"I cannot speak Japanese."
Probably because you'd use the phrase a lot when speaking with Japanese waiters at restaurants. After all, if your pronunciation is really authentic when pointing to menu items, saying "This one please," they may ask you to elaborate on how you'd like it prepared, not realizing you are not fluent.
huh. i think this is why people tell you this: when you're preparing to go to another country, in addition to learning the language, know the culture as well! imagine -- if roles were reversed and a japanese person went to america or another english-speaking place without knowing the culture, they wouldn't have thanked the staff, which would be seen as rude. strange.
It makes sense just fine :)
Both は and が can be used here, they just add different nuance.
は is a contrasting particle and can also be used more than once in a sentence. (You will see this very often used with negative phrases)
The first は marks 僕 as a topic of conversation. "As for me..."
The topic is information already known to both speaker and listener so it can often be omitted from the sentence completely and implied through context (just like the recommended answer for this question). When making a statement it can be assumed you are talking about yourself, but if the conversation was previously about the speaker you may want to clarify that you are no longer talking about the other person by adding 僕は "about me..." to show the topic has shifted.
は adds emphasis to what comes after it, so marking 'Japanese' with it emphasizes that you cannot speak it (and shows contrast, which can imply you can speak other languages, but you're only currently talking about your Japanese ability specifically)
僕は日本語は話せません (On the topic of me...As for Japanese...I can't speak it) would be an answer to "Can you speak Japanese?" - "(no) I cannot speak Japanese"
が introduces new information and emphasizes the word it attaches to.
僕は日本語が話せません - "Japanese is (the language) I can't speak." - This puts more stress on 'Japanese'
This could be an answer to "What languages can you not speak?" - "I can't speak Japanese". It's a bit of an odd thing to say, but maybe that person is a linguist and wants to emphasize where their ability is lacking. In a positive sentence responding to "What language can you speak?" it would be "I can speak Japanese" marking Japanese as the language you can speak, which may be a bit more useful in most contexts.
が is the "new information/identifier" particle - when what you are introducing is unknown to the listener. This is often what marks the subject of the sentence. The be-er or do-er of an action.
It is also used for the object of intransitive verbs, such as in this case the potential form 話せる is intransitive, meaning it cannot take a direct object so を cannot be used. が is instead used to mark "Japanese" as the language as the thing having the quality of "being speakable (by me)", rather than the thing receiving the action of "being spoken" such as in the normal transitive form of the verb 日本語を話します "I speak Japanese".
は would be the "understood information" particle - when you and the listener are both already aware of it.
は can also be used for the subject, but its use is much broader. The topic can be the day, the location, the person doing the action, the object receiving the action, etc. The use of は all depends on the context of the conversation what information is important and what is already understood. It replaces particles が and を and combines with others.
Japanese sentences typically work from big to small, from least important to most important information. The topic of the sentence will be towards the beginning of the phrase, followed by new information such as a subject or object and the verb will always be at the end.
You would introduce something first with が, and then continue to talk about it further as the the topic of conversation with は. Similar to how in English we may introduce a noun such as "Maria" or "The book" 「マリアが、本が」, and then refer to that noun for the rest of the paragraph as "She" or "It" unless something comes up where the original noun must be clarified again「マリアは、本は」
これはペンです - This is a pen - "(On the topic of this thing), It is a pen" - "This" is understood, "a pen" is stressed - Answers "What is this?" (It is not a pencil or a crayon, it is a pen.)
これがペンです - This is a pen - "This (is the thing that is) a pen" - "This" is new information being stressed as "being a pen" - Answers "Which one is a pen?" (That one and that one over there are not pens, this one specifically is the pen)
私はジョンです - I am John - (As for me, I'm John) John is my name, not Maria. Answers the question "Who are you?/What is your name?"
私がジョンです - I am John - I (am the one who is) John. John is MY name. It is not that other person's name. Answers "Who is John?"
猫は好きです - I like cats - As for cats, I like them - Answers; "Do you like cats?"
猫が好きです - I like cats - Cats are the thing I like - Answers "What (animal) do you like?"
