Japanese I-1

Kanjis: 1st grade + JLPT N5; Additional kanjis for lessons 1-8:

わたし – I/me ぼく – I/me きみ – you

Sample Conversation

This is not a transcript of the dialog in the recording.

Instructions
A Japanese man approaches a Canadian woman. He doesn’t speak much English, and she doesn’t speak much Japanese; all is well because it turns out that both speak French.


English
1: man; 2: woman

1: Excuse me. Do you understand Japanese?
2: No, I’m sorry. I don’t understand it.
    English! Do you understand it?
1: No, I’m sorry.
    You? Are you American?
2: No. Me? I’m Canadian.
1: Canadian?
    French! Do you understand it?
2: Yes, you?
1: Yes, I understand a little.


romaji
1: otoko; 2: onna

1: sumimasen. nihon-go ga wakari-masu ka?
2: iie, sumimasen. wakari-masen.
    ei-go ga wakari-masu ka?
1: iie, sumimasen.
    anata wa amerika-jin desu ka?
2: iie. watashi wa kanada-jin desu.
1: kanada-jin?
    furensu-go ga wakari-masu ka?
2: hai, anata wa?
1: hai, sukoshi wakari-masu.



kana
1: おとこ; 2: おんな

1: すみません。 にほんごが わかりますか。
2: いいえ、すみません。わかりません。
    えいごが わかりますか。
1: いいえ、すみません。
    あなたは アメリカじん ですか。
2: いいえ。わたしは カナダじん です。
1: カナダじん?
    フランスごが わかりますか?
2: はい、あなたは?
1: はい、すこし わかります。


kanji (show me)
1: 男; 2: 女

1: すみません。日本語が分かりますか。
2: いいえ、すみません。分かりません。
    えい語が分かりますか。
1: いいえ、すみません。
    あなたはアメリカ人ですか。
2: いいえ。私はカナダ人です。
1: カナダ人?
    フランス語が分かりますか。
2: はい、あなたは?
1: はい、少し分かります。


Our English translation sometimes will not sound natural. Translating “nihon-go ga wakari-masu ka” with a Japanese grammar gives us the intelligible but weird-sounding “Japanese! Do you understand it?”, when normally we’d say “Do you understand Japanese?”. In spite of its weirdness, the closer-to-Japanese version sometimes is useful because it clarifies the sentence structure. We’ll ping-pong between these two ways of translating Japanese.

Also, sometimes we modify the dialog so that the translation in ‘Google translate’ of the ‘show me’ link of the kanji version works correctly; ‘Google translate’ works well on single sentences, but it has problems preserving the context between sentences. Unfortunately, Japanese relies heavily on context, so if it is not being carried out, the translation breaks. Thus, in some cases our sentences are long because we need to put the context back in.

Vocabulary


English
Yes (I agree)
No (I disagree)
a little, a few

I, me (formal)
I, me (casual)
you (formal)
you (casual)

Sun
origin
Japan (Sun’s origin)
America
Britain, British
Canada
France

person
Japanese person
American person
Canadian person

language
Japanese language
English language
French

to understand
masu (formal)
dict (casual)

to feel at ease
masu (formal)
dict (casual)


romaji
hai
iie
sukoshi

watashi
boku
anata
kimi

ni
hon
ni-hon
amerika
ei
kanada
furensu

jin
ni-hon-jin
amerika-jin
kanada-jin

go
ni-hon-go
ei-go
furensu-go

 
wakari-masu
wakaru

 
sumi-masu
sumu


kana
はい
いいえ
すこし

わたし
ぼく
あなた
きみ


ほん
にほん
アメリカ
えい
カナダ
フレンス

じん
にほんじん
アメリカじん
カナダじん


にほんご
えいご
フレンスご

 
わかります
わかる
 
 
すみます
すむ


kanji
 
 
少し




日本
 
 
 
 


日本人
アメリカ人
カナダ人


日本語
英語
フレンス語

 
分かります
分かる
 
 


  • We will focus mostly on the kanjis in the Kentei lv. 10 and lv. 9 lists, and a few kanjis described at the top of each page.
  • Sometimes a word does not have a kanji, e.g., ‘hai’ is always written in hiragana, as はい.
  • Kanjis in red are correct but usually the word is written in kana.
  • We can reply ‘iie’ to someone that is thanking us for something, to mean ‘no (problem)’.
  • We will often split the romaji according to the Kanjis in the word, e.g., 日本人 would be ni-hon-jin, meaning sun-origin-person, i.e., a Japanese person.

