Here you are: you have been studying the Japanese language for some time and you are ready to have conversations with Japanese people. However, the Japanese language learned from a textbook or in the classroom can be quite different from the Japanese language people actually speak!
Here are some tips that will make your Japanese sound more natural, especially in casual conversations.
1) Stop using “watashi wa” (私は) right now
This is the most surprising fact for Japanese language learners, but also the biggest clue that will immediately tell your Japanese counterparts that you are still a beginner in the language. As you may have heard before, the Japanese language is highly contextual, which means that any element that can be implied by the context will be erased from the conversation.
Japanese people will not say “watashi wa” (私は) unless the context is unclear enough to wonder who you are talking about.
Let’s say you would like to say “I am from the USA,” you have probably learned to say:
Watashi wa Amerikajin desu.
Instead, just say:
If you would like to say you like apples, don’t say:
Watashi wa ringo ga suki desu.
Ringo ga suki desu.
By the way, if you are a man, you will also probably want to change the pronoun “watashi” (私) for one of the two most commonly used by men: “boku” (僕) or “ore” (俺). “Watashi” is fine in a situation when you need to be polite, like in business, but in a casual conversation, it will sound too polite or even feminine.
To sum up roughly, “boku” is a pronoun used by males, but is still a bit polite and more on the soft side, while “ore” is a more relaxed, manly kind of pronoun (never use this one in business situations).
Choose according to your character or where you live in Japan. Usage of one or the other may vary depending on the location, and local pronouns may also appear. When I was living in Kyushu, many girls used “uchi” instead of “watashi”.
2) Stop saying “anata” (あなた), too
The same rule applies to “anata wa” (あなたは), “anata ga”（あなたが）, “anata no”（あなたの）… etc. In the case of “anata wa,” if the context allows it, just drop it, like for “watashi wa.”
For Japanese people, being told “anata” actually sounds kind of rough! If you really need to say “you,” it is better to address the other person by their name.
This can feel a little bit strange at first, like you are talking to them as if they were a third person, but you will get used to it quickly.
If you want to ask Mr. Tanaka where he lives, don’t say:
Anata wa doko ni sunde imasu ka?
Tanaka-san wa doko ni sunde imasu ka?
Doko ni sunde imasu ka?
If you watch Japanese TV series or anime, you surely have heard the pronouns “omae” (お前) or “kimi”（君）. I would advise to never use “omae,” unless you are REALLY good friends enough to joke around teasing your Japanese friend, or you are REALLY angry at someone.
And unless you are speaking to a child less than 10 years old, I don’t recommend using “kimi” or you will sound extremely patronizing.
3) Learn the neutral forms of verbs and use them in casual conversations
Another giveaway that you are still a beginner at Japanese conversation is the usage of the “desu,” “-masu” (～です、～ます) forms in all contexts.
A Japanese friend once told me: ‘It’s a bit amusing how many foreigners can only talk using ’desu,’ ‘-masu.’ You’re having a casual conversation and they sound so polite. I guess that’s how they’re taught in school.”
Many textbooks will get you to talk in the “desu,” “-masu” form and will present it as the middle-polite form you cannot go wrong with. It is true, but when you start making friends, especially young people, using the “desu,” “-masu” form will sound too formal. So make sure to remember the neutral “-ru” (～る) forms of verbs and use them as soon as possible in the appropriate social settings. This casual way of speaking is called “tameguchi” (ため口) in Japanese. Just in case, avoid using it with people older than you until they tell you it is okay.
So, to tell your friend you are watching a movie, don’t say:
Eiga o miteimasu.
Eiga o miteiru.
4) Un (うん), ee? (ええ？): Aizuchi is key
In most Western cultures, keeping eye contact and nodding during conversation are signs you send your counterpart to show them that you are listening to what they are saying. In Japanese culture, keeping eye contact for too long is seen as intrusive. You will notice how people will sometimes look on the side or somewhere else while they are talking to you.
In this context, Japanese people use something called “aizuchi” (相槌), that is, making sounds and expressing various reactions to show you they are listening carefully. Even when you speak English with a Japanese person, they tend to use aizuchi out of habit, which can be a little disturbing at first.
In casual conversation, the main aizuchi is “un” (うん) in Japanese, which also means “yes.” In business settings, you should rather use “hai” (はい).
Another common aizuchi is “ee” (ええ), to express surprise to what the other person is saying. The longer and louder the “eeeeeeee,” the more surprised you are. Just turn on any entertainment show on TV and you will hear the audience going “EEEEEEEE” all the time as if life was a constant source of astonishment.
