All NativShark example sentences are assigned one of four formality markers: Casual, Formal, Textbook Casual, and Textbook Formal.
These indicate the context in which the sentence might appear.
Back when I was a beginner, I (Niko here) so so so badly wanted to study casual language, and only casual language.
I wanted to make friends, and friends use casual language, right? What I failed to take into account was that the complete inability to use formal language in Japanese can make you look really bad in social situations.
In any case, I was unable to use natural casual language because all of the books and teachers I interacted with didn't teach it to me, even when they said (and likely believed) they were doing so.
One of our principles at NativShark is to treat students with respect.
Accordingly, we're not going to prevent you from learning casual speech, slang, and so on just because you may sound rude if you use it in improper settings.
By doing so, we are trusting that you will take the time and effort to learn both casual and formal language.
To be a truly "advanced" level learner of Japanese, you should be able to use both formal and casual language, and able to switch between the two mid-conversation.
Switching will take a while to get used to, and you'll probably mess it up, even after reaching high levels of proficiency. But at least being able to use formal or casual language one at a time is a crucial skill, even for a high beginner or lower intermediate student.
Before we get any further though…
Don't memorize formality markers
We mainly provide these for reference. Take note of the formality marker when you see a new sentence, but don't give it too much thought.
This is one of those things that we want to get an intuitive sense for over time.
Just think to yourself:
"Hmm, this sentence is marked Formal. Interesting. Okay, let's keep moving forward!"
Now, on to what they are:
The 4 formality markers
For natural spoken language, we have two formality markers: Casual and Formal.
For language that you would be less likely to hear in natural speech but that it adhering to strict grammar rules, we have these formality markers: Textbook Casual and Textbook Formal.
This is the way people usually talk among friends and family. There are exceptions to this. For example, some people use casual language even when talking to strangers, such as when their age is widely different.
To give a more complex example, a business colleague and I use casual language when talking to one another.
But that's partly because we've been working together for almost 10 years now. Also, he started out as my student, but then I started working for his company as a freelancer writer and translator. So, our relationship doesn't fit into a strict hierarchical order.
When I speak to his wife, however, I use formal Japanese.
This is the way people talk with strangers, teachers, bosses, and so on.
Textbook Casual is what you get when you force accurate grammar into "casual" sentences.
These types of sentences will usally have plain-form endings — which I hesitate to call "casual" endings — even though they contain things like particles or words that would probably dropped in actual speech. Or they may have words that people would be more likely to write than to say.
Since I learned so much Japanese from traditional educators, books, and dictionaries during the first several years of my studies, I was unfortunately speaking Textbook Casual Japanese when I wanted to be speaking Casual Japanese for a very long time.
In other words, my Japanese sounded very unnatural because I was never told that there was a difference between Casual the way people talk and Textbook Casual the way books and teachers say you should talk.
By the way, the natural Casual way to say this sentence would be パンケーキ食べた, (we drop the 私は and the を because they’re uncommon to say when speaking) though not every sentence is this simple to swap from Textbook Casual to Casual thanks to unnatural word choice or other factors.
This is essentially the same as Textbook Casual language in that it forces correct grammatical elements into sentences. The main difference is that these ones contain formal conjugations such as ～ます、です、and so on.
The line between Formal and Textbook Formal tends to blur a bit more than the one between Casual and Textbook Formal.
The reason for this is that Textbook Formal language is rather stiff-sounding. And a person might want to use it when giving an official announcement, for example, which technically is spoken language
This is a bit different than how you might talk to your teacher about how she spent her weekend. Formal language is not always stiff language, but Textbook Formal language is.
You may be wondering why we include "textbook" language at all if that's not how people actually talk. The reason is that getting a sense for how a Japanese sentence is arranged grammatically would be difficult to do unless we understood these textbook-like sentences.
By paying attention to how sentences are labeled, we can learn the grammar we need to know, but then only imitate sentences people would be likely to say.
What about 話し言葉 (spoken language) VS 書き言葉 (written language)?
These are two labels that native Japanese speakers use when differentiating between the words people write, as opposed to the words people say.
The reason we don't use these is that they can be quite misleading. Just the other day, I was talking with the Japanese colleague I mentioned earlier about how native English speakers tend to say strange things in Japanese when they want to start a sentence with "Thankfully..." or "Unfortunately..."
His response was that they could use 幸い (luckily; fortunately) or 残念ながら (unfortunately; I'm sorry to say). I was quick to then ask him how often he used either of these words when talking to his family members.
Never, he admitted.
Just because a word is labeled as 話し言葉 (spoken language), that doesn't mean people actually say it in their everyday lives. This is part of the reason we came up with our own formality markers at NativShark.