Sample sentences

Eng: I understand a little Japanese.

Lit: Me? Japanese! I understand it a little.


formal (show me)
watashi wa ni-hon-go ga sukoshi wakari-masu.

わたしは にほんごが すこし わかります。

私は日本語が少しわかります。

casual (show me)
boku ni-hon-go chotto wakaru.
 

ぼく にほんご ちょっと わかる。

僕日本語ちょっとわかる。


This sentence illustrates the main differences between formal and casual speech:


verbs
pronouns
adjectives
particles


Formal speech
-masu form
formal pronouns
formal adjectives
particles are explicit


casual speech
dictionary form
casual pronouns
casual adjectives
particles are implied


formal vs. casual
wakarimasu/wakaru
watashi vs. boku
sukoshi vs. chotto
wa/ga vs. nothing



Comments

The following comments explain some of the grammar in more detail.

Pronouns

I/you – watashi/anata

In Japanese, we can say ‘I’ and ‘you’ in many ways. ‘watashi’ is fairly safe to use for ‘I’. However, the respectful way to address someone else is not using ‘you’, directly, but addressing him or her indirectly, using the person’s last name and an honorific, e.g., ‘Tanaka san’; even ‘anata’, which is fairly formal, can be insulting in some cases. ‘anata’ is an example of how indirect the Japanese try to be; ‘anata’ literally means ‘that person over there’ even though we are using it to address the person right in front of us.

In pop culture, where casual speech reigns, ‘boku’ and ‘kimi’ are common and relatively polite, so we will use them here. The kanjis of ‘watashi’, ‘boku’ and ‘kimi’ are not in the kentei lv. 10 or 9 lists, but we use these words so often that it is worth learning them:

I, me


watashi


わたし



formal




boku


ぼく



casual, male only


you


anata (you)


あなた


 


formal




kimi (you)


きみ



casual


We can say ‘I’ and ‘you’ in many other ways; we comment about some of these in the clips.

Particles

Japanese ‘particles’ play the role of prepositions and conjunctions in English; they are words like ‘to’, ‘for’, ‘at’, ‘with’, ‘but’, or ‘in’. In Japanese, these particles usually follow the noun, e.g.,


English prepositions
to Tokyo
on Monday
by bus
at school
with you
until tomorrow


Japanese particles (postpositions)
toukyou he
getsu-youbi ni
basu de
gakkou ni
anata to
ashita made


Most particles have more than one function, but we will only discuss the function used in the lesson. Lesson 1 introduces the particles ‘ka’, ‘wa’, and ‘ga’.

ka/no – か・の

In lesson 1, ‘ka’ (か) performs its most common function: literally, it’s the question mark ‘?’.


English
English! Do you understand it?
You? Are you American?


romaji
ei-go ga wakari-masu ka
anata wa amerika-jin desu ka


When writing in Japanese, with kanjis or kanas, we often omit the question mark ‘?’ if the question ends in ‘ka’ because ‘ka’ is already the question mark, so writing ‘か?’ is like writing ‘??’. However, we often write the question mark ‘?’ when the question doesn’t end in ‘ka’, e.g., when it ends in は, の, な, ね, or something else.


English
Do you understand?
What about you?
Mr. Tanaka?


romaji
wakari-masu ka?
kimi wa?
tanaka san?


kana
わかりますか。
きみは?
たあなかさん?


kanji
分かりますか。
君は?
田中さん?


When we are being formal (e.g., talking to our boss) we use long sentences, and use the ‘-masu’ form of verbs (e.g., ‘wakari-masu’); when we are being casual (e.g., talking to a young sibling) we use short sentences, often drop (omit) particles, and use the short ‘dictionary’ form of verbs (e.g., ‘wakaru’):


Do you understand English?
English
formal
casual
more casual


romaji
ei-go ga wakari-masu ka?
ei-go ga wakaru ka?
ei-go wakaru ?


kana
えいごが わかりますか。
えいごが わかるか。
えいご わかる?


