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As a Beginner in Japanese, Don’t Worry About the Formality


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I'm quickly approaching my one month point in Japanese, and can give you some updates on how I'm doing there soon! In the mean time, I got this interesting guest post suggestion from William Peregoy.

I'm quickly seeing that the scare tactics used on Japanese learners, like in every other language that I've come across, are greatly exaggerated and that the language really isn't that bad after all (while plenty of work is required no matter what language you take on).

One such thing people will quickly tell you about Japanese to scare you off it, is that it has seventeen million levels of formality, making it, of course, impossible to learn. So Japanese is of course the “hardest language in the world“. Just like all the other ones…

I think not! Using informal language as a learner is quite alright and something I have transitioned into doing myself now, (should have done it sooner) and am glad of it. Let's hear William's take on this interesting aspect of Japanese:

“[L]earning the polite form before the dictionary form makes no sense.” – Kim Tae

The above quote comes from Kim Tae's Complete Guide Japanese Grammar – a fairly popular internet resource and textbook for Japanese grammar that I stumbled upon after I was already about 2 months into learning the language through self-study methods. The above quote comes from his Introduction section, titled: “The problem with conventional textbooks”.

And, I wish I had realized this sooner.

I started off trying to be all polite and learning the formal language – because I was new to Japan and didn't want to “offend” anybody. I'm a foreigner in a new country, I should be nice, right? I don't want to be rude.

The truth of the matter is the dictionary form isn't rude, it's just informal, fairly casual speak. It's how friends talk to each other. It's the conversational language – and probably the most widely spoken form of Japanese. There are ways to be rude in Japanese – well, there are ways to be rude in pretty much every language – but, that comes much more through word choice than than through using the casual, dictionary forms of verbs.

A Quick Background on Politeness Levels of Japanese

One of the reasons why Japanese is often cited as one of the hardest languages to learn for foreigners, is that there are completely different verb forms for formal language, and for informal language. “It's almost like learning two foreign languages and not just one.” You will hear people say this all of the time.

You can tell when the polite language is being spoken fairly easily, because sentences tend to end be littered with「です」(“desu”),「ます」(“masu”), and「ました」(“mashita”).

It's a necessary part of the language and culture, but if your goals are to get speaking quickly and to reach conversational level in Japanese, you're better off skipping it for now and coming back to later.

A More Natural Way to Learn, and Speaking Quickly

Think about it this way: the Japanese don't start off learning polite language. They start off as children the same way we all do, saying informal things like “mommy” and “daddy” ( ちち “chichi” and はは “haha” in Japanese), etc. Then, they spend most of their lives talking to their friends.

Most foreigners approach Japanese from the textbook method – of speaking very polite. But who is your target audience? Who will you be speaking to?

If your goal is to make friends, you're going to want to get to casual language with them as soon as possible anyway – so you may as well just start there. Yeah, you won't be the most polite person in the world, but guess what – nobody will care.

Yeah, that's right. As an obvious foreigner, you're going to be making mistakes in the language anyway. Everybody will be able to tell you're a foreigner and you won't be fooling anybody into thinking you're a native speaker early. This is fine – this is necessarily in learning any language, actually – and Benny has talked plenty of times on his blog about the importance of making mistakes in your target language.

And, as a foreigner, learning the language – you basically get a free pass on the formality. Nobody in Japan will expect it from you.

Actually, they may never expect it from you.

One of my roommates in Tokyo has lived in Japan for over 10 years, she's fluent in the language – JLPT N1 level, and even works a job in marketing where she speaks in Japanese every day at work. She even admits that at work, she'll sometimes fall into casual speak and casual verb-forms with her boss, because “it's just what comes out easier.” Nobody at work has ever said anything about it, and she gets away with it all the time.

I also met with a business owner in Tokyo recently who has been in Japan for almost 20 years. He mentioned to me that he was basically fluent in Japanese, but he would like to work on his polite Japanese more – then he added this quip: “even though, I'm a foreigner, so I'll never really have to. I just feel like I should since I've been here for so long now.”

So, if foreigners who speak Japanese and have been in Japan for 10-20 years, doing business, working IN the language everyday – still struggle with the polite forms of verbs due to the fact that they rarely ever have to use them, it begs the question – WHY do most beginners start off learning these forms of the verbs first? Why are most textbooks written in such away that according Kim Tae “makes no sense”?

Beats me.

The Japanese Don't Even Like Speaking Formally

Pretty much every Japanese friend I've met up with never even wanted to talk to me in です」(“desu”),「ます」(“masu”) forms anyway.

For a couple of reasons; they find it hard to speak that way too. It's mentally taxing for them and they have to speak like that to their boss all week at work, so the last thing they want to do is meet up with me and speak formally when they're not at work. Also, well… my friends are my friends: they're close in age to me anyway, so speaking formally to each other would be difficult for them from a cultural standpoint as well – well, it would just be awkward to speak like this with your friends.

So,what I am recommending here is: drop the textbook formality, drop the complexity of polite-forms, focus on the dictionary-forms of the verbs first, speak casually, and make friends. That way, you can start having fun in the language quicker, and not worry so much about being formal and polite, and you might just enjoy the language more and be to go that much further with it.

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