Tactics

Learning Japanese for Beginners – Learn This Counter First!

One of the fascinating things about the Japanese language is the use of counters! Some of you know all about these, but for those of you that don’t, I’m going to talk a little bit about them in general and then give you some strategies to work with them.

And I’ll tell you why there is one counter in particular that everyone who is learning Japanese for beginners should focus on first!

What are counters?

The first thing you will have to understand is that, in the Japanese language there is no difference between singular nouns and plural nouns. Let me show you an example of what I mean so that you can clearly see it and understand it.

In English:
Singular = dog
Plural = dogs

*In English we usually add an “S” to make a noun plural.*

In Japanese:
Singular =  (inu)
Plural = (inu)

*In Japanese, there is no difference between singular and plural.*

So when you are talking to someone in Japanese and you say, “I see  over there”, you could mean either “I see a dog over there” or “I see some dogs over there” and the only way that the other person would know which one you meant would be for them to look over and to see  for themselves.

That’s where counters come into play!

Since the Japanese language doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, you can say “There are five dogs” to let the other person know exactly how many they are.

Now in English you can say just “five dogs,” but in Japanese you will have to include a counter along with the number. The interesting thing is that there are different counters that describe what the physical properties of the noun are. Some counters describe flat things, some describe mechanical things, and others are used for round things… The list goes on, but you get the idea!

In the case of the dog example, you would need the counter  (hiki) which is used to describe small animals. So in Japanese the sentence would be 犬が五匹いる (inu ga go hiki iru) “there are five dogs.”

There’s really no way around needing these counters to count items, so it’s best to just embrace it for what it is!

Some common counters are…

Here’s a list of ten super common counters. What’s interesting is that the kanji assigned to them are sometimes used for other things. Like the very first one  (hon) is normally the kanji for “book”, but when it’s used to count objects, it has to be used with long, slender items (pens, bottles, etc.).

  1.  本 / hon / long, slender things
  2.  匹 / hiki / small animals
  3.  枚 / mai / flat things
  4.  台 / dai / machines
  5.  人 / nin / people
  6.  冊 / satsu / books
  7.  個 / ko / small, round things
  8.  分 / fun / minutes
  9.  ヶ / ka / months
  10.  階 / kai / building floors

Believe me, there are A LOT MORE than just these! And what’s more is that the pronunciation of these counters will sometimes change depending on the number that’s used with it! It does this for phonetic reasons. In other words, the pronunciation will change so that it’s easier to say the whole thing and keep the flow of a sentence going.

So instead of 一本 (ichi hon), it gets changed to 一本 (ippon). And of course there’s a lot more…

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

Well don’t worry! Because there is a super awesome counter that basically just means “thing” and it can be used in place of almost all these other ones!

It’s the つ TSU counter! It can only be used for inanimate objects (no dogs, sorry!) and it can only be used for 1-10 things. But despite these limits, it is a super great way to count items when you’re first starting out.

The toughest part is remembering how to pronounce each number with the つ TSU counter since it’s different from how you normally would pronounce numbers 1-10. And if you need a quick refresher on them, then click here!

Here’s the list of all ten つ TSU counters and their pronunciation:

  1. 一つ / hitotsu  / one thing
  2. 二つ / futatsu / two things
  3. 三つ / mittsu / three things
  4. 四つ / yottsu / four things
  5. 五つ / itsutsu / five things
  6. 六つ / muttsu / six things
  7. 七つ / nanatsu / seven things
  8. 八つ / yattsu / eight things
  9. 九つ / kokonotsu / nine things
  10.  / tou / ten things

And here’s some examples to show you how to use it:

  • 本が二つをお願いします
    hon ga futatsu o onegai shimasu
    Two books, please
    .
  • コーラが四つある
    kooraa ga yottsu aru
    There are four Coca-Colas
    .
  • リンゴが十食べた
    ringo ga tou tabeta
    I ate ten apples

As you can see, the counter for ten (10) is a little bit different. Instead of the number’s name combined with the つ TSU counter, you just say the number  (tou) and it’s understood what you mean.

Also, since it can only be used with inanimate things, the next few counters you will probably find most useful to learn are  (nin) for people and  (hiki) for small animals.

You won’t sound fluent if you rely solely on the つ TSU counter, but it is absolutely perfect for when you are just starting out! And it also works pretty well when you’re not quite sure which counter is the correct one to use in a weird situation.

Anyway, I hope you found that info useful! I’ll catch you later!

I want to hear from you! Leave a comment below! 🙂

4 Comments

  • Merrell

    HI Nick,

    Great breakdown on learning Japanese! It does seem a tad bit overwhelming towards the end. But at the very least, I believe the one thing that I could definitely pick out is that there is no difference between singular and plural in the Japanese language. I had no idea about that!

    Many thanks for the sharing!

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