Kiku Means Ask?: How to Use Verbs That Are Different From What You Expect : When you are learning Japanese, you might come across some verbs that mean something different from what you expect. Sometimes the dictionary definition of a verb doesn’t quite line up with the way native speakers use it.

Kiku Means Ask?: How to Use Verbs That Are Different From What You Expect

Learning about these verbs and the right way to use them can help improve you Japanese fluency. 

Kiku 聞く

The first verb I’m going to talk about is “kiku” (聞く). We usually translate this as “to listen,” but that only covers part of what “kiku” means. Honestly, I very rarely heard it used just to mean “listen,” except in the potential form “kikoeru,” meaning “to be able to hear,” or maybe when referring specifically to music. You’ll hear the phrase “kikoemasu ka?” way more than “kikimasu ka?” 

However, “kiku” has one other meaning that is used more often, and that is “to ask.” There are other words in Japanese that specifically translate to “to ask,” but generally people use “kiku.” So to say “I’ll ask,” you could say “Kikimasu.” This alternate use isn’t really intuitive for an English speaker, so it’s a good one to remember.

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Asobu 遊ぶ

“Asobu” is another verb that is good to know, mostly because we don’t really have an equivalent in English and it’s used all the time. We usually translate “asobu” as “to play,” but that’s a little too specific. “To play” sounds childish in English, but “asobu” doesn’t in Japanese. People of all ages can “asobu.” 

“To play” works as a translation when referring to children with this verb, but a different translation could be “to hang out.” The dictionary also suggests “to have a good time.” So don’t be tricked into thinking that “asobu” just means “to play.” 

Shiru 知る and Wakaru 分かる

These two verbs can be a bit tricky. In fact, I’ve known people who have written full academic papers on the difference between these two. I’m including them in this list because there is a pretty subtle difference between them. 

“Shiru” means “to know.” It’s very much information based. “Wakaru” means “to understand.” It’s more personal, and deals a bit more with things you need to discover for yourself.

Let’s look at an example. If you say “Tanaka-san ga shirimasu,” you are saying “I know Tanaka-san.” Maybe you’ve met her before. Maybe you’ve seen her picture and could recognize her. When you say “Tanaka-san ga wakarimasu,” you are saying “I understand Tanaka-san.” Maybe she’s mumbling but you can understand the meaning of her words. Or maybe you’ve just grown to really understand her at an emotional level. These sentences mean two very different things. 

In English, the difference between “knowing” and “understanding” is a bit more blurred. The words we use can overlap. But in Japanese, “shiru” and “wakaru” kind of can’t. So make sure you pay attention to which word you are using. 

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Iru いる and Aru ある

I’m adding these to the list as well, just because this is definitely something we don’t have in English. If we translate “iru” and “aru” into English, they are the same. They both mean “to exist.” But then why would there be two words?

“Iru” refers to living things, while “aru” refers to inanimate things. This is a really important distinction. If there are three books, “Sansatsu hon ga aru” (三冊本はある). If there are three people, “Sannin ga iru” (3人がいる). 

We don’t have a way to mark this difference in English, so it might be something you just don’t think about. This is a really good distinction to learn, though, because it will sound awkward if you use the wrong verb. It might also be confusing for whoever you’re speaking with, so do your best to remember this one.

Kaeru 帰る

Another verb we don’t really have in English is “kaeru.” “Kaeru” means “to return home” (with different kanji, it also means “to change,” “to return,” and “frog.” Homonyms are fun). 

This one can be tricky because it does NOT mean “to return.” That is “modoru” (戻る). When you use “kaeru” it is only specifically for going home. And that means your home, not someone else’s.

If you’ve been to Japan, and you want to say “I want to go back to Japan,” you CANNOT say “Nihon e kaeritai” unless you are actually Japanese. Instead, you’d want to say “Nihon e modoritai.” It doesn’t matter how much you loved being in Japan, or how much you consider it your home away from home or whatever. If you say “kaeru” in that context, it will sound weird. 

These are just a few examples of verbs with meanings we might not be used to as English speakers. Make sure to pay attention to the words you use and learn how to use them correctly. 

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