Sometimes the question mark ‘?’ is denoted with ‘no’ (の) instead of ‘ka’ (か), specially by women and children. For example, the formal title of the Japanese version of Eric Carle’s

“Brown Bear Brown Bear What do you see?”

would be

“kuma san kuma san nani wo mite imasu ka?”,

but since it is a children’s book the actual title is

“kuma san kuma san nani miteru no?”,

i.e., the casual version drops the ‘wo’ particle; it uses ‘miteru’, an abbreviation of the casual form ‘mite iru’, instead of the formal ‘masu’ form ‘mite imasu’; and – what we actually are interested in – it uses ‘no’ instead of ‘ka’ to represent the question mark ‘?’.

wa – は

A long time ago, the particle ‘wa’ used to be pronounced ‘ha’ (は); later the pronunciation changed to ‘wa’ (わ), but the writing of the particle remained ‘は’. We will write this particle in romaji as it sounds, i.e., ‘wa’.

は is the ‘topic marker’; we use it to mark what comes before は as the topic of the conversation, and to emphasize what comes after は as the important part of the sentence, e.g.,


watashi wa amerika-jin desu.


Me? I’m American.


Above we have used ‘wa’ to mark ‘watashi’ as the topic of the sentence, and to say that what is important is that ‘watashi’ is American. The part that precedes は, i.e., the topic, is often known from the context and it is secondary to the point that we can often omit it:


watashi wa amerika-jin desu.


Me? I’m American.


‘wa’ is often translated as ‘Speaking of…’ or ‘As for…’, but we are going to translate it just as a question mark [Rubin], e.g.,


watashi wa amerika-jin desu.


Me? I’m American.
(instead of “Speaking of me, I’m American.”)


Translating は as ‘?’ feels natural and fits well even in cases where the sentence consists only of the topic:


amerika-jin desu. anata wa?


I’m American. You?


ga – が

‘ga’ (が) has multiple functions. In lesson 1, we use it as the ‘subject’ marker, i.e., we mark what comes before が as the subject of the sentence and emphasize it, i.e., it’s the important part of the sentence. In the same way we can translate the topic marker ‘wa’ (は) as ‘?’, we can translate the subject marker ‘ga’ (が) as ‘!’ [Rubin]. For example, we might use either of these translations:


ei-go ga wakari-masu.


English! That I understand. (I understand English)
English! I understand it.


We cannot use context to identify the ‘subject’ that が marks because it is unknown, so we cannot remove it. Actually, Tae Kim goes as far as calling ‘ga’ the ‘identifier particle’ instead of the ‘subject marker’.

When using は, what is important follows the marker; when using が, what is important precedes the marker. In the following sentences, we mark ‘ei-go’ as both the topic of the first sentence, and the subject of the second one; we have underlined the part of the sentence that is important according to the particle used:


topic marker は
subject marker が


ei-go wa wakaru.
ei-go ga wakaru.


English ? I understand it.
English ! I understand it.


In the first case we are saying that among many possible languages, we understand English; what is important is that we understand it. In the second sentence we are saying that English is a language that we definitely understand; what is important is that it is English.

To highlight the difference further, check out the following questions. Google translate translates them both as ‘Does Mr. Mori understand/know English?’, which is correct, but the nuance is lost:


eigo wa mori san ga wakaru ka?

mori san wa eigo ga wakaru ka?


English? Does Mr. Mori understand it?

Mr. Mori? Does he understand English?


In the first question we are interested in Mr. Mori; could it be that he understands English? In the second question we are interested in finding out who understands English; could Mr. Mori be the one? So, if we were a detective snooping around, in the first case our suspect is Mr. Mori, while in the second case our suspect understands English.

Another example: from behind, we cover the eyes of a friend that we are trying to surprise. How do we reveal ourselves saying ‘Its me!’? Do we use ‘watashi wa’, or ‘watashi ga’? Well… we would say the same thing we would say in English: ‘watashi wa’ translates to ‘(Is it) me?’ (a stupid thing to ask to someone we are trying to surprise), while ‘watashi ga’ translates to ‘(It is) me!’ (surprise!), which is the correct response. So the important lesson here is that we don’t go around surprising people and revealing ourselves with ‘watashi wa’ because that does not make any sense.

Verbs

desu/da – です・だ

Usually, we pronounce ‘desu’ as ‘des’, i.e., the ‘u’ is very faint, or omitted completely.

‘desu’ is the verb ‘to be’; it is often called the ‘copula’, which means that it ‘links two things’. For example, in English, we link ‘John’ and ‘American’ with the verb ‘to be’ – “John is American”, while is Japanese we link them with the verb ‘desu’: “John wa america-jin desu”.

Japanese verbs don’t have singulars and plurals, so ‘desu’ is any of the conjugations of the verb ‘to be’:


watashi wa amerika-jin desu.
anata wa amerika-jin desu.
sumisu san wa amerika-jin desu.
tomu to jerii wa amerika-jin desu.


