This goes without saying, but Japanese is not English. The way people express things in Japanese is not the same way that people express them in English. Part of learning to speak Japanese is learning how to abandon your English and swim in the deep end without relying on direct translation.
In my experience, there have been certain patterns that took me a while to master, but once mastered, I felt as though I took a palpable step forwards – something clicked. Here they are from easiest to most difficult:
1) Japanese Patterns of Giving and Receiving
2) Passive Tense
Now that I took the time to write out that impressive three-step list, I’ve realized that it looks exactly like an intermediate textbook, which many of you are familiar with. I, too, put in my time with the same textbooks, but it wasn’t until years later when something finally clicked for most of these patterns. Studying kanji, memorizing grammar patterns and vocab – none of it is going to help you figure out what these patterns mean.
The best way to learn them is by learning contextual phrases, memorizing them, and then forcing yourself to use them. Eventually you’ll be able to triangulate a meaning for yourself. I want to give you some examples and explanations of the contexts. Hopefully they’ll help your Japanese become slightly more intricate and subtle.
1. Patterns of Giving and Receiving
I brought in a pumpkin to my elementary school for Halloween. Initially I was going to buy it myself, but a junior high school teacher helped get the BOE to purchase it for me. One of the elementary school teachers asked me if I bought it myself:
Ano kabocha, jibun de katta no?
And I replied that I hadn’t, that I got the BOE to buy it for me:
I could have just as easily said, いいえ、教育委員会が買った。(Iie, kyouikuiinkai ga katta.) but that is a little simple. Sure, the BOE bought it…but then why the hell do I have it? By using one of these 買ってくれた or 買ってもらった, I make my answer a little more specific – they bought it for me.
The trickiest part of もらう and くれる is keeping track of the subject. In the above example, if you simplify it, this is what happens:
僕がもらう I receive.
教育委員会がくれる The BOE gives.
が marks the subject and に will mark the other person involved in the exchange:
Now what exactly are they giving? They are giving a gerund, actually:
僕が教育委員会に買ってもらった。 I received the buying (of something) from the BOE.
教育委員会が僕に買ってくれた。 The BOE gave the buying (of something) to me.
Now, change that from dumb-dumb English into normal English and you get:
I got the BOE to buy (something) for me.
The BOE bought (something) for me.
And if you change it from dumb-dumb Japanese (dumb-dumb Japanese being Japanese where you include all of the subjects, objects and indirect objects – the Japanese are very efficient and use as few words as possible, that is unless they are being polite, which is an entirely different post) into normal Japanese you get:
Either one will answer the lady’s question – all she wants to know is who the hell bought the thing. It wasn’t me, so I’d better emphasize who did the buying, although with subtle Japanese I can explain that they bought that shit for me.