Chapter 1

1. Basic Word Order

The sentence order is very different from English. In English we use Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), but in Japanese it is usually (but not always!) Subject-Object-Verb (SOV).

English S V O
I eat bread.
Japanese S O V
watashi wa pan o tabemasu.

Notice the "extra" words wa & o. These are called particles (or grammatical markers) and tell us a lot about the function of the word it follows. Don't worry! We will get to particles soon enough.

You can read more on Japanese Word Order here.

2. です, the Copula

です is a copula (a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate). It shows that something is or isn't something else. It is one of the very few irregular forms in Japanese. です can act like the English "to be" (you know; is, am, are...) in the sense that です is used to explain who or what something or someone is. It is also used when equating one thing with another.

Let's take a look.

ゾウ は 大きい です

Romaji: zou wa ookii desu.
Literal: elephants (topic particle) big are
Natural: Elephants are large.

これ は ねこ です

Romaji: kore wa neko desu.
Literal: this (topic particle) cat is
Natural: This is a cat.

Most of the time you want to use the "to be" verb you will use です. Later we will learn other forms to show existence.

Main Points
  • is, are, am
  • always at the end
  • it doesn't change like its English cousin (is, are, am) in the present tense
  • usually pronounced like "dess"

3. "and" - と、そして

There are several ways to say "and" (connecting words and phrases). Let's look at two of them:

と (to) - connecting nouns

わたし は 日本語  英語  フランス語 が 話せます。

  • watashi wa nihongo to eigo to furansugo ga hanasemasu.
  • I can speak Japanese and English and French.
そして (soshite) - connecting phrases

新しい本を買いました。 そして今日から読みます。

  • atarashii hon o kaimashita. soshite kyou kara yomimasu.
  • I bought a new book. And I today I will start to read it. (lit. And from today, I'll read.)

4. 2 Basic verb forms - ~dictionary、~ます

There are many ways to conjugate verbs, but here we will focus on two present tense forms: "dictionary form" (also known as "plain form") and " ~masu form" (also known as "polite form")

Note

Switching between these two verb forms does not change the meaning of the verb but the dictionary form is more casual.

  • The dictionary form gets its name because it is what is found in the dictionary.
  • The dictionary form verbs ends in -u and many end in -ru.
  • The masu form verbs are so called because they always end in -masu in the present tense.
Examples
Dictionary Form -Masu Form Meaning
  • たべる
  • tabe ru
  • たべます
  • tabe masu
Both mean "to eat"
  • のむ
  • nom u
  • のみます
  • nomi masu
to drink
  • はしる
  • hashi ru
  • はしります
  • hashiri masu
to run
  • する
  • su ru
  • します
  • shi masu
to do (this is one of the 2 irregular verbs)

You will notice some other changes between the two forms. I would recommend learning about the three verb groups here, but for our purposes right now, just memorize a few examples and try to find patterns with other verbs. And remember: Mistake making is memory making! (As long as you correct yourself, of course.)

5. Making Questions - か

Making questions in Japanese is easy! -- REALLY! Usually you can change a statement into a question by just adding a ka to the end!

アメリカ人 です。

  • amerikajin desu.
  • I am an American.

Now add a

アメリカ人 です か。

  • amerikajin desu ka.
  • Are you an American?
Main points
  • ka is added to the end of statements
  • Word order is not changed as in English.
  • In Japanese (see the example on the right side) the ? (question mark) is not required (optional).
  • Just like in English, the last syllable goes up in intonation.
  • In spoken Japanese sometimes the ka can be dropped if you raise your voice at the end as we do with "You want to eat?". But for now, let's stick to using the ka.

See "Questions and Question Words - 10 minute lesson" for more on this.

6. Question Words

By mastering these question words, your conversational skills will be much stronger!

いつ (itsu) - when

いつ きました か?

  • itsu kimashita ka?
  • When did you come? [literally "when came?" Notice the "you" is understood.]
どこ (doko) - where

どこ から きました か?

  • doko kara kimashita ka?
  • Where did you come from? [literally "where from came?"]
どうして (doushite) - why

どうして きました か?

  • doushite kimashita ka?
  • Why did you come? [literally "why came?"]
なぜ (naze) - why

なぜ

  • naze?
  • Why? [used in the same way as doushite]
だれ (dare) - who

だれが きました か。

  • dare ga kimashita ka?
  • Who came?
何 (nani) - what

なに を 買いました か。

  • nani o kaimashita ka.
  • What did you buy?

You can do a lot more with 何, see here.

Main points
  • Even with the question word a か ka is used. (Except in casual spoken Japanese.)
  • The question word is at the beginning, but after the は wa if there is one.

あなた は だれ です か?

