Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Real" Japanese

Recently I've started reading a book called 問題な日本語 (Problematic Japanese). It's about a lot of the erroneous Japanese in common usage these days, and it's kind of interesting. Though maybe that says more about me than the book (yes, sometimes I like to read about grammar and linguistics).

It got me thinking. Learning a language by talking with real, live natives is one of the best ways to learn. But you should keep in mind that not 100% of what you hear will be "technically correct." And it can be difficult to pick apart local dialect and vernacular from incorrect Japanese. Thus "real" Japanese is not always "correct" Japanese.

A good example is the way 「全然」 (ぜんぜん) is often used. You may hear someone say something like 「全然いいよ」 (that's perfectly fine). However 「全然」is correctly used with negative forms. 「全然良くない」 (not good at all, or completely bad), for example. Using it with a positive like 「いい」 is technically wrong.

Of course languages evolve and change over time, and oftentimes speaking fluently means making mistakes and using "incorrect" words or phrases.

I guess it all depends on your goals. If you're aiming to reach a conversational level and that's it, stuff like this is purely academic and you can ignore it. But if you're aiming for a job, say, that requires you to be able to write and speak in "good" Japanese, or if you're studying for a proficiency exam, this kind of thing is worth being aware of.

Personally this is why I think textbooks have merit and are good supplements to immersion and other forms of study.

What do you think? Is knowing "correct" Japanese important? 


  1. As you say many Japanese including me don't speak correct Japanese.
    If people from other countries can speak correct Japanese, they will be regarded as intelligential people.
    In addition it seems very possible that they can get high-paying jobs.:)

  2. Thanks for commenting, Coco! I think it's the same in any country. In America lots of people also use "incorrect" English.

  3. I was going to point out that colloquial English isn't always technically correct either, like "I don't feel good" or "I want to go so bad". Many people use "Sarah and I/Sarah and me" incorrectly too and will usually just default to I even though it's wrong. I don't think speaking in perfect Japanese is really important. If certain incorrect colloquialisms have found their way into everyday Japanese, I say use them! :)

  4. You sound like my dad when you mentioned [全然]! lol. It is better to learn correct Japanese, although not a requirement because, like you said, even Japanese people use words incorrectly. I sometimes wish people would correct me more often instead of letting the mistake slide :-)

  5. Allie - thanks for commenting. I think in daily life you're right. And sometimes speaking 100% correctly can seem kind of odd, I imagine.

    Kaori - Haha...he sounds like a wise man. =) Thanks for stopping by, as always!

  6. What I've always said is, if a lot of native speakers are saying something and it violates a grammatical model... that means that the model is wrong, not the speakers. The point of rules of grammar is they are supposed to conform to what is spoken.... NOT the other way around!

  7. In order for a language to be a language, it needs to keep changing. Otherwise, it would die out. Or at least that's what my English professor once said.

    There was a time when one would say 兄があります, but now it would be 兄がいます.

    I think it's important to sound as educated as the Japanese person in your field. A professor might talk differently than a daycare worker.

    I agree with what Xamuel says about the model being wrong.

    There are some things in English that just aren't right, such as "my friend and me". But other things have changed like "more fun" and "funner". So the same for Japanese, learn the things that are changing, avoid the things that make you sound uneducated.

  8. Xamuel - Well said. I agree for the most part. Languages evolve over time.

    Hi Rachel - thanks for commenting! Good point. Oftentimes the import of being "correct" depends on your setting.

  9. My high school English teacher would always say, 'Good writers break the rules, but before you can break them you first must learn them.' Breaking some rules of grammar can make you sound foolish while breaking others can make you sound creative or 'hip'. A combination of textbook study and interaction with authentic speakers will help you learn which rules are okay to bend.


  10. Nicely put, Jeff! That's a great quote!

  11. I don't think it's always useful to think in terms of what's correct or incorrect. If I read that something is incorrect I put a mental flag up against it, pay attention to how it's used, and am cautious about using it myself. But if something is often used, then I can't really think of it as being entirely "incorrect".

    One classic rule I heard about quite early was "はいは一回", which is to say, you should only say "hai" once. Of course, Japanese people break this rule all the time, mostly without thinking anything of it. "Hai, hai, wakarimashita".

    As some people have said, it depends what situation you're in whether you should follow one of these rules or not. Though I think the 'hai' rule is kind of dumb, I would follow it in a particularly formal situation.

  12. Thanks for commenting, Richard. You may be right. I'm starting to think one's level is a big factor of how important it is.

    By the way, I like the look of your blog. Will be checking it out.