I moved to Japan with a couple years of Japanese under my belt (after having taken a couple semesters of Japanese languages classes at 2 universities in America and one in Tokyo) and an annoyingly optimistic attitude that I would become fluent in no time.
How is that going? You ask. Well, funny that you mention it…
One of the first things I did in Japan was drop all my language classes. Traditional classes aren’t my cup of tea (which I talked about here) – mostly because it boils down to the fact that the things I’m learning I never use in real life and the things I use in real life rarely show up in class.
Which brings me to this post: 8 useful Japanese words or Japanese phrases that you won’t learn in class
1. Shaberu / しゃべる
Meaning: (v) to speak
Why you don’t learn it in class: Honestly, I have no freaking idea. It took me several weeks in Japan before I learned how to respond to the question: 日本語しゃべれますか。Before I drew a blank and was just like “uh… uh… I don’t know. What?”
What we learned instead: 話す (hanasu). The verb 話す was used whenever we talked about being able to speak a language. Common sentences we would practice would be:
- 英語は話せますか。 (Can you speak English?)
- 日本語はちょっと話せます。 (I can speak a bit of Japanese)
- はい、日本語は話ますよ。 (Yes, I speak Japanese)
So imagine my surprise (and the surprise of literally every single one of my classmates) when random Japanese strangers people used the verb しゃべる instead of 話す. To date I can’t think of a single time I’ve heard the word 話す used to talk about language ability, except by non-native Japanese speakers new to Japan.
It’s so weird.
And I have no idea why all three of my language classes and independent study textbooks taught the verb 話す rather than しゃべる. It makes no sense. At all.
Here’s some examples for しゃべる:
- 英語しゃべれる？ (Can you speak English?)
- ちょっとなら、日本語をしゃべれるよ。(I can speak a bit of Japanese)
- 私は日本語をしゃべれます。(I can speak Japanese)
2. Umai / うまい
Meaning: Good, good at
Why this isn’t taught in class: It’s informal. And “manly.” I learned it from Ryosuke when we were dating and it drove my teacher in Japan (and later, in America) crazy every time I used it in conversation.
What we learned instead: 美味しい (oishii – good, delicious) or 上手 (jouzu – good at, skilled at)
Sentences involving food usually went like this:
- このラーメンは美味しいですね。 (This ramen is delicious!)
- あのレストランは全然美味しくないよ。 (That restaurant’s food isn’t very good.)
- 豚カツは柔らかくて、美味しいです。 (Tonkatsu pork cutlets are soft and yummy.)
Keep in mind these are all really rough translations. I haven’t used です/ます form in ages so I’m a bit rusty.
And sentences involving someone’s ability or skills went something like this:
- 田中さんは料理が上手です。 (Tanaka is great at cooking)
- 私もあのくらい上手に料理したいです。 (I’d love to be able to cook as well as he can)
Until I learned うまい (and later うめえ, although using that is pushing it a bit, since it’s even more manly/childish). うまい is a one-size-fits all word that can be used in most situations, ranging from food to skills. And despite its’ usefulness, I have yet to meet a non-native speaker who learned it in class.
Here are some sentences using うまい:
- タクヤ君はプロ並みにテニスはうまいな。(Takuya plays tennis like a pro.)
- ここのラーメンは本当にうまい。(This place’s ramen is really delicious.)
- 私はめっちゃくちゃうまいラーメン屋さんを知っているよ。(I know a really good ramen place.)
3. Ojamashimasu / おじゃまします
Meaning: “Excuse me for interrupting” (You say it when you enter someone’s house)
Why this isn’t taught in class: Uh… good question? I guess textbooks don’t think you will be going into very many people’s houses so it’s an “unnecessary phrase”… even though in actuality, I’m probably visiting a friend or family member several times a month. So. Uh.
What you learn instead: 失礼します (“Excuse me for being rude,” you say when you enter or leave a room)
So I only learned this one after I had entered about half a million Japanese houses and committed untold accidentally rude-ness (welcome to my life). A friend came over to our place for dinner one night and as she slid her shoes off at the genkon entrance area, she called out おじゃまします to Ryosuke, who was cooking in the kitchen.
As soon as she was out of earshot, I pulled my husband aside to ask “What did she say?”
“Naoko-san, when she entered our house, she called out something.”
“Yeah, like 何何 します.”
“Oh! おじゃまします! That’s what you’re supposed to say when you enter someone’s house.”
And since then I’ve been abusing my おじゃまします privileges and making sure to announce it every time I enter someone’s house (so anywhere in the 1-10 times a month range). It’s a useful phrase.
4. Ikutsu desu ka? / いくつですか。
Means: How old are you?
What didn’t I learn this in class? Because it’s informal. Ish. Maybe? I don’t now.
Although, I didn’t learn the more formal おいくつですか either, so actually I don’t know why I didn’t learn this.
What I learned instead: 何歳ですか。(How old are you?) Except, like, no one uses that and instead, conversations go like this:
Stranger: おいくつですか。(How old are you?)
Me: 秘密です~ (It’s a secret~)
Stranger: ええ？そなことは言わないで、教えてください。(Aw, don’t say that. Please tell me.)
I can’t remember the last time anyone (friends, family members, TV directors, freelance contacts, etc) asked my how old I was using the 何歳ですか question that Japanese textbooks seem to push. And I’m embarrassed how long it took me to figure out what いくつですか meant.
5. Dochiara kara kitan desuka? / どちらからきたんですか。
Means: Where are you from?
What I learned instead: 出身はどこですか。(Where are you from?)
6. Uso / うそ
Literal meaning: Lies!
More accepted meaning: “Really?” or “No way!” or “I can’t believe that” or “You’re kidding (lying)!”
うそ！/ うそだ！ (No way!)
うそでしょ (You’re joking, right?)
I *have* met people who learned this word in class, albeit only in sentence/verb form for “tell a lie.” But most of the time when うそ is used, it’s to jokingly counter what someone is saying (instead of a serious allegation of lying).
7. Maji?? / マジ
マジかよ (What really? Oh man…)
マジで (Ugh, I can’t believe that!)
8. Soka / そっか
Meaning: “I see.” or “Oh yeah.”
While writing this, I realized this is the first time I’ve posted anything in Japanese on my blog. I try to keep this 100% English because I’m not confident in my own Japanese ability (and while some of you can read Japanese just fine, I know plenty of others can’t).
My two words are colliding. Weird.
Anyway, if you have any other useful Japanese words or phrases that you DIDN’T learn in class (but wish you had), please share in the comments section below so I can add them to the post!