A (Humourous) Guide to the Japanese Language

So the other day I was taking a nice, nightly stroll around Kawaramachi after watching Godzilla: King of the Monsters (which was actually a good movie) and caught a Starbucks in the corner of my eye which allowed you to enjoy your nice cup of pumpkin spiced latte coffee near the banks of the Kamogawa River. Intrigued by this prospect, I went inside and, as always, ordered my coffee in Japanese. However, on this day, I also brought along my coffee tumbler so I asked the barrister, in Japanese, if it was OK for him to put the coffee in the tumbler instead. Instead of asking him “Kore, ii desu ka (Is this ok)?” I accidentally asked him “Koko ni ii desu ka (Is it OK to have my coffee here [while pointing at my tumbler])?” It took a brief second for the barrister to realise what I actually wanted to say, to which he replied with “Hai. OK desu (Yes, that’s OK)”.

So this embarrassing language blunder is only one of many times where I’ve accidentally said the wrong thing while having the right intentions, but I guess this is just part of the language learning process, right?

The Japanese language, for the most part, can get quite complicated at times – especially when Kanji is involved. It involves many different particles (wa, de, ga, ni, etc.), rules and words that sound fairly similar. For example, if you wanted to ask for a map you would use the word Chizu (ちず). However, pronounce it incorrectly and you might embarrassingly ask the tourist office for cheese instead (Chiizu チーズ). Another funny example is the word shujin (主人), which means husband and shuujin (しゅうじん), which means prisoner (but then again, there’s no real difference between those words anyway *ba dum tss*).

The other thing about the Japanese language is that when you’re learning it for the first time, you’re more than likely learning the polite and formal form of the language. Hence, whenever you’re talking to someone in Japanese you’re mostly going to end the sentence with “~desu“. While there is nothing wrong with it at all (or, as my one sensei says, it makes you look more educated), it can be a bit daunting trying to speak this polite form with young Japanese people or even with your friends because they are mostly talking in casual Japanese, which usually includes slang words like “meccha” (very much), “majide” (seriously) and “yabai” (very bad).

While it can be daunting and embarrassing to try and speak Japanese to other Japanese people, especially when you feel like it’s completely broken, the only good way to improve on it is to make these mistakes and learn from it. In comparison, there are quite a few Japanese people I know who can speak English (some of them are quite fluent too) and are sometimes not afraid to try and speak English to me. However, there are cases where some people clearly know how to speak English, but choose not to because they’re scared of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. This can sometimes feel frustrating, especially when you actively want to help them with their English – I’m pretty sure Japanese people feel the same way with foreigners trying to speak Japanese too. Although I’ve been offered help by some Japanese people I know, I sometimes feel like they’re saying it more out of politeness rather than actually wanting to help you with your Japanese. But that’s a story for another day.

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