Japanese language learning experience (Rev: 1.6)

From year 1994 to 1997, I took the Japanese Language Course (Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced-I) at the Japanese Cultural Society (JCS) Japanese Language School. Although I have passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level 3 on Dec 1995, I still cannot speak Japanese fluently.

I attended a JLPT preparatory course at JCS. Although the teacher is not a Japanese, he can speak Japanese fluently. We listened to the past years JLPT tapes. The teacher explained and gave us the answers to the questions from the tapes. My friend bought the JLPT preparation course book at a bookshop. From the standard answers given from the book, some of the answers gave by the teacher does not match it...

Types of speech in Japanese

There are 4 levels of speech in Japanese:

  1. Abrupt. Use when speaking "down" to children, animals or other social inferiors.

  2. Informal. Use when speaking with close friends, family members, or peers in a casual situation.

  3. Normal-polite. Use when speaking with strangers, business associates and others when courtesy is called for. This is what we usually learn in the JCS Japanese Language School.

  4. Honorific. Use in very formal situations or when speaking to superiors, clients, etc. If a wife speaks to his husband using the honorific speech during a heated argument, the meaning of "respect" towards the husband might not be true.

Each levels of speech in Japanese has different vocabulary, verb endings, grammatical constructions, etc. There is also a degree of acceptable overlap between the levels of speech, as well as certain traditional Honorific expressions that may be used at any level (greetings, apologies, etc). These are the parts where I find it difficult to master the Japanese language.

In school, we studied the normal-polite speech. However, informal verb endings are freely used in "Impersonal" speech such as broadcast news, formal announcements, Japanese comics and movie, etc. Whenever I watched a Japanese movie, I usually don't understand those informal speech because of the different vocabulary, grammatical construction, etc. If you are new to Japanese language, I would advice you to look for courses that teach informal Japanese speech in order to pick it up quickly.


[1] Japanese verbs and essentials of grammar - a practical guide to the mastery of Japanese by Rita L. Lampkin.

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