First Phrases in Japanese

コメントをありがとう、フランシスコさん。(Gracias, Francisco, por tus commentarios sobre Doing Hobbies in Other Languages: Taekwondo en Español.)

I dedicate this blog post to Francisco, who was kind enough to help me improve my Spanish on my previous post. フランシスコは日本語と英語を勉強しています。Francisco studies Japanese and English. (Or is he fluent?)

Japanese writing, basic hiragana syllabary

Learning to speak and understand very basic Japanese words and phrases is much easier than you might believe. Before getting to the easily pronounced phrases, let me tell you about the most intimidating part in beginning Japanese, the writing system. You may have heard that Japanese has three writing systems, but it is better to consider it as one writing system with two components.

Japanese Writing

(See my post on how to enable Japanese Input on Your PC.)

The scary component is 漢字 kanji (Chinese characters), which are used for writing most nouns, verbs and Japanese names. In Japan, school children are required to learn almost 2000 of them, which is enough to read a newspaper. For example,

  • 日本語 = ni-hon-go = Japanese
  • Separately, those three 漢字 (kanji) mean “sun”, “origin”, “language”, (amongst other things).

漢字 (kanji) are strung together with ひらがな (hiragana), which is a set of 48 phonetic characters — expressing, amongst other things, bits of grammar such as verb endings and “particles” (similar to prepositions) — which you could think of as an alphabet but is more correctly referred to as a syllabary. The difference being that each character in a syllabary represents a complete syllable ( ひらがな = hi-ra-ga-na). Important examples of ひらがな(hiragana) include

  • の (pronounced “no”) indicates possession, much like ’s
  • です(de-su, often pronounced “dess”) let’s say, for now, it’s basically the verb “to be”
  • か (ka) appears at the end of a phrase to indicate that it is a question.

For writing words and names from foreign languages, there is a parallel set of 48 characters, カタカナ(katakana), a little simpler and more square-looking than ひらがな (hiragana) — a bit like how typed English letters differ from cursive script. One place you will see a great deal of カタカナ(katakana) — which is also used to express onomatopoeia (sound effects) — is in manga (Japan’s popular graphic novels, book-length comics which often are, indeed, graphic!). カタカナ(katakana) is used to right such things as

  • エヴァン = eh-bu-ah-n = Evan
  • カナダ = ka-na-da = Canada
  • クレジットカード= ku-re-ji-to-ka-do = credit card
  • アルバイト= ah-ru-ba-i-to = part-time job (from the German “Arbeit” meaning “work”)
  • パン= pa-n = bread (from the Portuguese word for bread, “pão”)
  • ピンポーン= pee-n-po-n = “ding dong” (doorbell sound)

Compare the shapes of hiragana characters (top line) and katakana (bottom line):

  • ひらがな (hi-ra-ga-na) かたかな(ka-ta-ka-na)
  • ヒラガナ(hi-ra-ga-na) カタカナ(ka-ta-ka-na)

Japanese writing review sentence (containing katakana, hiragana, and kanji, which is not unusual): エヴァンの日本語ですか。= Evan’s Japanese is? (Is this Evan’s Japanese?) [Japanese readers, please tell me if this is correct Japanese.]「すみません、日本人は、私に教えてください。この文は正しいですか。」

Too much? Relax! = 休め!= やすめ = yasume = (yeah+sue+may). If you want to speak and don’t want to attempt reading and writing Japanese yet, Japanese can be written in romaji (roman characters, i.e. the Latin alphabet) which is easily understood by Japanese and non-Japanese alike. Our review sentence from above エヴァンの日本語ですか。can be written in romaji like this: “Eban no nihongo desu ka?” If you are willing to learn ひらがな, hiragana, this same sentence could be expressed as エヴァンのにほんごですか。(My non-Japanese name could be written in ひらがな (hiragana) like this えぶあん but that just isn’t done. That’s what カタカナ(katakana) is for.)

Speaking Japanese

Good news: Japanese pronunciation is easy and consistent! Chances are, any sound that is occurs in Japanese is something you can learn to pronounce perfectly with little or no effort, no matter what your native tongue (I am basing this claim on a rudimentary knowledge of only a few Romance, Germanic and Asian languages. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please tell me which Japanese sounds are challenging for speakers of what language.) No Japanese word is more challenging for an English speaker to pronounce than 津波 = つなみ = tsunami.

Other news: Building your Japanese vocabulary is challenging, for two reasons.

