What to say in Japanese when you don’t know what to say

By | February 27, 2014

Studying a foreign language, there are many times when you get stuck and just don’t know what to say. Sure, you can just mutter a “ちょっと待って” (wait) and clam up for a few seconds to think, but that would set you apart from what a native would do in similar circumstances.

It’s best to give some verbal indication you are thinking, and then if still don’t know what to say at least say *something*, even it’s not the exact phrase you were searching for.

First let’s go over a few words that are used when you are thinking, and roughly correspond to the English words “um…”, “er…”, and “well….”.

  • あの。。。
  • その。。。
  • えっと。。。
  • ん〜〜  (said with mouth closed, sounds like a english “hmmm”)
  • え〜  (more polite)

Next I’ll go over a few phrases that are used when saying “what should I say…” to yourself.

  • なんて言うのかな。。。
  • なんて言ったらいいのかな。。。
  • なんて言えばいいのかな。。。

I think it’s safe to employ any of these even when talking in polite Japanese (敬語), but if you want to be extra careful you can use this:

  • なんて言うんですかね。。。

If you want to inject a short version of one of these into a sentence which you don’t plan on pausing as long, you can use the following expressions:

  • なんて言うか
  • なんつーか  (colloquial slang)

You can use the first expression above to mean “rather”, or when you change your mind about something mid sentence.

  • 日本語は難しいって言うか、とても複雑な言語です。
  • Japanese is a difficult, or should I say very complex language.

The expression “そうだね” or “そうですね” can be used as a conversation filler while you are thinking.

  • ヨーロッパのどこに行きたいんですか?
  • Where do you want to go in Europe?
  • そうですね。。。やっぱりイタリア!
  • Let’s see….. Italy!

A common occurrence in speaking a foreign language is when you hear a new word for the first time, and are clueless about what it means. In cases like this you can use the following phrases: (I’ll give the polite versions)

  • 「タンパク質」って何ですか?
  •  What is “protein”?
  • 「タンパク質」ってどう言う意味ですか?
  • What does “protein” mean?
  • 「タンパク質」って英語でなんて言うんですか?
  •  How do you say “protein” in English?   (of course, you should only use this if the person you are speaking too has a good grasp of English)

If you feel that you can’t express something well but want to try anyway, you can communicate this as follows:

  • うまく言えないんですけど。。。
  • I’m not how to say it properly but….

You can add “日本語で” to the beginning of this expression to emphasize you can’t say it properly “in Japanese”.

Or if you aren’t too sure of something you can say:

  • よく分からないんですけど。。。
  • I’m not sure but…

Here are two expressions that are quite extreme, but you can still use them for dramatic effect once in a while.

  • 言葉にできません。
  • I can’t put it into words.
  • 言葉で言い表せません。
  • I can’t express it in words.

Finally, here is an expression that you can use when the words you are searching for just won’t come to mind.

  • うまく言葉が出てきません
  • The words won’t come to me. (lit. “The words won’t come out well”).
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4 thoughts on “What to say in Japanese when you don’t know what to say

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, glad it was useful! I’m always open to new topics to write articles on, so let me know anytime (:

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Glad you found a useful phrase. Let me know if you have any questions anytime or have ideas for future posts.


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