If you are ever visiting Japan and run into a situation where you need some help from the locals, it helps to know how to ask them the right questions. Perhaps the most critical phrase that you learn how to say is “can you speak English” in Japanese.
It’s true that English is taught in the Japanese education system, but the overall results are similar to how Americans learn Spanish or French in class. Some people can speak fairly well, but the majority of them aren’t confident in their abilities.
By asking today’s phrase, you can at least be polite and get verification from the listener before you start asking them things in English.
The Japanese Word For English
The first thing to learn is the Japanese word for “English” which is 英語 (eigo).
The first kanji in this word is 英 (ei) which is a prefix that means Britain and the second kanji 語 (go) is a suffix that means language.
So when they are combined like this, the word literally means “the language of Britain” which of course is English.
Keep that word in mind because it will be the central one in the phrases that follow.
There are actually quite a few ways that you can ask a person is they speak a language, understand a language, etc.
But no matter which one of those forms you decide to use, you will always use 英語 with it.
How To Ask “Can You Speak?”
The dictionary form of the word “to speak” in Japanese is 話す (hanasu), but it’s best to use the polite mass-form of this verb when starting a conversation with someone you don’t know.
That means we will want to use the word 話します (hanashimasu) along with some of the right particles to form the sentence that you’re needing.
- eigo o hanashimasu ka?
- Do you speak English?
Although you could use the above sentence and people would understand you, it’s probably best to use a slightly different form of the verb.
The above question feels a little more like you’re asking them if they speak English regularly, which might depend on their occupation or hobbies.
Instead, we can use 話せます (hanasemasu) which means “can speak” and would clarify that you’re inquiring about their abilities with English because you want to talk to them in it.
- eigo ga hanasemasu ka?
- Can you speak English?
This question should work in most situations that you find yourself in.
If they can speak English, then they will probably switch over and start talking to you in it. If they can’t, then they will probably shake their head and tell you they can’t.
There are a couple of other ways that you can ask this same thing, and there may be times when you would rather opt to use of them. Let’s take a look at them now.
Other Ways To Ask This Question
The first new word to learn is 喋る (shaberu) which means “to talk; to chat” and is generally though of as a more casual word than 話す that we learned in the last section.
You can use it if you want, but another thing to keep in mind is that the person you’re talking to might use it in response to your question.
If they do, you’ll know what they are saying.
- watashi wa eigo ga sukoshi shaberemasu.
- I can speak a little English.
One of the key parts of the phrases we’ve gone over has been changing the verbs into their “Potential form” which is simply the “can do” part.
But we can also just use the Japanese word 出来る (dekiru) which means “to be able to do” when it is combined with another verb.
- nihongo o hanasu koto ga dekiru.
- I can speak Japanese.
Sometimes you will actually hear people use just the “can do” verb along with a language as a quick way of asking someone if they are able to do or use a specific language.
- eigo dekimasu ka?
- Can you use English.
There is one last phrase that I want to cover so that you can use it when you need to.
Do You Understand English?
Sometimes you just want to ask a person if they are able to understand what you’re saying. You’re not really looking to hold an impromptu conversation with them.
If you’re really just needing to get some basic help like directions to the nearest train station than you can ask the other person if they understand English.
- sumimasen, eigo ga wakarimasu ka?
- Excuse me, do you understand English?
If you ask a question like this you might get someone who understands enough English to answer your question, but even if they don’t know what you’re saying, they still might be able to figure out what you want by your non-verbal communication.
If you’ve got a map that you can point to, or the name of the place that you’re trying to find, then just showing it to the other person might be a clear enough message to get your point across.
But regardless of what happens, you now know many different ways to ask people if they know English.
Focus On The Message
You can actually get pretty far in foreign countries without knowing the language as long as you are able to communicate in other ways that people can understand.
Using pictures of what you’re looking for, or showing the names of places you’re trying to get to can help.
But even though these strategies can work, it is much more rewarding when you know enough of the local language to talk with someone and have a nice conversation.
So if you’re even planning on visiting Japan, or really any other country that uses a different language than your own, then be sure to spend some time learning basic words and phrases so that you can talk with the people you meet.
If you have any question or comments, then let me know by leaving them down below. Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: