It’s amazing that most humans live as long as they do. Giraffe calves tumble out of the womb and are walking minutes later, yet we can’t fend for ourselves for years.
We eventually become more resourceful, although it helps to have people around us to model both behavior and language.
Which leads to a recent question I’ve been asking myself: In isolation, how does a language learner figure out how to express something they have not learned how to express?
The short answer is, as in many cases these days, the internet. But the internet is a firehose of information. There are a few strategies I’ve found helpful to 絞り込む (shiborikomu, narrow down) the entirety of the internet to the most useful pages that will reveal natural, contemporary Japanese phrases.
One strategy is simply tacking on the word 敬語 (keigo, polite speech) to any Japanese phrase. This is a quick way to locate a more polite way to say something.
Google Japan search auto-fills reveal that this is a strategy even natives use. Type in 行きたい (ikitai, I want to go), for example, and you’ll be provided with an interesting list of auto-fill potentials.
The first four are variations on 英語 (eigo, English), which makes sense: Japanese are frequently searching for simple translations into English.
This is followed with 行きたい国 (ikitai kuni, country I/we/he/she would like to go to) and 行きたい場所 (ikitai basho, place I/we/he/she would like to go), which also make sense: Traveling is a basic function of the verb.
These are followed in seventh place with the aforementioned keigo, showing that Japanese also struggle with the complexity of their own language. The search results provide a Yahoo Chiebukuro (Yahoo Answers) link as well as several websites dedicated to business Japanese. They explain that the best polite alternatives are 参りたいと思います (mairitai to omoimasu, I’d like to go) or 伺いたいと思います (ukagaitai to omoimasu, I’d like to go).
Both of these are 謙譲語 (kenjōgo, humble polite speech) used to describe your own actions. They differ in that ukagau is used when visiting someone above you on the totem pole, so when asking about visiting someone, you could say お伺いしてもよろしいでしょうか (O-ukagai shite mo yoroshii deshō ka, Would it be all right to visit you?).
But if you are speaking with someone above you about a trip you took on your own, you would say 大阪に参りました (Ōsaka ni mairimashita, I went to Osaka).
This works with other phrases as well. When I added keigo to 参加するかどうか (sanka suru ka dō ka, whether you will participate or not), I found the incredibly concise and useful kanji compound 出欠 (shukketsu — literally, “presence or absence”) which can be used to ask about attendance.
Plug in keigo after できるだけX (dekiru dake X, as X as possible), and you’ll find なるべくX (narubeku X). Try it after すごく (sugoku, incredibly/super-), and you’ll find 非常に (hijō ni, incredibly), とても (totemo, very), 大変 (taihen, awfully) and 極めて (kiwamete, extremely).
These are all great phrases that will allow you to create the emphasis you need when speaking with your superiors or someone outside your company.
Another strategy to find what you need is to make strategic use of quotation marks to surround the pieces of language that you know are already correct. The result will, ideally, display 例文 (reibun, example sentences) that fill in the rest for you and provide a model for you to complete your own.
Take the email I was trying to write the other day. I was well aware of what I wanted to say in the first half of one sentence: ご質問があれば (Go-shitsumon ga areba, If you have any questions). I couldn’t remember a more polite way to finish the sentence other than 教えてください (oshiete kudasai, please tell me). My search narrowed down the entire internet to 250,000 pages and led me to お知らせください (o-shirase kudasai, please let me know).
This technique also helped me double-check a phrase I found on a reibun website. I was looking for verbiage to use for a notice of confidentiality and found the interesting language 厳格な管理のもとご利用いただきますようお願いいたします (Genkakuna kanri no moto go-riyō itadakimasu yō onegai itashimasu, We ask that you make use [of this information] with the strictest handling).
I was unsure of how widely used this phrase is because when I Googled it in quotes, it returned no hits (not even the site where I originally found it, because of the way the sentence was displayed).
By separating it into two distinct searches (“厳格な管理のもと” and “ご利用いただきますようお願いいたします”), I found that the first half of the sentence returned 85,000 hits and the second half over 3.7 million, so I could rest easy knowing that this language would get my message across in an easy-to-understand and very polite way.
Browsing through these pages also provided a lot of alternative ways to “Frankenstein” these clauses for other uses. Peruse them yourself for some good reading practice and to diversify your Japanese.
And don’t worry about borrowing language. Using basic language like this isn’t plagiarism; it’s just smart study skills that help you avoid having to 車輪の再発明 (sharin no sai-hatsumei, reinvent the wheel).