My Relationship Using Casual and Polite Japanese

If you’re learning or have learned in the classroom setting, you most likely have been ingrained with the ~ます form to the point that it’s become a bad habit.

When you enter into a relationship with a native Japanese speaker, whether as friends or romantically, it’s very likely that this person will excuse your improper speaking for not being a native speaker. One classmate of mine was still using formal speech with the woman he is engaged to, and realized it was a problem when her family commented on how strange it was.

Native speakers may excuse you for speaking out of formality, but don’t make excuses for yourself. Explain to your Japanese friend or boyfriend/girlfriend that you’re still learning and want to be corrected when slipping out of formality. Ask them which formality you should be using with them.

For many of you who use the immersion method, this is not your struggle. Instead, like how I started off, you’ll begin with the plain form and will want to use it to show off that you’re not like the classroom learner. This is equally bad habit forming. Since you’re not in the classroom setting, most of your relationships will use the plain form.

An easy fix for this is to enroll yourself in a classroom for a semester. Unlike the average native speaker, a Japanese teacher will correct you for using the plain form with him or her.  However, I have encountered one teacher of a conversation based class who did not correct his students for using the plain form with him. In these cases be direct and say that you want to be corrected. If the class seems too lax, leave and find another. The goal is learning how to be formal.

The first time I met my husband’s family back when we were dating, I had the bad habit of only using casual speech. I’m lucky I’m a foreigner, because otherwise there would’ve been no excuse for speaking so informally with my future in-laws. It wasn’t until I started taking Japanese class in college that I learned to use the ~ます form naturally. With the class I also learned other things, such as handing in papers with both hands, words on the pages facing the receiver.

Even though you’re putting yourself in a classroom that is using a different method of learning, you’re effectively using the immersion method by immersing yourself in a formal environment.

Read more of Rachel’s writing on immersion techniques at Is It Possible

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Rachel M.

Writer and Educator. Learning Japanese using immersion, currently soaking up as many novels and manga as possible in hopes of one day writing her own novel in Japanese. Also because she loves Japanese books.


My Relationship Using Casual and Polite Japanese — 3 Comments

  1. I feel that this is my problem. I am teaching myself and I am worried about being too formal with someone. I am had thought of taking a Class before I study abroad to see where my Japanese is and to learn when to be polite.

    • I shouldn’t worry about this too much. This may well be bad advice, but in my experience just let the Japanese person you’re speaking to take the lead and, depending on the situation, copy what they’re doing! They’re going to able to judge the situation much better than you, after all. It’s probably better to be too polite than to seem overly informal!

      As an example, I was reading a manga on the train from London to Brighton when a guy about the same age as me sat in the neighbouring seat and we struck up a conversation because he knew the manga I was reading (ピュ-と吹くジャガー, but we mostly talked about すごいよ!!マサルさん). His English was really good, but he immediately started out using the plain form when he spoke in Japanese, whereas I, meeting a new person, used the ~ます form. Role reversal, almost.

      This was an unusual situation that would almost never happen in Japan, so things worked a little differently than they would have otherwise. Learning to judge a situation, or just know your place, is important. Anyway, you should’ve seen the faces on the people around us when two random strangers suddenly started speaking a foreign language on a busy train!

  2. This has gotten me thinking on how I need to learn the plain tense. Since when I started immersion, I wanted to be liked so I fell into ます

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