How to say “Do you understand English?” in Japanese and Basic Travel Language

2009 December 14

To enhance your trip to Japan its important to learn some key phrases before you go. At Hills Learning we refer to these phrases as “Travel” phrases, and this set of Japanese as “Travel Japanese.” The first article in regards to travel Japanese taught our readers the golden word, “Sumimasen,” or excuse me. This article will focus on how to ask people “Do you understand”, a key phrase to learn when traveling to Japan.

The vocabulary used for this portion of travel Japanese is:

English – eigo – EI GO – (EI as in Hey, and GO)

Japanese – nihongo – NI HON GO (NI as in Knee, HON as in HONE, and GO)

The verb “to understand” is wakarimasu – WA KA RI MA SU (WA as in water, KA as in LA with a short A sound, RI as in reek, MA with a short A and SU as in sue)

Let’s start with saying in Japanese “Do you understand…” and “I don’t understand.” To ask a question in Japanese, you simply add “ka” to any verb listed above. So, for Wakarimasu you’ll add ka, “Wakarimasuka? (Do you understand?) Japanese also uses particles, for the verb to understand or wakarimasu, it uses “GA” in front of the verb to indicate the subject of the sentence. So the whole phrase is:

Q: ( Subject ) GA WAKARIMASUKA?

A: ( Subject ) GA WAKARIMASEN or GA WAKARIMASU

Insert English into it and you’ll get EIGO GA WAKARIMASUKA? (Do you understand English?) Remember, the sentence form goes: subject – particle (in this case GA) – verb. Japanese is an altaic language, or in other words the verb comes at the end, instead of in front, like English.

To answer this question, as you can see from the above example the “SU” changed to “SEN”. If you were to say, EIGO GA WAKARIMASU, that means “I understand English.” The “SEN” is the negative form of the verb, so if you were to say “EIGO GA WAKARIMASEN” it means “I don’t understand English.”

This phrase is very useful for travelers trying to communicate with Japanese people. Travelers might hear from the Japanese “EIGO GA WAKARIMASEN” when they try to speak with someone. They can also replace the “EIGO” with “NIHONGO”, and travelers can state: “NIHONGO GA WAKARIMASEN” (I don’t understand Japanese)

If you’re to ask someone in Japan “Do they understand English?” in Japanese, they’re most likely to answer “a little bit” or CHOTTO. This is a common response, not that the Japanese haven’t studied English (almost everyone has at least 10 years of English), but that they don’t really feel comfortable speaking it. In a country with 95% Japanese, it’s quite possible you’re the first “foreigner” or non-Japanese they’ve spoken to. If by chance someone responds “Yes, I understand English”, then you know they can speak the language. There’s no middle line in Japan, they either say they can speak and speak or they don’t.

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