When you first come to Japan, learning the language can be daunting. Sometimes, it can almost seem as if you’re speaking like Yoda as you rearrange the grammar into a form that doesn’t immediately put off the listener. Of course, there are strategies to help learners out during this tricky early stage. One of the best ways to make some headway is to learn some simple sentences with words that can easily be substituted out to make other sentences.
To this end, I would like to present the first 10 sentences that I would learn if I had a do-over to start studying Japanese. All of these sentences contain vital grammar points and vocabulary that you will need for the first couple of months in these fantastic isles.
Note that the polite forms are indicated to the right of the English translation.
1. ～と言う意味？| Does that mean ~? | ～と言う意味ですか？
This is the first sentence that every learner should master. Basically ～と言う意味？ is a useful way to check that you understood what the speaker was saying by slightly rephrasing their words. Everything from clarifying if you understand — as in ”この言葉は何と言う意味？” (“What does that word mean?”) — to whether that attractive person is actually asking you out: ”デートと言う意味？” (“Do you mean a date?”). Hmmm… maybe use that second one at your own risk!
It also introduces learners to the words 言う (to say) and 意味 (meaning of something), which are two incredibly useful words.
2. 何これ？| What is this? | これは何ですか？
Ever stared at your plate and wondered what exactly you were about to eat? Well, wonder no longer with this useful phrase (don’t forget to thank us when we save you from some of the culinary adventures you may experience if you don’t know this sentence… ).
It also introduces learners to the pronoun これ, which refers to an item close to the speaker. This is found in countless useless phrases such as これ誰の？ (Whose is this?) and, the classic, albeit useless, first phrase in most textbooks: これは本です (This is a book).
3. 元気だね | He/she/it looks well, doesn’t he/she/it? | 元気ですね
Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will tell you that 元気 should be one of the first words that you master. The amount of times that I hear “genki” used to describe someone’s good energy and health every week is ridiculous.
This sentence also includes the ね ending which is the rough Japanese equivalent of rhetorical questions such as “Isn’t it?” and “Aren’t I?”
4. サッカーできる？| Can you play soccer? | サッカーできますか
While plenty of other learners would likely disagree, in my opinion, novices should try to come to grips with the verb できる as soon as possible. To use it, look for a verb that ends with する, like 勉強する (to study) or 愛する (to love), for example, and replace the する with できる to change the meaning to “can you ~?”
One of the first things that everyone should be able to tell people is what they want to eat or drink or do.
5. サッカーが好きなスポーツだ | Soccer is my favorite sport | サッカーが好きなスポーツです
Japanese people love using 好き to indicate they “like” something. Bizarrely, you will also come across it at the intermediate level in the sentence 私のことが好き？which is a strangely acceptable way to ask if the listener really loves you. Again, proceed with caution — or wild abandon — depending on your personality type!
6. 友達を紹介する | I would like to introduce my friend | 友達を紹介します
Essential for any type of social life. Feel free to replace 友達 with 彼女 (girlfriend) or 彼氏 (boyfriend) as appropriate.
7. 東京へ行く| I’m going to Tokyo | 東京へ行きます
This one is pretty obvious. You will need to remember the へ preposition, which indicates movement towards something (like “to”) and 行く (to go), which is one of the most essential verbs. Another useful phrase using this verb is どこへ行く？ (Where are you going?)
8. 食べたい / 飲みたい / したい | I want to eat / drink / do
One of the first things that everyone should be able to tell people is what they want to eat or drink or do. This introduces learners to the 〜ます stem verb ending ～たい, which is a useful ending meaning you want to do something.
9. ダイエットドリンクだけ飲む | I only drink diet drinks
Although this was useful for me (low sugar tolerance, folks), feel free to substitute ダイエットドリンク for something like ビール for those drunken nights out socializing and also master the useful だけ (only).
10. 鍵はテーブルの上にある| The keys are on the table | 鍵はテーブルの上にあります
This pattern is important as it tells people where something is. Obviously, 上 can be changed for 下 (under) or よこ (beside). Similarly, if it’s a living creature you can replace ある with いる for the same purpose: 猫はテーブルの上にいる (The cat is on the table).
For me, these were the 10 phrases that formed the basis of everything that was to come. Of course, some of the more advanced readers may have other opinions about the most important sentences to learn.
Which phrases and sentences helped you the most when first learning Japanese? If you have some tips that would help other learners — let us know in the comments!