部屋には椅子があります - に and は are combined to be "On the topic of in the room - there is a chair" - The chair is the thing being stressed as existing and 'in the room' is the location understood by both parties. Answers: "What is in the room?"
椅子は部屋にあります - "On the topic of the chair - It is in the room" - 'the chair' is still the thing existing but it is known by both parties and 'in the room' is the location that is the important information. Answers: "Where is the chair?"
When using a negative form of a verb you would more often replace が with は in order to stress the negative, though both would work as I explained in the previous reply.
が would also be used to mark question words. 誰が来ますか - Who will come? - "Who" is unknown information so it is marked with が, it cannot be marked with the topic particle は because something unknown can't be the topic of the conversation.
You would use は however before the question word. それは何ですか "What is that" - On the topic of that thing - what is it? - "That" is known by both the speaker and listener and the unknown "what" is the thing being emphasized.
This is completely wrong, you don't use が when talking about two languages, you use が when it’s the first time talking about a subject. が can be replaced by は when the verb of the sentence is negative like Matthew said. Your sentence should be (please correct me if I'm wrong) 日本語と英語は話せません (は because "do not speak" is negative) or 日本語と英語が話せます when it's positive.
If I had moved to America with my family as a child, and my parents have not learned English, I might say the following to describe my language year.
私は英語と日本語を話せます。家で日本語を話しに。学校で英語を話します。 "I speak English and Japanese. I speak Japanese at home. I speak English at school."
Note the difference of the the translation of "speak". The first is 「話せます」 for the general ability. The second and third are 「話します」 for the specific situational usage.
(Here you go.)[http://jisho.org/word/%E8%A9%B1%E3%81%9B%E3%82%8B#] There are quite a few verbs that follow this pattern: Replace the final -u of the stem with -e and append -ru (I believe for ichidan verbs like 見る you just insert -e-: 見える). The result is a verb which means "becomes x-ed" or "can be x-ed" (note the passive, that's why you say 英語がはなせます instead of 英語を). For example:
- はなす (speak) - はなせる (can be spoken)
- 見る (see) - 見える (can be seen, be/become visible)
- しる (know) - しれる (become known)
There are exceptions (e.g. 聞く (hear) becomes 聞こえる (be heard, audible), not *聞ける) so I'm not quite sure how productive that pattern still is. But at the very least it makes it easier to identify these pairs of verbs.
First off, tea is おちゃ, not いちゃ.
Now onto your question - のむ (to drink) is a transitive verb (also called an "action verb"). That means it can have a direct object - the object to which you're performing the verb action (drinking, in this case). Direct objects are marked with を.
はなせる (to be able to speak) is an intransitive verb. It is not an action verb, merely a passive statement of one's ability. That means that it cannot have a direct object, and thus cannot go with the を particle.
You might be getting it confused with はなす (which is where はなします comes from), which is the transitive verb for "to speak." That is an action verb which can have a direct object and use the を particle. はなせる (which is where はなせます comes from) is a different, intransitive form of はなす though, called the "potential form." It is used to describe your ability/potential to do the base verb. These are always intransitive.
To go back to your tea drinking example, if you were saying that you cannot drink tea, rather than just that you don't drink it, it would be おちゃはのめません. Notice that since we're using のめる (intransitive potential form) instead of のむ (transitive action form), we don't use を anymore.
So を and が are write, but there are differences, and just to quote the passage for others:
Note: When using potential form, you have to change the particle from を (wo) to が (ga). This was what I were [sic] taught by my teacher in the beginning. However, I later found out that this is not always the case. Depending on situations, を (wo) can also be used. We were told to use が (ga) because our teacher didn't want us to be confused when we were first learning the potential form.
Yeah... nope! First, he didn't say いちゃ. Next, 話す isn't necessarily an intransative verb. You can say that someone just speaks... 彼は話すだけした。 You got a lot of that right, just not the part about not using を。
The を is replaced by は because it's saying (in his example of tea), "As for tea (in general), I don't drink it." It's the same thing in the main question: "As for Japanese, I don't speak it." The は makes it a general thing.
