When I moved to Japan I was determined to learn the language as fast as possible. I didn’t take into account my shyness and my perfectionism, though. Whenever I opened my mouth to speak, I became super self-conscious. I could hear my mistakes and I kept hesitating, too nervous to produce a whole sentence without pausing.
That’s why it took me months to start using the language with some confidence. In the beginning, I would go along with my introvert side and just listen and observe. Then I started to imitate what I was hearing. Not only the words and expressions but also the sounds, the silences, the pauses. Finally, after about a year, I was able to speak with confidence with friends, colleagues, teachers and strangers.
I had learned how to talk, but also how to react to others’ words, when to pause, how to listen. I had even understood that there was no need to fear hesitation: I just had to express hesitation in my target language, too.
Speaking in Japanese
Japanese is a language where so many things are left unsaid – in a way, it is a great language for introverts and observers. To speak it, you have to understand the Japanese way to suggest something or to leave it unspoken.
More than in other languages, abruptly starting a conversation won’t sound natural.
To help you feel a bit more prepared to speak Japanese, today I’ll introduce you to some useful words and expressions. These will help you to start a conversation and to keep it going.
では、始めましょう！/dewa, hajimemashou/ So, let’s begin!
Words to start a conversation
あのう、すみませんが… /anou, sumimasenga... /
This is a must-know. It means “Excuse me” and it’s used to get the attention of the person you want to talk to.
/anou, sumimasenga. Kiyomizudera ha dochira desu ka/
Excuse me, which way is the Kiyomizudera temple?
By itself, it is used to attract the listener’s attention. Think of it as “Say…”, “Err…”, “Well…”.
/anou, Suzuki san, ima jikan ga arimasuka/
Err… Mister Suzuki, do you have a moment now?
In informal conversation, you’ll often hear also あのね /anone/, more feminine, and あのさあ /anosaa/, used mostly by men.
This word is very useful to take some time and think of what to say or what to reply. It’s used when hesitating and its meaning is similar to “Let me see, err, well”.
/etto… Midori-san desu yo ne/
Let’s see… You’re Midori, right?
それで /sorede/, では /dewa/ (formal), で /de/, じゃ /ja/ (informal)
When used in the beginning of a sentence, they mark a new topic. They can be translated as “So”.
/sorede, kyou no kaigi wo hajimemashou/
So, let’s start today’s meeting.
/de, kinou no shiai, katta?/
So, did you win yesterday’s match?
This is used to bring up the main topic of a discussion, or to confess or admit something. It means “To tell the truth, as a matter of fact, actually, frankly”.
/jitsuwa, soudan shitai koto ga arundesuga/
To tell the truth, there is something I need advice with…
Words to keep the conversation going
You can use this word when you want to change the topic of discussion. It means “By the way”.
/tokorode, kono hon wo yonda koto ga arimasuka?/
By the way, have you read this book?
It means “For example”.
/houga ni kyoumi wo motteimasu. Tatoeba, Kurosawa kantoku no eiga ga daisuki desu/
I’m interested in Japanese cinema. For example, I love movies by director Kurosawa.
Japanese fillers: Aizuchi 相槌
Aizuchi 相槌 are interjections and fillers used in Japanese during a conversation to let the speaker know you’re listening attentively to what they’re saying. They are essential for the conversation to go smoothly: without them, the speaker might think you’re not interested, or you’re a bit distant. Through aizuchi, you encourage the speaker to tell you more and you show that you want to hear their story.
They might sound weird to you in the beginning, but it’s important to learn how to use them when speaking with Japanese people.
それで /sorede/ (formal), で /de/ (informal)
These two words can be used also as aizuchi. When someone is telling you a story, you can use them as questions to know more. They can be translated as “And then?”, “Then what?”.
– あのね… 田中くんをデートに誘ったよ。/anone… Tanaka-kun wo dēto ni sasotta yo/
-へええ！で? /ee! de?/
– Well… I invited Tanaka on a date. – Whaaat? Then what?
はい /hai/, ええ /ee/, うん /un/
These words mean “Yes”, with different degrees of formality. はい /hai/ is formal, うん /un/ is informal. As fillers, they have a similar use as “Yes, I see, OK, Uh-huh”.
パーティの前に新しいドレスを買いたい。/pātī no mae ni atarashii doresu wo kaitai/
散髪もしてもらいたい。 /sanpatsu mo shite moraitai/
– Before the party, I want to buy a new dress. – OK. – I also want to get a haircut. – I see.
そうですね /sou desu ne/ (formal), ですよね /desu yo ne/, だよね /da yo ne/ (informal)
These are used to agree with something the speaker said. They mean “I agree, you’re right, indeed”.
この音楽、きれいですね。 /kono ongaku, kirei desu ne/
そうですね。 /sou desu ne/
This music is beautiful, isn’t it. – I agree.
高野くん、かっこいいね！ /Takano-kun, kakkouii yo ne/
だよね！ /da yo ne/
– Takano is cool, isn’t he? – Totally!
そうですか /sou desu ka?/
It means “Really? Is that so?” and it’s used when someone tells you something you didn’t know. To show interest in some
彼氏と別れました。/kareshi to wakaremashita/
そうですか。 /sou desu ka/
– I broke up with my boyfriend. – Really?
When pronounced in an ascending tone, it shows surprise or enthusiasm, a bit like “Whaaat?!”. Careful, because when it’s pronounced in a descending tone it shows you’re not too interested in what is being said.
来年アメリカへ行くよ！ /rainen Amerika e iku yo/
– Next year I’m going to America, you know! – Whaaat?!
本当ですか。 /hontou desu ka/ – 本当に /hontou ni/ – マジ /maji/
These expressions indicate surprise, like the English “Really? Seriously? Are you serious?”.
橋本さんが首になったよ。 /Hashimoto san ga kubi ni natta yo/
– Mister Hashimoto got fired, you know. – Seriously?
This is a casual expression showing agreement, and it means “I think so too, I told you so!, I know right?”.
このアニメ、やっぱりいいね。 /kono anime, yappari ii ne/
– As expected, this anime is good! – I know right?
These are some of the most common expressions you can use to make your Japanese conversation sound more natural.
If you don’t feel ready to use them in conversation, yet, try to identify them in movies, series or shows. Observe their use and get familiar with it. Learning how to use them will make a big difference in the way you socialise in Japanese!
What are the most common fillers and conversation openers in your language? Is it common to show interest in the conversation by using gap fillers?