Just a Little Bit: How to Use Chotto ちょっと in Japanese : ちょっと (chotto) means “a little” or “a bit” in English, but the Japanese use the word in a variety of situations, such as to soften the blow of a direct statement. Today, we are going to learn how to use chotto in its literal sense and its other variations.

Just a Little Bit: How to Use Chotto ちょっと in Japanese

When learning Japanese, chotto is one of the easier words to get comfortable with because of its convenience. You can throw it pretty much anywhere in a sentence, and it will still make sense!

Chotto has three major usages. The first is in its literal meaning, “a little.” The second is to reduce the negative impact of a comment, criticism, or complaint. The third is as an interjection, like, “Hey!” or “Look here!” Let’s learn some more about these different usages below.

Chotto: “A Little Bit”

When you first arrive in Japan, someone may ask if you speak Japanese.

JAPANESE PERSON: 日本語わかりますか?
Nihon-go wakarimasu ka?
Do you understand Japanese?

The Japanese tend to be humble in conveying what they can and can’t do, so even if you do understand Japanese quite well, you might be compelled to do as the Japanese and downplay your abilities.

YOU: ちょっとわかりますけど、まだ初級です。
Chotto wakarimasu kedo, mada shokyuu desu.
I speak Japanese a little, but I’m still a beginner.

How about when someone asks if you play sports?

JP: スポーツできますか?
Supōtsu dekimasu ka?
Can you play sports?

If you can play sports—and you’re pretty good, actually—you could respond like this.

Y: はい、できますよ。サッカーは中学校からやっていました。
Hai, dekimasu yo. Sakkaa wa chuu-gakkou kara yatte imashita.
Yes, I can. I’ve been playing soccer since junior high school.

However, if you’re not very good at sports but know the rules of a few games, you could respond like this.

Y: ちょっとできますけど、特に上手ではありません。
Chotto dekimasu kedo, toku ni jōzu dewa arimasen.
I can play a little, but I’m not especially good.

When using chotto to mean “a little,” it’s important to be very clear that you are telling the truth when stating that you can only chotto do something. Otherwise, people may mistake you for just being humble. Let me show you an example.

Let’s say we have two people, a professional basketball player and someone who knows the rules of basketball but hasn’t played since he was a kid.

MAN: 毎月ここでバスケットボール大会をやっています。バスケットボールできますか?
Mai-tsuki koko de basuketto-bōru taikai o yatte imasu. Basuketto-bōru dekimasu ka?
We have a basketball tournament every month here. Can you play basketball?
PRO BASKETBALL PLAYER: ちょっとね。
Chotto ne.
A little bit.
AVERAGE JOE:  ちょっとね。
Chotto ne.
A little bit.

This is a very common situation in Japan. Both people said the exact same thing, but the pro basketball player was just being humble (or perhaps kidding), and Average Joe was telling the truth. That’s why it’s important to be clear that you are telling the truth and not just downplaying your skills. You can do this by using facial expressions, gestures, or explaining yourself. Below is an example of Average Joe explaining himself.

AJ: ちょっとね。ルールがわかりますけど、若い時以来ずっとやっていません。
Chotto ne. Ruuru ga wakarimasu kedo, wakai toki irai zutto yatte imasen.
A little bit. I know the rules, but I haven’t played since I was young.

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Chotto: Softening the Blow

When making a comment, complaint, or giving criticism, the Japanese don’t tend to be direct with their words. They’ll often try to soften the blow by being vague, beating around the bush, or using words like chotto.

Let’s say that you are working for a company and you have a great idea. You tell your boss, but he knows that it won’t fit the budget and there’s no way the higher-ups will approve. Here are three responses he could give.

  1. ちょっと考えておくね。
    Chotto kangaete-oku ne.
    I’ll think about it (a bit).
  2. ちょっと難しいね。
    Chotto muzukashii ne.
    It’ll be a little difficult.
  3. ちょっと無理。
    Chotto muri.
    It’s impossible (a little?)

In the first example, the boss is being indirect, but it’s still clear that he’ll probably turn down the idea.

The second one is a common line of rejection in Japan. When someone says that something is chotto muzukashii, they don’t mean, “It sounds difficult now, but if you convince me that we can do it, we can give it a try.” It’s just means, “No.”

The third example is the most direct. The boss outright says that it’s impossible. Even so, people still feel the need to use chotto in this situation to cushion the blow (it’s a very weak cushion but still better than nothing).

Other examples are:

ちょっと待ってください。
Chotto matte kudasai.
Please wait (for a bit). (Meaning: Please wait.)
ちょっと寒い。
Chotto samui.
It’s a little cold. (Meaning: I’m really really cold! Turn on the heat!)
ちょっと危ない。
Chotto abunai.
It’s a little dangerous. (Meaning: It’s really dangerous! Don’t do it!)
ちょっとわからない。
Chotto wakarani.
I don’t know (a little bit?) (Meaning: I don’t know.)
ちょっとトイレに行ってくるね。
Chotto toire ni itte kuru ne.
I need to go to the restroom (a little bit?) (Meaning: I need to go to the restroom.)

So, as you can see above, sometimes the word chotto just serves as filler and can be omitted entirely from the sentence. Sometimes instead of “a little,” it can mean “a lot,” as in the cold and dangerous examples above. Regardless, the Japanese still utilize the word chotto in this way, and you should too!

Chotto: An Interjection

Not only can chotto mean “a lot” instead of “a little,” it can also lose meaning entirely and merely function as a way of getting someone’s attention.

Imagine that you are out with colleagues, and a group of them are looking at the ground. They look up at you and laugh.

“Chotto, chotto…,” one of them says and waves you over.

You approach the group and see that they are looking down at a drunk co-worker passed out on the floor.

In this situation, chotto means, “Come here…” (with the nuance of “…for just a second”).

Now, imagine that you’re buying something at a convenience store and forget your purchase as you’re leaving. The store clerk runs after you and chases you down to give it back.

CLERK: お客様!ちょっと!お客様!
O-kyaku-sama! Chotto! O-kyaku-sama!
Sir! Hey! Sir!

Here, the clerk is just using chotto as an interjection to get the customer’s attention. Perhaps if he had time to catch his breath and finish the chotto sentence, it would go something like, “Chotto wasuremono ga arimashita (You forgot something [a little bit?])”

In conclusion, chotto is a very important word for the Japanese even beyond its literal meaning. It can be used to express humility, to cushion the negative impact from direct statements, or even to just get someone’s attention.

Now that you understand how to use chotto, it’s time to get out there and practice! See how many times you can throw chotto into conversation before people tell you, “Okay, that’s enough with the chottos…”

Get out there and practice, practice, practice!

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