- 日本語(にほんご) – Japanese
- -は – topic marker, marking 日本語 as the thing you give new information about: “concering/as for Japanese…”
- 話せ(はなせ) – the stem of the verb 話せる “to be able to speak/be spoken”, which is the potential form of 話す “to speak”. These potentials can sometimes be used with the original subject and object being the same as the core verb (i.e. in this case the speaker being the subject and the language the object), but they often feel more natural if they are used “passively” – that is, the original object (here the language) becomes the subject of the potential form. In this particular case both interpretations are possible because the topic marker could be marking the subject or the object.
- -ません negative ending
So literally it’s either “as for Japanese, it cannot be spoken [by me]” or “as for Japanese, [I] cannot speak [it]”, depending on whether you choose to interpret 話せる as active or passive here. Active may feel more intuitive from an English perspective, but in Japanese, if the subject were also present, you would at least as likely to get: 私は日本語が話せません “as for me, Japanese cannot be spoken”.
"I can't speak Japanese well" would be a good sentence, yes.
Though the one you got there is simply "I can't speak Japanese" more casually. ない being the informal form of ません
日本語が上手に話せません would be "I can't speak Japanese well" using the adverb form of 上手 "jouzu" meaning "skillfully, proficiently, good at". It probably isn't taught this early in the course since it deals with adjective conjugations and less common particle usages.
“I” would be the default implied subject if there is no other to be inferred from context. Given the right context I guess “you” is technically possible, though I can’t really think of a situation where I would inform somebody that they can’t speak Japanese – in Japanese! But “he” or “she” for example are easily possible if we’re talking about some other person in context.
If you're doing some sort of dramatic production, you could very well inform someone of their inability to speak Japanese, especially if the audience understands that the characters are actually speaking some other language that is merely rendered into Japanese for their convenience. (Just like how the characters in Lord of the Rings don't actually speak English.)
The way this sentence is constructed feels like it should translate as "Japanese (the language) can't speak". Isn't は supposed to be the subject marker? I realize such a sentence is a bit ridiculous, but it does have a clear meaning on its own, to me.
Does はなせ require a direct object, and thus we have to contextually understand that 日本語 is the direct object even though the particle marks it otherwise?
は does not mark the subject but the topic, the main thing that the sentence (and potentially following ones as well) are talking about. The topic can be identical to the subject (in which case there is no further marking on it) but it doesn’t have to. This is where the が particle comes into play: It marks a subject which is not the topic.
はなせる is derived from the verb はなす “to speak”. This form talks about whether or not the verb can be done – and it is almost always used intransitively (i.e. meaning it only takes a subject but no object). If it helps, you can はなせる as having passive element: “can be spoken”. So the construction 日本語ははなせません can be roughly imitated in English as “Japanese cannot be spoken [by me].”
That's informative, thank you.
If this form of the verb is intransitive, then how do you say, for example, "Tanaka can't speak Japanese"? My inclination would be to say 田中さんは日本語ははなせません, but that seems to be nonsense, since it claims two different things are the topic of the sentence. Maybe instead it should be 田中さんが日本語ははなせません? That's super counterintuitive to me, but seems to track based on what I've understood of your explanation.
...Huh. So not okay to think of it as "As for Japanese, Mr. Tanaka can't speak (it)"?
So if I want to say "I can't speak Japanese" then Japanese is the topic because I'm not bothering to say わたし, as it's implied. But if I want to say "Mr. Tanaka can't speak Japanese" then Mr. Tanaka is the topic, purely because I have to specify context, while Japanese is still the subject of the verb?
What if, say, someone was looking for a translator for various languages and I wanted to translate this:
"Regarding Japanese: I can't speak it. John can't speak it. Mr. Tanaka can speak it."
To my English-speaking brain, these sentences seem to demand a direct object, whether the verb is passive or not. Would one still even use はなせる for such a sentence? Or would I just have to restructure the statement entirely to something that fits Japanese grammar?
