How To Sound Natural When Speaking Japanese

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On February 16, 2016
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Anyone that has ever tried to use a textbook Japanese phrase in real life soon becomes aware that spoken Japanese is very different to written Japanese. While the writers of these books can get away with using long, convoluted sentences to illustrate grammar points, most of these beautiful constructions would turn into tongue twisters if anyone actually tried to say them.

As a result, most learners want to quickly master the spoken forms so that they can speak as naturally as possible. A lot of these are contractions that can be learned by simply copying the native speakers around us.

Even if we are not consciously aware of it, many learners learn to contract これは and それは to こりゃ and そりゃ simply by imitating the way their Japanese friends talk. Likewise many people learn to contract 置いておく (Put it there) to 置いとく and してあげる to したげる in a similar way.

The first contraction that most learners formally study is usually ~じゃない (It’s not~). Because of our familiarity with this grammar point, it is easy to forget that it is actually a contraction of ではない. This is not the only contraction that is so common that it is easy to forget its origins. I had a similar surprise when I started learning advanced grammar and discovered that the common だろう? (~, right?) ending is actually a contraction of で あろう?

Those examples are pretty easy, right? Unfortunately from here, things get a little more confusing. One of the trickier ones is the しまう-ending which is used for indicating that something is completed. When spoken, the ~てしまう ending often becomes ~ちゃう and, to further complicate matters, if it is a ~でしまう-ending it instead becomes ~じゃう.

Some common examples are the moan of pachinko players and gamers around Japan 負けちゃった (I lost!) and the common complaint of manga-obsessed teens 全部 読んじゃった (I read it through).

A similar rule applies to the する-verb in しなければ いけない (I must~). Once again, the part that is trickiest to say is contracted to しなくちゃ いけない. A commonly heard example of this grammar is 勉強しなくちゃいけない (I must study) such as in the popular book 子どもはなぜ勉強しなくちゃいけないの? (Why do kids have to study anyway?)

As well as しまう most Japanese people contract any word they commonly use. As most Japanese people use かもしれない (Possibly) a lot, it is probably not surprising that it is often contracted. Interestingly it is often reduced to かもしんない in Kanto and かもしれん in Kansai. Of course, many people simplify it further to just かも.

One of the biggest uses of contractions is to make the speaker’s words more direct and even confrontational. As the る sound in やってる (One is doing) is softer and breaks up the sentence, in direct speech it is often replaced with the ん sound. なに やってんの? (What are you doing?) is a popular thing to yell in the Kinki area, for example.

Amazingly, there is even abbreviated 敬語. You will often hear the polite form abbreviated to the ~ます-form with an お at the beginning. 質問は おあり ですか (Do you have any questions?) and 小銭を お持ち ですか (Do you have any change?) are two common examples of this point.

Part of the fun of learning is hearing the ways that Japanese people play around with their language. The language is constantly evolving as people try to communicate with each other in the most efficient way possible. One of the key things that we do as learners is to learn the rules, so we can enjoy hearing the many ways that Japanese people break them.

Do you often hear any grammar forms not on this list? Or how about other ones from your local area? Let Gaijinpot know in the comments.

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Grooving to Japan's rhythm.

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