もう10月だよ (Mō jū-gatsu da yo, It’s October already). Not only have I seen Halloween decorations start to spring up, some places are already advertising for Christmas and お正月 (o-shōgatsu, the new year holidays). 光陰矢の如し (Kōin ya no gotoshi, time flies [like an arrow]).

This has been a year like no other. Back in January, I can remember starting to feel the hype of the upcoming Olympics and one of my friends asking whether that new virus in China would be an issue. I brushed away their concerns: 感染者がいるのは中国だけだから平気でしょ (Kansensha ga iru no wa Chūgoku dake dakara heiki desho, The only place with people infected is China, so it’ll be fine), I maintained. I was clearly wrong.

今年の夏は家にこもってばかりいました (Kotoshi no natsu wa ie ni komotte bakari imashita, This summer was just a bunch of staying at home). We have had to adapt to an 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal) and reinvent ways to experience life in Japan all while remaining mostly at home. That has meant オンラインでしか会えない (onrain de shika aenai, we can only meet with each other online) for now, and I’d really like to catch up with some of my friends in person.

新型コロナウイルスが与えた影響は悪いことだけじゃない (Shingata koronauirusu ga ataeta eikyō wa warui koto dake janai, The impact that novel coronavirus has isn’t all that bad). Staying at home has meant many of us haven’t had to deal with a crowded train in months, which has given us a bit of time to take up new hobbies and study Japanese a bit more. One set of words that are somewhat similar but used in different situations (as you can see from the above Japanese sentences) are だけ (dake), ばかり (bakari) and しか (shika), which can all be translated as “only” or “just” in English.

The first “only” we tend to learn in Japanese is だけ: これだけ下さい (kore dake kudasai, only this, please) is good when you’re at a store, お水だけお願いします (o-mizu dake onegaishimasu, only water please) might be good when you’re offered something to drink at a friend’s home. だけ is the quintessential “only” and carries no special nuance: ジェットコースターを見るだけで気持ち悪くなる (Jetto kōsutā o miru dake de kimochi warukunaru, Just looking at a roller coaster makes me feel sick).

だけ can be attached to nouns and verbs, like in the previous paragraph, or it can latch on to an adjective: 旬の食材はおいしいだけでなく、体にも良い (Shun no shokuzai wa oishii dake de naku, karada ni mo yoi, Seasonal ingredients are not only tasty, they’re also good for your health).

The next “only” we can use is ばかり, which carries the nuance of plenty or a lot of one singular thing or action. You will usually see ばかり coming after a noun, just as you would with だけ, though the nuances differ. Take these two sentences for example: 今週は雨だけだ (Konshū wa ame dake da) and 今週は雨ばかりだ (Konshū wa ame bakari da). Both sentences convey the information that it has only rained this week, but by using ばかり we can emphasize that it has just rained this week and it has been a lot to handle.

When used in conjunction with a verb, ばかり will always come between the te-form of the first verb and the second verb that indicates a progressive action: 最近はゲームをやってばかりで太っちゃった (Saikin wa gēmu o yatte bakari de futotchatta, Recently, I’ve just been playing video games so I gained some weight). Additionally, in casual speech ばかり sometimes turns into ばっかり for added emphasis. Just be careful to not use that form in formal settings or written Japanese.

Last but not least, we have しか. This term can both emphasize the limited quality of an item and, in some cases, express discontent with that fact. It is most commonly paired with nouns and counter words, and requires the negative form of a verb in order to make sense: 夜は野菜しか食べない (Yoru wa yasai shika tabenai, At night I only eat vegetables) or 試験日まであと2日間しかないのにまだ勉強していない (shikenbi made ato futsukakan shika nai noni mada benkyō shite-inai, there are only two days left before the test but I still haven’t studied).

When using しか with other particles, it will replace は, が and を, but is placed after で, に, と and まで: 最近はルームメートとしか遊んでいない (Saikin wa rūmumēto to shika asonde-inai, I’ve only been hanging out with my roommate lately.)

今年ももう3か月しかない (Kotoshi mo mō san-ka getsu shika nai, There’s only three months left in this year). Whether you attempt to travel or are planning to spend the holidays at home, stay safe.

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