Good question. My instinct would tell me that this would require double topics: 1) Japanese since it’s the overspanning topic of conversation, and 2) John and Mr Tanaka since you’re making a contrast. So maybe:
But I think it’s best if a native speaker could weigh in on the question :)
Please have a quick scan if your question was answered before asking :) はなせる is a derived version of the verb はなす “to speak” which expresses possibility: “can speak”. However, this verb form includes a passive meaning, meaning it’s literally more along the lines of “can be spoken”. Therefore, the language is actually the subject of はなせる not the object.
There's another way of saying this, which would 話すことが出来る/出来ます (can speak/am able to speak). You could use a few different particles (specifically で which marks that it is 'by means of' Japanese that you can speak), but for this specific question, I asked my Japanese friend (今、日本で住んでいる) and he told me that it would actually be を. 日本語を話せる/話せます。In this case, you are speaking the language. Japanese (the language) is a noun which is being acted upon, so you would actually use を in this sentence.
Please have a quick scan over the thread; your question has been asked (for example by ZaoshiK, MichaelLeu317586 and ZaWiza) and answered before.
Short version: -は does not mark the subject but the topic – the main thing that you’re talking about. That often happens to be the grammatical subject but it doesn’t have to. Also, 話せる is usually (though not always) used intransitively, with the language being treated as the subject. If that makes it easier, think of it as something more along the lines of “can be spoken” rather than “can speak”.
は doesn't mark the subject necessarily; it marks the topic and in this case is being used to show contrast, though the topic and subject can often be the same thing. You will typically see は in negative sentences used this way. It is also possible to use the topic marker more than once in a sentence. To show both a topic and then a contrasting topic.
話せません is the potential form of the verb "to speak". The potential form is intransitive meaning it does not take a direct object so を cannot be used. (You are discussing your ability to do an action, not actually doing the action itself).
Ga or Wa can both be used though wa is more common for negatives. Here it is like saying "On the topic of Japanese - I can't speak it" There may be other languages you can't speak as well that you haven't mentioned, but right now we're talking about Japanese and stressing that you can't speak. You could replace that with the subject particle 'ga' which puts more emphasis on the subject itself. "Japanese is the language I can't speak". So among all languages Japanese specifically you are stressing your inability to speak.
The meaning as far as translation goes is the same, only the stress slightly changes.
は marks the topic, the thing the conversation will be about. "On the topic of Japanese, I cannot speak it" This puts more emphasis on your inability to speak. You also may not be able to speak other languages and some you definitely can speak, but right now the topic is specifically talking about Japanese. This could be an answer to the question "Can you speak Japanese?" Japanese is the overall topic and you are focusing on your ability or inability to speak it.
If the topic is already known from context it can be typically be dropped from the sentence entirely (This is why you rarely see pronouns used in Japanese as the person being talked about "me" or "you" is usually the topic and implied)
が is the subject marker. This will introduce new important information. "Japanese (is the language that) I cannot speak". It puts more emphasis on Japanese being the language. This could be an answer to "What languages can you (not) speak?" Where the conversation is already about languages in general and you are pointing the focus towards Japanese.
You will typically almost always see は used with negative sentences because it puts more emphasis on the negation.
"not able to speak" is certainly an odd example to try to use when learning the difference between は and が though, so something a bit simpler:
これはペンです - "This is a pen" - "(On the topic of this thing) It is a pen." It is not a pencil, or a crayon or a piece of paper. It is a pen. You would use in response to "What is this", where "this" is now already known information.
これがペンです - "This is a pen" - "This thing (is the thing that is a pen)" Not that other thing, or that thing you're holding. This thing specifically is the thing that is a pen. In response to "Which thing is a pen?" Where 'pen' is the information we already know.
これはペンではありません - This is not a pen - (on the topic of this thing) it isn't a pen. It could be a pencil or a crayon. But for sure it isn't a pen.
これがペンではありません - This is not a pen - "This thing I'm holding is not a pen. That thing over there could be, but this is not"
To extend Swisidniak’s answer, you could also think about this in terms of what new information is given/what the question is:
日本語は話せません answers the question “Can you speak Japanese?” – “Can’t speak” is the new information.
日本語が話せません answers the question “Which language can’t you speak?” – “Japanese” is the new information.
