Knowing a language well means being able to use it effectively to communicate. This is even more true for a language as peculiar as Japanese.
In fact, knowing the translation of individual words is not enough. You must also know how and when you can use them.
I guess you’ve tried yourself to say something in Japanese only to find that a native speaker would express it in a totally different way. I’m referring here to the different registers the language has.
I’ll just give you one example.
To ask a questions as simple as ‘Can/could you lend me that book?’, we are faced with a number of different ways to end the verb 貸 す (kasu – to lend):
Sono hon, kashite kurenai?
Sono hon, kashite moraemasu ka.
Sono hon, kashite moraemasen ka.
Sono hon, kashite itadakemasu ka.
Sono hon, kashite hoshii n desu ga…
Sono hon, kashite itadakitai n desu ga…
So how do we know which of these expressions to use?
Well, in order to choose the most appropriate espression, we should first consider what I call “the four pillars of communicating in Japanese”.
Let’s have a look at each of them in detail.
1) 自分 (jibun) – yourself
Japanese native speakers are always well aware of their position (status) within the specific group or context in which they find themselves, particularly with regards to the person they are interacting with. ‘Status’ essentially includes characteristics such as age and the type of relationship you have with that particular person.
2. 相手 (aite) – the person you’re talking to
In English, we wouldn’t usually address our teacher or boss in the same way we would with a friend. Japanese works in the same way, but the range of expressions we can use is much broader. So native speakers of Japanese must always have control over what they say and how they say it, depending on the person they have in front of them.
3. 場 (ba) – the place or situation
An important role in choosing the most suitable linguistic register is also played by the place or situation you are in. For example, you might be talking with your boss but maybe you are at an 居酒屋 (izakaya – tavern) – well, in this case you are allowed to adopt a less formal style.
4. 内容 (naiyō) – the content of your message
The last factor you need to take into account before opening your mouth is the content or better stated, the message you want to convey. What are you talking about? And most importantly… to what extent will your utterance affect the other person personally?
Considering the four elements above will help you to ‘calibrate’ your language and choose the right style when you speak.
How it works in practice…
Let’s now look at some concrete examples to demonstrate the role these four elements play in the way people communicate in Japanese. In the translation of the examples, I’ll try to give you an idea of the impression those utterances would provoke in your listener.
自分 (jibun – yourself) —— 学生 (gakusei – student)
相手 (aite – other person) —— 親しい後輩 (shitashii kōhai – younger schoolmate you are on intimate terms with)
場 (ba – place) —— 大学の食堂 (daigaku no shokudō – university cafeteria)
内容 (naiyō – content) —— 漢字の意味を教えてもらう (kanji no imi o oshiete morau – ask him or her to tell you the meaning of a kanji)
A: Sumimasen, kono kanji no imi o oshiete moraemasu ka?
A: Excuse me, could you tell me what is the meaning of this kanji, please?
A: Gomen. Warui n dakedo, kono kanji no imi o oshiete kurenai?
A: Sorry for asking… can you tell me what this kanji means?
The example on the left is considered a bad example because the underlined expressions could only be used if we were talking to a 先輩 (senpai – a senior schoolmate).
On the other hand, the expressions used in the other example is more appropriate to the type of partner we are addressing , i.e. an older schoolmate we don’t need to be too formal with.
自分 (jibun – yourself) —— 大学院生 (daigakuinsei – PhD student)
相手 (aite – other person) —— 親しい先生 (shitashii sensei – teacher you are on intimate terms with)
場 (ba – place) —— 居酒屋 (izakaya – tavern)
内容 (naiyō – content) —— 醤油を取ってもらう (shōyu o totte morau – ask him to pass you the soy sauce)
A: Sensei, mōshiwake gozaimasen. Sochira ni arimasu shōyu o totte itadakenai deshō ka?
A: Teacher, I am terribly sorry. Would you please pass me the soy sauce which is over there?
A: Sensei, sumimasen. Soko no shōyu o totte moraemasu ka?
A: Teacher, excuse me. Could pass me that soy sauce, please?
Given that you’re speaking to your teacher, you might think you need to be extremely polite. However, if you fail to take into account the place (ba) and the content of your message (naiyō) – in this case a very trivial one – you would end up choosing a register which is not suitable for that particular situation.
That’s exactly what happens in the example on the left, where that exaggeratedly polite tone would sound awkward and ‘out of place’ to the ears of your teacher.
My experience in Japan
In every language you can express yourself in a more or less formal way. Japanese, however, has several styles (an informal and a formal one, which in turn is divided into three levels) and the range of options you have to express exactly the same thing is much broader.
I still remember when I first set foot in Japan.
In my Japanese language course at university back in Italy I had only learned the standard style (the one using desu and -masu, so to speak), so when I heard Japanese students in my dorm talking to each other, I had the impression they were speaking a totally different language!
“So what have I been studying for the last four years?” – was the question that popped up in my head. Basically, I couldn’t understand anything of what they were saying, because they were speaking in an informal register I was not familiar with.
The same thing happened when I was working for a Japanese company as a designer. I used to find it very hard to understand when my colleagues used keigo (the honorific language) with our clients. And that is also the way people speak to you as a customer in a shop.
It took a lot of practice and a deliberate effort before I could feel more at ease with the different registers.
In Japanese – more than in English – it is very important to take into account a few factors that influence the way people communicate. In this post I refer to these factors as ‘the four pillars of communicating in Japanese’, namely ‘yourself’ (jibun), ‘the person you’re talking to’ (aite), ‘the place or situation’ (ba) and ‘the content of your message’ (naiyō).
In order to develop the right sensitivity to these four elements and be able to juggle with the different registers or styles of the language, you’ll need a lot of practice.
Immersion would speed up the learning process if you happen to visit or live in Japan for a while. You would be surrounded by friends with whom you can express yourself in a certain way and people you would need to show respect to by using a different register.
In any case, my advice is not to limit yourself to the standard polite style (desu and -masu). Always try your hand at using different registers and ask your interlocutor to correct you. By doing so, you will get better and better at communicating in Japanese, just as native speakers do!
What is your experience with regard to styles and registers in Japanese? Or if you have just started to learn it, what do you think about this feature of the language? Feel free to leave a comment below!