Useful tips to speak Japanese like a native
Speaking Japanese fluently like a native is the ultimate goal of many language learners. However, to achieve that level of fluency, simply learning “textbook Japanese” is not enough.
That’s why we have compiled 11 useful tips not taught in textbooks that can help you speak Japanese like a native. Do note that these tips mostly apply to spoken Japanese. For written Japanese, it is best to stick to proper “textbook grammar”.
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1. Incorporate more filler words into your speech
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Filler words are short, meaningless sounds and phrases used to fill up pauses at the start of or in the middle of sentences. It serves to signal to the other party that you are not done speaking and are pausing to think.
An equivalent in English would be to inject “um” before you start talking. So, um, don’t be afraid to use more filler words. It is an effective way to sound more natural in spoken conversations, especially in a casual setting.
Use “eeto” (えーと) when you need more time to organise your thoughts, or “nanka” (なんか) when you are searching for the right word or phrase. “Te-iu-ka” (ていうか) comes in handy when you need to rephrase something. “Anō” (あのう) is similar to “eeto”, but it can also function as an “excuse me” to inform someone that you want to say something.
2. Take note of your pitch accent
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Japanese is a language that relies heavily on pitch accents, which means that words are distinguished based on which particular hiragana is accented. An incorrect pitch accent is therefore telling of a foreign accent.
If you are not careful, you might get confused looks when you talk about eating rice with a bridge (ha↗shi), instead of a chopstick (ha↘shi). Both bridge and chopsticks are written as “hashi” in Japanese, but where the accent is placed is important – the pitch for the first hiragana “ha” is a little higher than “shi” for chopsticks.
Depending on how you accentuate certain words, you might also end up speaking “non-standard” Japanese and be mistaken for someone from Osaka. In Tokyo dialect, or standard Japanese, the word “now” is accented on the first hiragana (i↘ma), as compared to the second (ima↘) in Kansai dialect, which is spoken in Osaka.
3. Knowing when to pause
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Knowing when to pause is important – if not, you might risk sounding stiff or worse, rushed. It’s hard to identify exactly what is considered a natural flow without hearing it for yourself, so many Japanese teachers recommend a technique called shadowing.
To begin, find a short audio clip suitable for your level. Listen to it once or twice, making sure to observe how a native speaker would pause at a certain juncture and pace their speech throughout.
Then, speak aloud while playing the audio until you have grasped the flow and accented parts. This is good practice especially for people who are self-studying and don’t have a Japanese teacher to help correct their pronunciation.
4. Refrain from using second-person pronouns
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In anime, you’ll likely hear characters address someone else with second-person pronouns such as “omae” (お前), “kimi” (君), “anata” (貴方), “kisama” (貴様), and “temee” (てめぇ). In reality, it’s rare for a native speaker to start off with a second-person pronoun in spoken conversations.
Unlike in English where pronouns are used to mark the subject, particles fulfil that function in Japanese so injecting pronouns can be redundant. Therefore, try to avoid using second-person pronouns. But if you have to, you can use a person’s name with the suffix “san”, “kun”, or “chan” depending on your relationship.
Pronouns like “anata” or “omae” can come across as impolite depending on the social context, while others like “kisama” and “temee” are just downright offensive. Unless you’re using it in a jocular manner with a friend, it should be obliterated from your vocabulary.
5. Knowing which first-person pronoun to use
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First-person pronouns in Japanese convey many hidden meanings, namely formality, gender and hierarchy. By default, textbooks tend to advocate the use of “watashi” (私) as it is relatively gender neutral and a flexible word for both casual and formal context.
But as with anything in life, too much of something can be bad. While “watashi” is a forgiving pronoun to go for, using it indiscriminately can maximise your gaikokujin (foreigner) vibes.
Instead, use pronouns depending on the situation you’re in and how you want to present yourself. Generally, “boku” (僕) and “ore” (俺) are typically used by guys, with the latter sounding haughty and rougher than the former. “Uchi” (うち) and “watashi” (私) are commonly regarded as feminine and used by females.
6. Contract and abbreviate when possible
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All languages have contractions and abbreviations, and Japanese is no exception. You can express the same meaning with shortened forms, which is a great way to communicate information quickly and efficiently.
You may have been taught that the grammatically correct form for present continuous verb tense is “tteiru” (っている). But in real life, its contracted form, “tteru” (ってる), has become prevalent in spoken Japanese. The same goes for “nakereba narimasen” (なければなりません) which is drastically shortened to “nakya” (なきゃ).
