All languages have some form of formal and casual speech. This means that we change the words or phrases that we use depending on who we are speaking to.
In the Japanese language, this is taken to another level by incorporating keigo (敬語). For a brief summary of Japanese formal speech, please refer to Untranslatable Japanese:
For most Japanese learners, we are almost always taught formal form (desu/-masu, です/-ます) before we are taught casual form (da/-ru; だ/-る). Everyone’s first Japanese sentence structure is “X is Y desu,” and their first Japanese sentence becomes “Watashi wa [name] desu, 私は[name]です.”
At first our homework is comprised of solely “Watashi wa ○○ desu, 私は○○です” We struggle with particles and are never too sure whether it is wa, ga, de, or ni. When we think we finally figure out which particle goes where, there are always about 4 exceptions. This is the way of life for the beginning Japanese learner.
As our Japanese studies continue and we enter the intermediate level, we come to discover that we do not have to start every sentence with “watashi wa…” and in reality, sometimes native Japanese speakers drop the use of particles in everyday speech.
Why then are we forced to learn an aspect of a language that could be omitted or said in an easier way? Would it not be better to learn the more practical words and grammar that natives actually use? To answer this question bluntly—no.
The attraction of learning solely casual language can be very strong. Why focus on the small details of grammar (particles) if you could avoid the stress and troubles of learning it by omitting them like natives do? It is easy to stray from the ‘traditional’ path of learning Japanese and study the material that some may view as more applicable aspects of the language (vocabulary and kanji).
Some intermediate level individuals may feel that they are demonstrating a higher degree of mastery over the language because they speak more like the natives than their fellow foreign learners, and are not using words/sentence patterns that are commonly associated with beginning Japanese. However, their constant use of casual language may actually have an opposite effect.
The Japanese society is built around manners and customs. It is important to use the correct words and phrases during the correct situations. Although initially impressed with their vast vocabulary, natives may view the Japanese leaner as rude and culturally insensitive because the learner has failed to acknowledge and study Japanese etiquette.
I do not condemn learning and properly using casual language because it is fun and exciting to speak like the natives. However, it is important to find a proper balance between learning formal and casual language by asking yourself why you are learning Japanese.
Are you learning to only to converse with young people and make a few friends? Are you learning because you have a great desire to involve yourself in the community and become a member of Japanese society? Or is it both?
In any case, take time to familiarize yourself with formal/proper speech while learning casual speech; you will most likely impress Japanese speakers more by fluidly transitioning from casual to formal when needed than being able to use Japanese slang.
Cover photo by Max Mayorov