は can replace particles が and を in order to show contrast. This is common in negative sentences in order to stress the negativity.
日本語は - As for Japanese 話せません - I cannot speak it - marks "Japanese" as the topic of the conversation and adds emphasis to "cannot speak". This answers the question "Can you speak Japanese?" where "Japanese" is known information to both the speaker and listener.
日本語が話せません could be used to say "I cannot speak Japanese" as well but this uses が which is a particle that introduces new important information. This is like saying "Japanese is the language I cannot speak" It adds emphasis to the language which gives it a strange nuance. Like answering the question "What language can you not speak?" which is an unusual thing to ask unless the person is a polyglot. It is usually used in the positive form to say what language you can speak.
を cannot be used here because 話せる・話せます "can speak" is a potential verb, meaning it is intransitive and cannot take a direct object.
It makes “Japanese” the topic of the sentence: “As for Japanese, I don’t speak it.” It brings in a slight nuance that Japanese is contrasted against some other language(s) which you do speak.
This pattern (making the word which is really negated into the topic) is especially common in negative sentences. Not doing that isn’t wrong per se but the implied question is usually strange. For example 日本語が話せません would sound like Japanese is the new information – like you’re answering the implied question “what language do you not speak” rather than “do you speak Japanese”.
ではありません is the negative of the copula です which would be "Is/am/are" when equating one thing with another
私は学生です - I am a student
私は先生ではありません - I am not a teacher
犬です - It is a dog
猫ではありません - It is not a cat
The verb here is "cannot speak" so the addition of "am not" would not make sense
The negative of the polite ～ます conjugation is ～ません
話せます - Can speak
話せません - Cannot speak
To modify a noun with a verb you would use the plain form of the verb before the noun
話さない人 - person who doesn't speak
話せる人 - person who can speak
話せない人 - person who cannot speak
見た映画 - Movie I saw
映画を見た人 - Person who saw a movie
食べる食べ物 - Food I eat
水を飲む人 - Person who drinks water
はなせ. Although in this case 話せ is not a complete word, just the stem of the verb 話せる(はなせる) “to be able to speak”, itself a derived form of 話す(はなす) “to speak”.
This form is sometimes called the “potential” because it basically takes a verb “to do x” and turns it into a new verb with the meaning “can be x-ed”. So 話す “to speak” becomes 話せる “can be spoken”. Confer this excellent description for details.
Note particularly that the potential form always includes an inherent passive: “to speak” strictly speaking becomes “can be spoken”, not “can speak”. So the object of the original verb becomes the subject of the potential (though it’s often made the topic with は). This is why you say 日本語は話せる (literally: As for Japanese, it can be spoken), not *日本語を話せる.
はなせる is a derived form of the verb はなす “to speak”. This kind of derived form talks about whether or not the verb can be done – and it is almost always intransitively (i.e. meaning it only takes a subject but no object). So はなせる is literally “can be spoken”. So the closest imitation 日本語ははなせません in English is “Japanese cannot be spoken [by me].”
Also, even if this weren’t the case, the -は particle can be used on the objects of transitive verbs, too, in which case it replaces -を. This is because -は does not mark the subject but the topic of conversation, which can have any arbitrary role in relation to the verb, even no overt relation at all. This is why you will see sentences like やさいは食べません “[I] don’t eat vegetables” in other lessons, and these are perfectly fine, too. Here -は expresses that the central topic is やさい (rather than the implied “I” for example). So this kind of particle use might be appropriate in a situation like this:
- やさいはどうですか？おいしいんじゃないですか？ (How are the vegetables? Tasty, aren’t they?)
- すみません、やさいはたべません、アレルギーがあるから。 (Sorry, as for the vegetables, I don’t eat them. I have an allergy.)
Here the speaker wants to make a point about vegetables (as opposed to other food) so they make it the topic of the sentence.
Don’t worry if knowing when to use -は and when to use the subject marker -が is still confusing you, it takes a bit of getting used to. As long as you know that -は doesn’t necessarily mark the subject, you’re fine, the active production part will come with time :)