When it comes to well-known names or places, less is more. Long words are condensed and the abbreviated version becomes the predominant form used by natives. Locals refer to Universal Studios Japan as “uniba” (ユニバ), Family Mart as “famima” (ファミマ) and Starbucks as “sutaba” (スタバ).
7. Be indirect when trying to convey intent
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Japan is a high context society and the language is packed with nuances and vague meanings.
Roundabout expressions, or enkyoku hyōgen (婉曲表現), refers to ways to avoid being direct in case you say something that will inconvenience the other party. Though it is most applicable to business settings, the concept can be applied to everyday situations too.
Showing consideration can be something as simple as affixing “I think that…” (to-omoi-masu, と思います) when you state your opinion or intent. This gives greater leeway for others to easily chime in and carry on the conversation.
8. There is a less-than-formal polite form
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Upon getting past the first hurdle of memorising Japanese characters, intermediate and advanced learners will be introduced to the world of honorifics – polite form (teineigo, 丁寧語), respectful form (sonkeigo, 尊敬語), and humble form (kenjyōgo, 謙譲語).
The type of honorific language used depends on the social context and your relationship with the person you’re talking to. Generally, polite form – or desu/ masu form – is the safest choice and is likely to be used most frequently.
However, a form that all experienced learners should know is the contraction of “desu” into “ssu” (っす). Commonly used in situations when one wishes to be casual without completely dropping honorifics, the “ssu” contraction is less formal than the polite form, yet more respectful than informal speech.
In specific circumstances – take a group of young guys who’ve met recently, or during club activities in school – the use of polite form is rather stilted, but dropping honorifics completely can be imprudent. “Ssu” comes in handy when speakers don’t know each other well enough to switch to casual form.
Use it as you would express yourself in polite form, like changing “そうですか” (sōdesu ka) to “そうっすか” (sōssu ka). Keep it mind that this form can come across as quite masculine, so use it sparingly.
9. Give good verbal responses
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This might be a no-brainer, good conversations involve giving appropriate verbal responses to show that you are paying attention.
“相槌” (aizuchi) are response tokens frequently used in Japanese to indicate that one is actively listening. If you have the opportunity to speak to a native, the first thing you’ll notice is that they give enthusiastic reactions.
Using response tokens like “ee” (ええ), “hee” (へー), “un” (うん), and “hai” (はい) is crucial to get conversations going.
10. Sentence-final particles
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Sentence-final particles are words affixed to the end of a sentence, often to convey the speaker’s emotions or to seek confirmation from the listener. When used right, you can graduate from stiff “textbook Japanese” and sound like a true-blue native.
Textbooks tend to start students off with basic particles like “yo” (よ) and “ne” (ね), but you can expand your language repertoire by incorporating commonly used particles. Attach “sa” (さ) for emphasis or “jyan” (じゃん) as a strong assertion marker.
Casual suffix “kke” (っけ) is useful when you are not sure about your memory and want to signpost that you are trying to recall. For instance, when you ask “どこに住んでいるんだっけ” (doko ni sun deiru dakke), it means that you’ve asked the question before but you can’t remember where the other party lives.
Grammatical rules are easy to understand, but proper usage can be difficult as they have specific functions. Try to listen to where and when the native speakers plug these into their speech.
11. Use more slangs
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Slangs are almost never taught in textbooks for a reason – they are informal words morphed spontaneously from pop culture and the internet. It’s hard to teach slang because they evolve so quickly.
But like any language, understanding slang is key to having a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and speaking like a local. Start incorporating them into your speech when you come across new ones in real life.
Instead of the standard “totemo” (とても), opt for “meccha” (めっちゃ) to express “very”. “Yabai” (やばい) can be loosely translated to “wicked” and used to describe both good and bad situations. Use “kimoi” (キモい), which is short for “kimochi-warui” (気持ち悪い), when you are disgusted by something.
New slangs constantly spring up on social media, so having a Twitter account may help keep you in the loop.
Useful tips to speak Japanese like a native
Mastering Japanese is not easy and requires consistent practice and hard work. Speaking fluently like a native is less about using the “correct” grammar and more about communicating effectively to get your message across. Hopefully, these tips can help you sound more natural when speaking Japanese. Ganbatte!
Check out these articles for more Japan related content:
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- Strange Japanese laws
- Weird Japanese mascots
- Japanese drinking games
Cover image adapted from: 46pic