Have you ever heard a non-native English speaker using correct, yet strange phrases that make them sound a bit unnatural? The same thing can happen to your Japanese if you're not too careful. In fact, I sometimes come across non-native Japanese speakers who are fluent in Japanese, but who still tend to use some unnatural expressions in their conversations. The truth is that Japanese and English are very different languages, so direct translations often sound strange and a bit “off.” This is made even worse by the fact that there might be certain Japanese grammar points or ways of speaking that don't exist in your own language.


So, here is a list of three common unnatural grammar structures that I have observed in non-native speakers:


Structure #1


  • 一緒に行きたいですか?

  • Issho ni ikitai desu ka?

  • Do you want to go together?


Some of my students from the community center had a cherry blossom viewing party coming up, and one student wanted me to join them. However, what she ended up asking was:


  • 「先生も一緒に行きたいですか?」

  • Sensei mo issho ni ikitai desu ka?

  • Teacher, do you want to go with us?


The problem with this is that we don’t really say “do you want to go?” in Japanese. Instead, we express our desire for you to go in a different way. The most common structure is:


  • 「先生も一緒に行きませんか?」

  • Sensei mo issho ni ikimasen ka?

  • Teacher, won’t you go with us?


In general, Japanese people behave modestly and tend to hesitate before directly sharing their true feelings with other people. Therefore if, for instance, you wanted your Japanese friend to taste your ice cream and you asked 食べたい? (tabetai?, do you want to eat some?) your friend would probably respond with “no, I don’t” simply because they think you are asking them about what they want to do. However, if you were to say 食べる? (taberu?, Literally: “you eat?”) or 食べてみて!(tabete mite!, try some!) instead, your friend would find it easier to say “yes, please.” This is because they now feel as if it is you who want them to try it. So, whenever you’d like your Japanese friend to do something, you should always remember to recommend that they do it, instead of asking them.


The same is true with positive and negative suggestions. For example:




  • カラオケ行く?

  • karaoke iku?

  • Literally: You going to karaoke?


This question sounds like an assertive proposal.




  • カラオケ行かない?

  • karaoke ikanai?

  • Literally: Won’t you go to karaoke?


This question sounds like a polite suggestion.


Structure #2


Here is another issue I have seen with students:


  • ポケモンを見たことがあるんですか?

  • Pokemon o mita koto ga arun desu ka?

  • You’ve seen Pokemon? (When trying to ask the question “have you seen Pokemon?”)


For instance, I was talking about Japanese anime with my student, when he asked:


  • 「ポケモンを見たことがあるんですか?」

  • Pokemon o mita koto ga arun desu ka?

  • You’ve seen Pokemon?


It sounded very unnatural. Then he added:


  • 「なんのキャラクターが好きなんですか?」

  • Nan no kyarakutaa ga sukinan desu ka?

  • Which Pokemon do you like? (unnatural without context)


  • 「他にどんなアニメを見るんですか?」

  • Hoka ni donna anime o mirun desu ka?

  • What other anime do you watch? (also unnatural without context)


Wait! There’s too much んです (n desu) happening here. The reason for this is that whenever you use んです (n desu) in Japanese, information must first be exchanged between the speakers. For example:


Person A:


  • 「ポケモンを見たことがありますか?」

  • Pokemon o mita koto ga arimasu ka?

  • Have you seen Pokemon?


Person B:


  • 「ありますよ。」

  • Arimasu yo.

  • Yes, I have.


Person A:


  • 「なんのキャラクターが好きですか?」

  • Nan no kyarakutaa ga suki nan desu ka?

  • Which Pokemon do you like?


Person B:


  • 「ゼニガメです。」

  • Zenigame desu.

  • Squirtle


Person A:


  • 「ゼニガメが好きなんですか?私もです!」

  • Zenigame ga sukinan desu ka? Watashi mo desu!

  • You like Squirtle? Me too!


In fact, there are three usages of んです (n desu).


