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Sound smart in Japanese for beginners

Illustration by Kanae Asai

By Yohey Arakawa “あの、バスは…?”

Tim (Timothy Mason Jr.) has just arrived at Narita Airport(成(なり)田(た)空(くう)港(こう)). His cousin George can’t come to meet him because he’s suddenly fallen sick, so Tim is confused. George has been studying Japanese at a university(大(だい)学(がく))in Tokyo for a year, and has promised to guide Tim around Tokyo during his stay. Thus Tim has to get himself to Kichijoji, Tokyo, with his very limited Japanese.Speech

Today’s conversation

ティム (Tim):① ああ…。(Uhh ...)

係(かかり)員(いん)(attendant)A:いらっしゃいませ。(May I help you?)

ティム (Tim):② どこ、バス…? (Where ... bus ...?)

係員A:バス乗(の)り場(ば)は地(ち)下(か)になります。(The bus station is on the basement floor.) 地下、ダウンステアです。(You know, downstairs.)

ティム (Tim):(Bowing and smiling) どうも。

Tim starts walking down the stairs and finds the bus ticket counter.

ティム (Tim):あの、吉(きち)祥(じょう)寺(じ)(Kichijoji)は…?

係員B:はい、3(さん)番(ばん)乗り場です。(Go to bus stop No. 3, please.)

ティム(Tim):(Smiling again)どうも。Speech

① ああ…。→ あのう…?

If you have little or no previous knowledge of the Japanese language and are trying to survive by yourself in this country, you should first remember some key phrases. The shorter the better for novice learners, of course(もちろん). Because of the short length, however, slight differences in pronunciation (発(はつ)音(おん))matter a lot, like the difference between “hi” and “hey” in English.

When Tim said “ああ” it certainly conveyed his hesitancy to the attendant, but it could also sound as if he were looking down on the other person. In contrast, “あのう” is used before modestly asking someone a question(質(しつ)問(もん)), so it is the better choice here. Also notice how Tim said “どうも” in the dialogue. This is an informal word used to mean both “hi” for acquaintances and “thank you” for anyone.

② どこ、バス…?→ バスは…?

Since Tim was trying to find out where the bus depot was, his choice of words looks fitting. One good idea is adding “wa” after the crucial word, with a rising intonation. Starting with “あのう” as above also works well to show you are concerned about something.

A. (trying to find a ramen shop) あのう、ラーメン屋(や)は…? (Excuse me, a ramen restaurant ...?)

Unbelievably, more than 1,000 English words have entered the Japanese language as katakana loanwords. “Bus” is one such example. This means you already know more than 1,000 Japanese words, so you can speak a lot! A good way to speak English words Japanese-style will be featured in this column(コラム)in May.

B. (when you find something you have never seen before) あのう、これは…? (So, this is ...? )

C. (when you get lost) あのう、ここは…?(So, here is ...? )

In Japanese, speaking only a question word like “いくら? (How much?)” or “なに? (What?)” sounds rude or childish. By adding “desuka” after these words to make “いくらですか?” or “なんですか?,” you sound polite.Speech

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Arakawa is a professor of modern Japanese at the Institute of Japan Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is also a language supervisor for “Japan-easy” on NHK World TV.Speech

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