1. The labyrinth of honorific nuances—what word or verb form is appropriate for addressing your boss, a postal worker, a casual acquaintance, etc. Short cut: stick with the basic formal forms of Japanese that all beginners are taught. Worst case scenario, you address a five-year-old girl, as I once did, in a tone that must have sounded to her like, “Gracious lady, I trust you are keeping well?”

2. Apart from loan words from English and other languages you may be familiar with, you simply have to trick your brain into remembering words and expressions that are not remotely familiar, phonetically or grammatically. Read a lot, listen a lot, speak a lot. There is no short cut. How do you say “please” in Japanese? In the case of “be seated” or “have another cookie”, you say どうぞ do-u-zo (dozo), similar to “go ahead”. To request action, follow the verb with 下さい = ください = ku-da-sa-i. For example, 楽しんでい下さい。= たのしんでください。= Tanoshinde kudasai. = Fun, please (have). = Please, have fun.

Now the fairly easy bit. Memorize the following words and phrases, and there is nothing to stop you from learning more and more and more.

First phrases in Japanese:

  1. はい。 = hai (“height” without the “t”) = yes
  2.  いいえ。= iie (“eagle” without “gle” + “ex” without “x”) = no
  3. [“Speak”] は日本語で何と言いますか。= [“Speak”] wa nihongo de nanto īmasu ka? = How do you say [“speak”] in Japanese?
  4. 意味は何ですか。= Imi wa, nan desu ka? = What does this mean?
  5. 分かりません。= Wakarimasen. = I don’t understand. (Also means, I don’t know.)
  6. 分かります。 = Wakarimasu. = I understand.
  7. も一度下さい。= Mo ichi do, kudasai. = Once more, please. (Please say that again.)
  8. すみません。= Sumimasen. = Pardon me.
  9. ありがとう。= Arigato. = Thank you.
  10. どうもありがとうございました。= Domo arigato gozaimashita. = Thank you very much.

These are all expressions which I found effective when I lived in Japan for a year, but they may be crude or imperfect. I hope Japanese speakers will suggest more correct or appropriate ways to express some of these phrases.

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8 Responses to First Phrases in Japanese

  1. Francisco says:

    Hello Evan!

    It’s the first time someone dedicate a post to me! I’m very happy!
    I know the very basics of japanese and this blog entry cleared me a lot of questions.
    I have a long way to travel before I can read or speak japanese but with this I’m one step closer to the goal.
    I’m making a lot of mistakes when I write, but it’s like you said in your previous post, is completely necessary for improve my learning!

    Thank you so much Evan!


    • Good Evaning says:

      Hello Francisco,
      You help me; I help you. I know some Japanese people who want to learn Spanish. People all over the world can all help each other like this, and I love it!
      One of my favourite books for studying Japanese is “Japanese in Mangaland” by Marc Bernabe. I have it translated into English but I want to get his original Spanish books.
      頑張って!= がんばって!= Ganbatte! = ¡Andale! = “Go for it!”
      ( = ¡Haz tu mejor esfuerzo! + ¡Buena suerte! = Try your best! + Good luck! )


  2. Nana says:

    Hello エヴァン!
    も一度下さい。= Mo ichi do, kudasai. = Once more, please. (Please say that again.)
    this sentence is better “もう一度言ってください” or “もう一度お願いします”
    mo ichi do ,itte kudasai. mo ichi do onegai shimasu.
    onegai means please in English :DDDD


    • Good Evaning says:

      Hello なな!(ななの名前は、漢字を分かりません。Nana no namae wa kanji o wakarimasen. I don’t know how to write your name in kanji.)
      もう一度言ってください。Mo ichi do, itte kudasai. (Again one time, say please.)
      もう一度お願いします。 Mo ichi do onegai shimasu. (One more time, please do.)

      どうもありがとう!Domo arigato!

      ななさんのスペイン語の勉強は、楽しいですか。Nana-san no supeingo no benkyo wa, tanoshi desu ka? Are you enjoying your Spanish studies?

      がんばって下さい! ¡Haz tu mejor esfuerzo, y buena suerte!


  3. Seth says:

    How many times have I been lost in a labyrinth of horrific nuances?

    (ok, on re-reading that line it’s not as funny)

    (the blog line, not mine)

    (which is is funny)

    (in English, anyway…)

    • Good Evaning says:

      Some horrifically nuanced comments are more labyrinthine (and parenthetical) than others.
      Would anyone like to translate that sentence into Japanese or Spanish? Or into English?

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