5) “Sou desu ne” (そうですね) / “Sou desu ka” （そうですか） / “Sou nan desu ka”（そうなんですか)
I’m cheating a bit here, as these four expressions are also aizuchi, but are part of the necessary tool kit to survive any Japanese conversation.
Chances are you are already familiar with “sou desu ne” (そうですね), which is used to show agreement with what the other person is saying. Its casual form is “sou dane” (そうだね).
“Sou desu ka?” (そうですか？) is like the interrogative form of the expression above. It is used to acknowledge something you did not know. It can be roughly translated as “Really?” Just be careful to pronounce it with a falling tone at the end of the sentence. If you pronounce it with a rising tone, it will sound like you are highly doubting what you are told. The casual form of this expression is “sou nano?” (そうなの？) or “sou?“（そう？）
“Sou nan desu ka?/!” (そうなんですか?/!) is pretty similar to “sou desu ka?” but shows more surprise. It can be used as an interrogation or an exclamation. Its casual form is “sou nanda!” (そうなんだ! ), used for exclamation only.
The legend says that you can keep a conversation going until the end of times using only “sou desu ne” and “sou desu ka.”
6) “Tashika ni” (確かに) and “yappari” (やっぱり)
Okay, I’m cheating again here. “Tashika ni” (確かに) also falls in the aizuchi category. But not only is this one more often used by intermediate speakers, it will also show that you are not merely listening to what the other person is saying: you are also thinking about what they are saying. It can be translated as “that’s true,” “right,” or “good point.”
Kurasu no naka de wa, Mai-chan ga ichiban kawaii.
In our class, Mai-chan is the prettiest.
“Yappari” (やっぱり) is used to express you got further confirmation for something you already knew. It can be used when you are telling someone something, but it can also be used as aizuchi, too.
Tonari no raamenya ni itta kedo yappari shimatteita.
I went to the ramen restaurant next door but as I thought it was closed.
Mai-chan wa yappari kirei da naa.
Mai-chan definitely is beautiful.
Ore wa Mai-chan ni koi shiteiru.
I’m in love with Mai-chan.
I knew it!
7) Use “-yo” (～よ) and other emphasis particles
“-yo” (～よ) is a small particle put at the end of sentences that cannot really be translated into English. It is generally understood as putting emphasis on what you are saying, but depending on context, it can also soften it.
For example, in casual conversation, I would recommend to replace “desu” (です) by “dayo” (だよ) instead of “da” (だ) alone, which can sound a little rough. Sometimes using “-yo” will just make you sound livelier or friendlier. It is hard to explain with logic when to use it, there is a kind of “feeling” for it that you have to develop. Listening to how people use it around you will give you some clues.
Depending on the area where you live in Japan, “-yo” can be replaced by other particles. People in Kansai (who speak Kansai-ben) prefer to use “-wa” (～わ) or “-de” (～で). In some parts of Kyushu, people use “-ken”（～けん）.
“Ne” (ね) is another classic particle used at the end of sentences to suggest the other person agrees or will agree with you. But you already knew about this one, ne?
8) “Eeto” (えーと)
If you are watching Japanese anime or dramas (TV series), you have probably already heard this one. “Eeto”（えーと）is used at the beginning of a sentence to gain some time to think before responding, like “err” in English. But be careful not to overuse it.
If someone is asking you a difficult question, you can use the combo “sou desu ne” (to show that it is indeed a very good question) followed by “eeto.”
Tanaka-san, kyuuryou o agete morattemo ii desu ka?
Tanaka-san, could you raise my salary?
Sou desu ne… eeto…
9) Nanka (なんか)
“Nanka” (なんか), derived from nanika (何か) which means “something,” does not mean much in itself and is just there to punctuate a casual conversation, similar to “like” in English. Be careful not to use it too much or you will end up sounding like a not very bright teenager.
Mai-chan wa nanka, kireisugite, ore wa itsumo nanka, tereteirunda.
Mai-chan is like, too beautiful and I’m always, like, intimidated.
10) In casual conversations, use contractions
Chances are you are going to be happy about these.
If you have learned that in Japanese, to say “must,” you must use “–nakerebanarimasen” (～なければなりません), and have trouble remembering it or pronouncing it, please note that in casual conversation, you can reduce it to “-nakya” (~なきゃ). No kidding.
With friends you can stop saying:
I must go home quickly.
Hayaku kaeranakya (often pronounced ‘kaennakya’).
I must go home quickly.
The same goes with the “-teshimaimashita” (～てしまいました ) form, which expresses regret or the fact you cannot undo what has been done. In casual conversation, you can reduce it to “-chatta” (～ちゃった).
Instead of confessing:
Choko o zembu tabete shimaimashita.
I’ve eaten all the chocolates.
Choko o zembu tabechatta.
I’ve eaten all the chocolates.