Why teach です/ます first?

All of the textbooks I have seen begin teaching verbs in the polite form (です、〜ます) first and then introduce plain form (dictionary form, informal, whatever you want to call it) later. But why not learn it the other way around? Is it just so that if you go to Japan soon after beginning to study, you won’t sound as rude? If you’re not imminently going to Japan, I feel like learning informal speech first would make it so you could begin to understand Japanese TV, music, manga, children’s books, etc sooner. Besides, isn’t informal speech in the home the way that Japanese children first learn their own language. I sort of wonder if you might end up with a different (maybe better) feel for the language if you started with informal… (Thanks for reading my random musings.)


I’m not entirely sure why languages seem to start with the most proper form first. I’m assuming that, because slang changes more with the times, teaching formal grammar first helps newcomers to act politely while learning a more permanent form of communication, and assists them in being able to understand the intricacies of informal speech. For instance, if you were to learn English, you’d likely hear the term ‘is not’ before ‘isn’t’, because then you might understand the shortened version more once you come to learn it. But while ‘isn’t’ might, for some reason, become unpopular, ‘is not’ will likely be used in literature and some conversation for a longer period of time (although, that wasn’t the best example, seeing as how common ‘isn’t’ is and how unlikely it is to fade out of English within at least the next one hundred years).


Ah, I haven’t studied any other foreign languages long enough to grasp differences between polite and informal speech, so I hadn’t been thinking about trying to draw any parallels. I guess I was thinking that if you had learned informal Japanese first, then it’s only a small step to the normal polite level. However, to me, having learned polite Japanese first, the reverse feels harder.

I get the logic of not wanting a newb to sound rude but at the same time … who expects a newb to be perfectly polite? I’ve never understood what was so wrong with a new student basically speaking like a child. I feel like informal is easier and also gives a better starting point when you begin to learn conjugation.

With Japanese, I guess it depends on what material you are consuming, but you’ll see the ます form being used just as much as the regular form. It does vary with characters / people / audience, but there is definitely a mix of it.

I personally liked learning ます/です polite speech first…it made the casual forms seem a lot easier since they are more simple.

Also it makes more sense in my head to think of:
ありません => ない rather than ない => ありません
It is like, you get to simplify rather than have to add.

In the end you learn them all pretty quick anyway.


How can it feel harder? You can’t possibly have learned it one way first then tried the other way first so as to compare one to the other, so how might you have come to the feeling that it is harder?

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I know, but is there anyone who has tried the other way first?

This article talks about the learning sequence: Politeness and Formality in Japanese | Japanese Professor

It basically says what some people speculate already - learn polite language first since you pretty much can’t go wrong with using it.

Also it says the polite conjugation is the easiest for beginners since it is basically consistent and there aren’t many exceptions / variations.
^ I guess that is true thinking of it now. Although when I first learned anything in Japanese I thought it was all hard, lol.


One of the first things beginners do is talk to their teacher. I always figured that had something to do with it.


Although I’m a big advocate for casual Japanese, in my opinion です and ます form is easier compared to dictionary form. It`s very consistent.
With dictionary form, at least when it comes to verbs, there is a lot of different conjugations you need to learn, all depending on how the verb ends.

It`s all different. At least with ます it will always have the same ending.

And yet… casual form is a lot more useful. I didn`t feel like I had a good grasp on the language until I learned it. Where as with です and ます, you only get part of the picture.

I dunno, I think if I was teaching someone Japanese Id teach them です and ます form first too. Not because its more polite, but I think the person would be able to start forming sentences a lot faster.

There’s no reason the two can’t be taught side by side. It actually helps to see how all the pieces are related.


Aren’t the two actually almost taught side by side anyway? It’s not like they’re two complete seperate systems, both are used in many situations everyday. I’m assuming -masu form is introduced first because of how easy it is to use (you do want students to be able to express something), but plain forms come into play really fast in any course.


I feel like it’s more difficult to go casual to formal than it is formal to casual. When living in the states, I only ever used formal Japanese (mainly because I only talked to my teacher) but since coming to Japan I’ve been using a LOT more casual and I find it often slips out at work and in situations it shouldn’t. It’s way too comfortable and faster and easier to use. And like others have said above, ます and です are much more consistent. There are lots of changes that come with casual Japanese because of dialects and the like (I understand you could just study Tokyo dialect like we do with formal. But slang/casual language also changes all the time.) Plus, I never really studied casual much. I pretty much learned casual Japanese from talking to my significant other and friends. It’s pretty easy to pick up on, in my opinion.

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Check out Tae Kim

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I asked the same question of my Japanese tutor. She said that -masu form was easier to teach. Compare:

Polite forms   Affirmative   Negative
Non-past   -masu   -masen
Past   -mashita   masendeshita


Plain Forms   Affirmative   Negative
Non-past   dictionary form   nai form
Past   --ta form   -nakatta

If we were to learn plain forms first, we would have to learn dictionary form, nai form and te form. It is easy to convert dictionary to nai form because the difference is in the vowel following the verb stem. However, the te form rules are weird.

From a marketing perspective, the te form would scare away newcomers in commercial Japanese language courses.

Having said that, my ski instructor has never attended a lesson or read a textbook. He learnt Japanese from his Japanese friends. He had never even heard of 行きます. It was always 行く to him. He learnt to say “let’s get drunk tonight” in Japanese long before I did.


I don’t accept your premise that learning informal speech first would make it easier to understand Japanese TV, music, manga, children’s books. Formal speech is used in those media as well.

Also, no grown-up learns a foreign language like a native speaker’s child. Even if you immerse yourself in the language without learning any grammar first, people are not going to talk to you like they talk to a child. Mostly, they’re going to use some common language (mostly English, barring that, gestures/Tarzan language).

Yes Tae Kim teaches plain form first.

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I’m not sure how other textbooks handle it but if you follow Genki it’s only a few chapters after the polite form that they introduce the plain form. It doesn’t seem to me to be that long between learning them.

I just wrote out a chart of both forms side by side before I started Genki though. :slight_smile:

I agree learning both side by side would be best - and is pretty close to what most people do anyway. However, if one is to be taught slightly ahead of the other, I think it makes sense to teach polite first.

Advantages of learning polite forms first:

The vast majority of people will not get beyond a beginner level and so will probably not need casual speech
Not being rude when speaking to new people you meet
Appropriate form to use in almost all survival situations
Not terribly difficult
Allows some background comprehension of most ‘set phrases’
Prevents learners from ‘not bothering with it’ (as many people, including me, do with keigo)

The only advantage I’ve seen mentioned of learning casual form first is to help you understand manga / anime and casual conversations, but surely the vast majority of people will become highly familiar with both long before reaching being close to understanding native media / conversation? I mean, we’re talking about real entry level grammar here and if you haven’t got to the stage where you know and can use both, you’re not at a level to be using much other than your textbook.

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I’ve seen people learn both ways. I took a casual course first where it focused on speaking more than reading/writing and we were taught dictionary form and informal patterns first and people took to it very easily, when other forms were introduced people picked up conjugation rules quickly. A year later I took a university course that used Genki and classes all but ground to a halt when it came to conjugation, people really struggled to understand how verbs went from ます/です to dictionary to other conjugations. I actually started a study group because of it …

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