I spent about three years in college taking Japanese language classes. I was also fortunate enough to study abroad in northern Japan for a summer. It was specifically for language study so we covered about a year’s worth of lessons in 8 weeks. After all of that I was still terrible but could pretend with the best of them. When I had 30 minutes or more to craft a text I could even be eloquent.
Little did I know, that I would only need about six phrases for 80% of my conversations with Japanese speakers.
It’s hard to classify this one as a phrase. It’s more of a sound effect. Translated, it’s similar to saying “What?” when you hear some shocking news. Just like in English, you can extend the sound for as long as you want. Clearly, longer durations indicate greater surprise. It takes some finesse to know how to use this one but it can be quite versatile.
Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you some news or information. Can be anything from “I bought an ice cream” to “The President is a Russian spy.”
Unlike the previous phrase, this one can’t be used to give yourself time to think of a real answer. Sugoi translates roughly to “great.” So, you have to be at least certain what the person just said to you is positive. If someone tells you they were just diagnosed with cancer, answering sugoi might be in bad taste whereas a long “ehhhh?” would be more appropriate.
Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something positive or otherwise good news. Can be anything from “I bought you an ice cream” to “The President was impeached for being a Russian spy.”
This one is a bit more flexible. It translates to “Really?” and has many uses similar to its English counterpart. It can be used in both positive and negative circumstances depending on your inflection. This is also highly useful for when you’re either not paying attention or your friend has said something that needs elaboration. It’s a good way to encourage further discussion.
Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something that piques your interest. Can be anything from “I heard they’re making a new flavor of ice cream” to “The President said something stupid on Twitter today.”
I group these two together because they mean roughly the same thing and you’ll hear them used interchangeably. Uso is probably the more popular variation. Roughly translated to “lying” these phrases are used much how an interjection of “bullshit!” is used in English. The best use is to show a friendly incredulity when someone might be telling you a tall tale.
Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something that seems quite unbelievable. Can be anything from “I ate ten ice creams just now” to “The President signed a bill helping the poor today.”
So desu ne.
Finally, the most important phrase of all. The rough translation is something akin to “so it seems.” English unfortunately doesn’t have the full elegant capacity needed to describe how useful this phrase is. It can be said after literally any statement and seem profound. If for any reason, you don’t understand what was just said to you, drop a “So desu ne” and it will work.
Example of appropriate use cases: Someone says literally anything; however, it is perhaps most appropriate to impart a sense of finality on the discussion. Can be anything from “I enjoy ice cream” to “The President is a terrible person and I’m chronically depressed because of it.”
P.S: If you don’t know how to pronounce these phrases, maybe look up Japanese phonetics? It’s not that complicated. I mean, it only took me a few years. Simple.