend once told me ‘It’s a bit amusing how many foreigners can only talk using desu, -masu. You’re having a casual conversation and they sound so polite. I guess that’s how they’re taught in school.”
Many textbooks will get you to talk in the desu, -masu form and will present it as the middle-polite form you can’t go wrong with. It is true, but when you’ll start making friends, especially among young people, using the desu, -masu form will sound too formal. So make sure to remember the neutral -ru (～る) forms of verbs and use them as soon as possible in the appropriate social settings. This casual way of speaking is called tameguchi (ため口) in Japanese. Just in case, avoid using it with people older than you until they tell you it’s okay.
So, to tell your friend you’re watching a movie, don’t say:
映画を見ています Eiga o miteimasu
映画を見ている Eiga o miteiru
4) Un (うん), ee? (ええ？): aizuchi is key
In most Western cultures, keeping eye contact and nodding during conversation are signs you send your counterpart to show them that you are listening to what they are saying. In Japanese culture, keeping eye contact for too long is seen as intrusive. You’ll notice how people will sometimes look on the side or somewhere else while they’re talking to you. In this context, Japanese people use something called aizuchi (相槌), that is, making sounds and expressing various reactions to show you they are listening carefully. Even when you speak English with a Japanese person, they tend to use aizuchi out of habit, which can be a little disturbing at first.
In casual conversation, the main aizuchi is un (うん) in Japanese, which also means ‘yes’. In business settings, you should rather use hai (はい).
Another common aizuchi is ee (ええ), to express surprise to what the other person is saying. The longer and louder the ‘eeeeeeee’, the more surprised you are. Just turn on any entertainment show on TV and you’ll hear the audience going ‘EEEEEEEE’ all the time as if life was a constant source of astonishment.
5) Sou desu ne (そうですね) / Sou desu ka （そうですか） / Sou nan desu ka（そうなんですか)
I’m cheating a bit here, as these four expressions are also aizuchi, but are part of the necessary tool kit to survive any Japanese conversation.
Chances are you are already familiar with sou desu ne (そうですね). which is used to show agreement with what the other person is saying. Its casual form is sou dane (そうだね).
Sou desu ka (そうですか？), is like the interrogative form of the expression above. It’s used to acknowledge something you didn’t know. It can be roughly translated as ‘Really?”. Just be careful to pronounce it with a falling tone at the end of the sentence. If you pronounce it with a rising tone, it will sound like you are highly doubting what you are told. The casual form of this expression is sou nano? (そうなの？) or sou?（そう？）
Sou nan desu ka?/! (そうなんですか?/! ) Is pretty similar to sou desu ka? but shows more surprise. It can be used as an interrogation or an exclamation. Its casual form is Sou nanda! (そうなんだ! ) (exclamation only).
The legend says that you can keep a conversation going until the end of times using only sou desu ne and sou desu ka.
6) Tashika ni (確かに) and yappari (やっぱり)
Ok, I’m cheating again here. Tashika ni (確かに) also falls in the aizuchi category. But not only is this one more often used by intermediate speakers, it will also show that you are not merely listening to what the other person is saying: you are also thinking about what they are saying. It can be translated as ‘that’s true’, ‘right’ or ‘good point’.
-クラスの中では、まいちゃんが一番可愛い。 Kurasu no naka de wa, mai-chan ga ichiban kawaii In our class, Mai-chan is the prettiest. -確かに。 Tashika ni. That’s true.
Yappari (やっぱり) is used to express you got further confirmation for something you already knew. It can be used when you are telling someone something, but it can also be used as aizuchi too.
隣のラーメン屋に行ったけどやっぱり閉まっていた。 Tonari no raamenya ni itta kedo yappari shimatteita. I went to the ramen restaurant next door but as I thought it was closed.
まいちゃんはやっぱりきれいだなー。 Mai-chan wa yappari kirei da naa. Mai-chan definitely is beautiful.
- 俺はまいちゃんに恋している。 Ore wa Mai-chan ni koi shiteiru. I’m in love with Mai-chan. - やっぱり！ -Yappari ! I knew it!
7) Use -yo (～よ) and other emphasis particles
-yo (～よ) is a small particle put at the end of sentences that cannot really be translated in English. It’s generally understood as putting emphasis on what you are saying, but depending on context, it can also soften it. For example, in casual conversation, I would recommend to replace desu (です) by dayo (だよ) instead of da (だ) da alone, which can sound a little rough. Sometimes using -yo will just make you more lively or friendly. It’s hard to explain with logic when to use or not use it, there is a kind of ‘feeling’ for it to develop. Listening to how people use it around you will give you some clues.
Depending on the area of Japan where you live, -yo can be replaced by other particles. People in Kansai (who speak Kansai-ben) prefer to use -wa (～わ) or de (～で). In some parts of Kyushu people use ken（～けん）.
Ne (ね) is another ‘classic’ particle used at the end of sentences to suggest the other person agrees or will agree with you. But you already knew about this one, ne?
8) E- to (えーと)
If you’re watching Japanese anime or dramas (TV series) you’ve probably already heard this one. E-to（えーと） is used at the beginning of a sentence to gain some time to think before responding, like ‘err’ in English. But be careful not to overuse it.
If someone is asking you a difficult question, you can use the combo sou desu ne (to show that this is indeed a very good question) followed by e-to.
- 田中さん、給料を上げてもらってもいいですか？ Tanaka-san, kyuuryou o agete morattemo ii desu ka? Tanaka-san, could you raise my salary? - そうですね・・・えーと・・・ Sou desu ne… e-to...
Nanka (なんか) , derived from nanika (何か) which means ‘something’, doesn’t mean much in itself and is just there to punctuate a casual conversation, similar to ‘like’ in English. Be careful not to use it too much or you’ll end up sounding like a not very bright teenager.
まいちゃんはなんか、きれいすぎて、俺はいつもなんか、照れているんだ。 Mai-chan wa nanka, kireisugite, ore wa itsumo nanka, tereteirunda. Mai-chan is like, too beautiful and I’m always, like, intimidated.
10) In casual conversation, use contractions
You’re going to be happy about these.
If you have learnt that in Japanese to say ‘must’ you must use -nakerebanarimasen (～なければなりません), and have trouble remembering it or pronouncing it, please note that in casual conversation, you can reduce it to -nakya (~なきゃ). No kidding.
With friends you can stop saying:
早く帰らなければなりません。 Hayaku kaeranakerebanarimasen. I must go home quickly.
早く帰らなきゃ。 Hayaku kaeranakya (often pronouced ‘kaennakya’). I must go home quickly.
The same goes with the -teshimaimashita (～てしまいました ) form, which expresses regret or the fact you cannot undo what has been done. In casual conversation, you can reduce it to -chatta (～ちゃった).
Instead of confessing:
チョコを全部食べてしまいました。 Choko wo zembu tabete shimaimashita. I’ve eaten all the chocolates.
チョコを全部食べちゃった。 Choko wo zembu tabechatta. I’ve eaten all the chocolates.