  • anata wa dare desu ka?
  • Who are you? (the question word dare is after the wa)

For more on this please see our "Questions and Question Words" guide.

7. Possessive "s" - の

This is another nice thing about Japanese.

To show relationship or possession between two things just put a の (no) between them. The trick is knowing (erm... のing) which goes to the left of the no and which goes to the right...

Think of の as a 's (apostrophe S)

わたし ねこ

  • watashi no neko
  • My cat [I's cat]

日本

  • nihon no kuruma
  • Japanese car [Japan's car]

ねこ おもちゃ

  • neko no omocha
  • Cat's toy
Also think of...
  • わたしの watashino as "my"
  • あなたの anatano as "your"

8. "but" - でも

But, a small word, but... There are other "buts" but demo is the most common. Learn this first and you can pick the others up later.

でも (demo) - but

日本語 が 好き でも フランス語 は きらい です。

  • nihongo ga suki demo furansugo wa kirai desu.
  • I like Japanese, but I hate French.

9. Pronouns

Pronouns are not used nearly as much in Japanese as they are in English. Often the pronoun is used once and then after (until the topic shifts to someone else) the pronoun is dropped. Still they are very important!

Notes
  • Learn watashi and anata well
  • tachi and ra are endings that indicate plurality! Easy! :)
Singular Plural
  • I - わたし watashi
  • WE - わたしたち watashi tachi
  • YOU - あなた anata
  • YOU - あなたたち anata tachi
  • HE - かれ kare
  • THEY - かれら kare ra
  • SHE - かのじょ kanojo
IT - IT isn't used but in ITs place sore (that) is often used -- Don't worry! Remember to breath!
Notes
  • Another meaning of kare (he) is actually "boyfriend" and kanojo is "girlfriend"!

When the meaning is obvious, the pronoun is usually dropped. Both of the following is clear in meaning:

わたしはアメリカからきました。

  • watashi wa amerika kara kimashita.
  • I came from America.

アメリカからきました。

  • amerika kara kimashita.
  • (I) came from America.

See the "I, Me, You, Thou..." guide for more on pronouns.

10. Fillers - ええと

In English, we have our "ah" and "um." In Japanese, they have their "eeto." This is the sound you make when you can't think of what to say, but want to say something!

何 の 動物 が 好き です か?

  • nan no doubutsu ga suki desu ka?
  • What animal do you like?

ええと。。。 ねこ が すき。

  • eeto... neko ga suki.
  • Um... I like cats.

11. Introduction to Particles

Particles may seem a little foreign to you at first, but for the most part, they aren't too difficult to grasp.

These particles are placed after a word (or phrase) and show its relationship (grammatical function) to the rest of the sentence.

In other words, the particle itself isn't really translatable, but it tells you a lot about the function of the word it follows.

The best way to learn to use them is to memorize useful examples and try them out for size!

wa - overall topic particle

shows the main topic of the conversation. It may be helpful to think of it as "As for..."

It is a hiragana は ha but pronounced as "wa"

あなた は やさしい。

  • anata wa yasashii.
  • You are nice.

Makes "you" the main topic: "As for YOU, you are nice."

ga - the subject particle

sometimes the difference between wa and ga is hard to tell. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably with only a slight change in meaning. See next entry for more on this.

ねこ が へん。

  • neko ga hen.
  • The cat is strange.

Makes the "cat" the subject

Comparing は and が (by Paul_b)

The topic particle は can easily be confused with the subject particle が. That is because は overrides が, in other words, in a sentence something can very easily be both the topic and the subject of that sentence. In such cases the が "disappears" and it looks like the は is acting as a subject marker.

Take this simple sentence.

わたしはクレイです。

  • watashi wa kurei desu.
  • I am Clay.

"I" (that is the speaker, Clay) is the topic and now this is known, it won't be repeated unless the topic changes.

What is the subject of the sentence? That's right - "I" watashi is. But because "I" is also the topic only the topic marker は is used. Now we'll let Clay continue and say another sentence ...

ねこがすきです。

  • neko ga suki desu.
  • (I) like cats.

"cats" is the subject here. "I" is still the topic. He could have said "watashi wa neko ga suki desu." but that is unnecessary because he has already said "watashi wa" establishing the topic in the previous sentence.

if both are in a sentence, the wa is first.
o - The Direct Object particle

本 を よみました。

  • hon o yomimashita.
  • (I) read a book.

it makes "book" the object. If we were to say "I" it would be watashi wa at the beginning.

ni - usually shows movement (to)

日本 に いきましょう!

  • nihon ni ikimashou!
  • Let's go to Japan!

There is movement going to Japan or shows time (at)

6時 に いきましょう!

  • roku ji ni ikimashou!
  • Let's go at 6.