A few days ago I was sat in a cafe with a friend, when a group young people (gah I’m so old) sat at the table behind us. The group consisted of 3 Japanese junior high school girls, and 3 German people. My friend and I were studying but as soon as we could overhear Japanese, our concentration was broken.
It was then that one of the German kids started speaking in quite low level Japanese.
“とても高いです！” [It's really expensive]
What stood out about this was that…you very rarely hear a native speaker use とても [really]. Only when you’re really emphasising something, I think. But people learning Japanese love to use it.
[EDIT: I posted about this on Facebook and a Japanese friend said she'd use it with her boss. Perhaps it's too polite for normal usage? I'm no native speaker, I don't have the answer!]
It got me thinking about all the things that foreigners say a lot that aren’t exactly incorrect Japanese, they just aren’t what a Japanese person would normally use.
And before I continue I’d like to say that I am by no means an expert on Japanese. If anyone would like to correct me on anything here, or add something, please do so!
So, instead of とても, what should one say? Well, here are what I consider to be slightly more natural ways to express the same;
If you’re with friends, and are a girl, like the group in the coffee shop, you might use 超 [cyou]. It’s used by young women a lot, and is pretty informal. It has the nuance of being ‘overly’ as opposed to ‘really’ like with とても. メッチャ can be used in the same way, but has a nuance like ‘totally’ in English, as opposed to ‘overly’ like 超.
I’d say that the most general, natural ways to say “it’s really expensive” would either be “けっこう高い” or ”かなり高い”. A google search says that けっこう高い gets 139,000,000 hits whereas かなりたかい gets a little less at 137,000,000. Neither of these mean flat out “really expensive”, both mean more “quite/fairly expensive”. I think in Japanese it’s better to imply something rather than saying it directly, and so maybe this is why things are said this way.
Another rookie mistake is the use of することができる [are able to do ___]. There’s a magazine stand near where I live that is owned by a French guy who loves Japan. I sometimes go in there and speak with him in Japanese since he likes the practice (and I could do with the practice these days too!!) When I first met him, I remember, he was so happy to find another Japanese speaker, he bellowed at me “OOh! 日本語を話す事ができますか？” [You're able to speak Japanese?]
Now, I know why we non-native speakers use 〜事ができる. It’s because you don’t have to think about changing the end of the words, right? Well, the thing is, I’ve never heard a native speaker use this phrase before – they use the harder, verb changing grammar. So, instead of 日本語を話す事が出来る they’d say 日本語を話せる. Yep, changing that second to last hiragana. It’s a pain, I know.
I have one last example of common mistake. And it’s one I know all too well. When we all start out with Japanese, we all like to translate literally from our mother tongues, and so we translate all the words. The word “you” is あなた and so, perfect! You can ask something like “what’s your name?” – “あなたの名前は何ですか？” Just typing this into google brings up mainly direct translations of “genki English songs”, or websites for Japanese – English translation. It’s just not used so much. If you don’t know a person yet, you’d be polite and shove an お, the honorific prefix, onto the name – お名前は何ですか？
Even when you get to know a person, you don’t use あなた. When I went to study in Japan I didn’t know how to cope with this lack of ‘you’ and so when I learnt the word きみ, which also means you, I used it a lot. Although it’s the kind of thing a boyfriend would use for his girlfriend, it’s not a cute way of saying “you”, it is mainly used where a superior person is speaking to an inferior person – like a boss to the secretary. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with my Japanese friends. The truth is, you don’t need to use anything at all – most of the time Japanese doesn’t even need a subject anyway! They just make it that way to make translators like us cry. It’s like a great mystery in Japanese conversation, just leave it up to the listeners to figure out who you are talking to!
If anyone has any other examples like this, I’d love to hear them! Things like this really interest me – differences in languages are the interesting parts of learning! Especially because I have a lot of people following my blog who have a much higher level of Japanese than myself – I’d love to hear your views on this!