One is when you already have some information about the topic of your question, but you want to obtain more information or learn the reason behind it. For example, if you saw that your colleague was reading a Harry Potter book, your conversation might go like this:


Person A:


  • 「何を読んでいるんですか?」

  • Nani o yonde irun desu ka?

  • What are you reading?


Person B:


  • 「ハリーポッター2です。映画が面白かったので、本を買ったんです。」

  • Harry Potter 2 desu. Eiga ga omoshirokatta node, hon o kattan desu.

  • Harry Potter 2. The movie was interesting, so I bought the book.


The second use is when you want to know why somebody said something. For example:


Person A:


  • 「抹茶大好き!」

  • Maccha daisuki!

  • I love matcha tea!


Person B:


  • 「アメリカにも抹茶あるんですか?」

  • America nimo maccha arun desu ka?

  • Do you have matcha in America as well?


The final usage is when you want to explain something, especially when someone has already asked you something using んです (n desu). For example:


Person A:




Person B:


  • 「あ、こんにちは!今日からここに住むデイビットです。」

  • A, konnichiwa! Kyou kara koko ni sumu David desu.

  • Oh, hello! I’m David. I’m going to live here from now on.


Person A:


  • 「え、日本語話せるんですか?」

  • E, Nihongo hanaserun desu ka?

  • Ah, you speak Japanese?


Person B:


  • 「はい。大学で4年間ぐらい勉強したんです。」

  • Hai. Daigaku de yo-nen gurai benkyou shitan desu.

  • Yes, I studied it for about four years at college.


In all these situations, you already know some information based on what the other person had said previously. Thus, you can use んです (n desu).


Structure #3: Male vs. Female Speech


Take a look at the conversation below:


  • 女:「明日雨だって。ジョギングできない。」

  • Ashita ame date. Jogingu dekinai.

  • I heard that it’s going to rain tomorrow. We can’t go jogging.


  • 女:「雨は午後からでしょ?朝一緒にしようよ!」

  • Ame wa gogo kara desho? Asa issho ni shiyou yo!

  • It won’t rain until the afternoon though, right? Let’s jog in the morning!


And now this one:


  • 男:「明日雨だって。ジョギングできない。」

  • Ashita ame date. Jogingu dekinai.

  • I heard it’s going to rain tomorrow. We can’t go jogging.


  • 男:「雨は午後からだろ?朝一緒にしようよ!」

  • Ame wa gogo kara daro? Asa issho ni shiyou yo!

  • It won’t rain until the afternoon though, right? Let’s jog in the morning!


These two conversations have the same meaning, but use different styles. The first one is “female speech,” while the second one is “male speech.” This may be surprising, but Japanese utilizes different forms for male and female speech. Thus, to sound more natural, you should avoid using the speech patterns of the opposite gender. Be especially careful of sentence ending particles. Females use でしょ (desho) and males use だろ (daro).


A good example of this comes from one of my students who had a Japanese girlfriend. As you can imagine, he learned a lot of his Japanese from her. After a while, I noticed that his Japanese skills were definitely improving. However, his speech sounded a bit feminine. He used (no) and (wa) quite a bit.


Let’s look at another example:


  • 「今日ペットショップに行ったの。猫が超かわいかったわ!」

  • Kyou petto shoppu ni itta no. Neko ga chou kawaikatta wa!

  • I went to the pet shop today. The cats were so cute!


Keep in mind that females frequently use and sometimes even . Therefore, if you are male, you should should say:


  • 「今日ペットショップに行った。猫が超かわいかったよ!」

  • Kyou petto shoppu ni itta. Neko ga chou kawaikatta yo!

  • I went to the pet shop today. The cats were so cute!


One last point about this is that males use “rough” words more than females.


For example:


  • 女:「お腹空いたー!」

  • Onaka suita!

  • I’m hungry!


  • 男:「腹減ったー!」

  • Hara hetta!

  • I’m hungry!


So, if you are male, be manly and master these differences!


Image Sources


Hero Image by Edward Dalmulder (CC BY 2.0)