Me? I am American.
You? You are American.
Mr. Smith? He is American.
Tom and Jerry? They are American.


‘desu’ is used in formal speech; the casual version of ‘desu’ is ‘da’:


boku wa amerika-jin da.
kimi wa amerika-jin da.
sumisu san wa amerika-jin da.
tomu to jerii wa amerika-jin da.


Me? I am American.
You? You are American.
Mr. Smith? He is American.
Tom and Jerry? They are American.


Although ‘desu’ is formal, it is actually the abbreviation of even more polite forms, all of which mean ‘to be’:


to be
formal
formal+
formal++
formal+++
formal++++


de su
de aru
de gozaru
de ar-imasu
de goza-imasu


Some of these forms are archaic, so they often appear in samurai movies. Service personnel still use the last form to show extreme politeness to their patrons. Hence, it would not be unusual that a receptionist at a hotel or restaurant would introduce their place in the phone using it, e.g., instead of saying ‘toukyou hoteru desu’, they would say ‘touyou hoteru de goza-imasu’.

masu form

The ‘masu’ form is a formal verb form. Usually, we pronounce ‘masu’ as ‘mas’, not ‘masu’. In the ‘masu’ form, we attach the particle ‘-masu’ – or a variation of it – to the end of the verb; we attach ‘-masu’ for the positive conjugation, and ‘-masen’ for the negative one:


 
non-past


positive
masu (ます)


negative
-masen (ません)


Japanese verbs only make distinctions between past and non-past actions. For example, the positive and negative non-past conjugations of the verb ‘to eat’ are:


non-past
present tense
present continuous
future


tabe-masu
I eat
I am going to eat
I will eat


tabe-masen
I don’t eat
I am not going to eat
I won’t eat


That is, ‘tabe-masu’ means ‘I eat’, ‘I am going to eat’, and ‘I will eat’; the context indicates what we actually mean.

The ‘masu’ form is always formal. In the following examples, we modify the verbs ‘wakaru’ (to understand) and ‘sumu’ (to feel at ease) to use the ‘masu’ form.


English
I understand
I don’t understand

I feel at ease
I don’t feel at ease


romaji
wakari-masu
wakari-masen

sumi-masu
sumi-masen


kana
わかります
わかりません

すみます
すみません


dictionary form

The ‘dictionary’ form of a verb is the form in which the verb appears in a dictionary. This is the most used form in pop culture and casual conversations. In the same way that all non-past endings of the ‘masu’ form end in ‘-masu’ and ‘-masen’, all non-past endings of the dictionary form end in ‘-u’ and ‘-nai’:


 
non-past


positive
-u (-う)


negative
-nai (-ない)


Lesson 1 introduces two verbs in their non-past ‘masu’ forms: ‘wakari-masu’ (to understand), and ‘sumi-masu’ (to feel at ease). Their dictionary forms are ‘wakaru’ and ‘sumu’, so their non-past positive and negative dictionary forms are:


English
I understand
I don’t understand

I feel at ease
I don’t feel at ease


romaji
wakaru
wakara-nai

sumu
suma-nai


kana
わかる
わからない

すむ
すまない


Both る (ru) and む (mu) are syllables that end in ‘u’ so we are not breaking the rule that all dictionary verbs end in ‘-u’.

Expressions

sumi-masen – すみません

The negative ‘masu’ form of ‘sumu’ (to feel at ease) is ‘sumi-masen’, which means ‘to not feel at ease’; we use it as a light formal apology, similar to ‘excuse me’; ‘sumi-masen’ is usually pronounced ‘sui-masen’, without the ‘m’. To make the apology more formal, we follow it with ‘desu’. The negative dictionary form of ‘sumu’ is ‘suma-nai’, which is the corresponding light casual apology; to make it more casual we shorten it to ‘suman’:


English
I’m very sorry (more formal)
I’m sorry (formal)
sorry (casual)
oops (more casual)


romaji
sumi-masen desu
sumi-masen
suma-nai
suman


Like in English, we’d probably use ‘excuse me’ if we are asking someone to pass the salt, but if we poke someone in the eye with an umbrella, we will need a deeper apology to express that we are truly sorry. In this case, we use the more formal apology ‘gomen’ (‘your pardon’), or ‘gomen-nasai’ (‘your pardon-please’).

In the direction of being even more casual than ‘suman’, the adjective ‘warui’ (bad) is also used as a very casual apology; it means ‘my bad’.