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I came across [話]{はな}せます in the Japanese WOTD chat room.

あなたは英語が話せますか? Can you speak English?

What's the difference between it and [話]{はな}します?

(Googling got some hits, but they were from user generated content, which isn't always reliable)

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Isn’t that English translation strange? I think that we usually say “Do you speak English?” instead of “Can you speak English?” to ask if someone is able to speak English. At least this is how I was taught at school. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 11 '12 at 23:19
    
@TsuyoshiIto Maybe it's an extremely literal translation, emphasizing that it's about the ability to do something rather than whether someone actually does do something. If that's the case, it reminds me of the joke "A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn't." –  Andrew Grimm Jun 11 '12 at 23:31
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

話せる is the potential form of 話す. The potential form implies being able to do the verb. It's an immensely useful form!

The potential form is created by adding られる to the stem of る-verbs, or adding the え form of the final kana of う verbs plus る to the stem of う verbs (I think the cool kids call those ichidan and godan verbs, respectively).

食べる - to eat
食べられる - to be able to eat

[泳]{およ}ぐ - to swim
泳げる - to be able to swim

この[漢字]{かんじ}が[読]{よ}めますか。 - Can you read this kanji?
はしが使えますか。 - Can you use chopsticks?

A special exception: Just use できる for する-type verbs.

車が[運転]{うんてん}できますか。 - Can you drive a car?

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Your explanation for creating the form is not clear, and is halfway (inaccurately) tied to the traditional terminology. More simply, (i) add '-e-' to consonant-ending verb stems: 'oyog-u' → 'oyog-e-ru'; (ii) add '-rare-' or '-re-' (colloquial) to vowel-ending verb stems: 'tabe-ru' →'tabe-(ra)re-ru'. –  sawa Jun 9 '12 at 11:51
    
What do you mean by "halfway (inaccurately) tied to the traditional terminology?" –  Garrett Albright Jun 9 '12 at 14:20
    
You are using the traditional terms like ichidan, godan, but then, you are using expressions like "え form of the final kana", which does not exist in traditional grammar, and is not clear what it means. –  sawa Jun 9 '12 at 15:20
    
Fair enough. I have no idea what the "traditional" way to explain things like this is. "え form" or "え row" (if you visualize a kana chart with あいうえお rows and あ、か、さ。。。 columns) is basically what I learned. –  Garrett Albright Jun 10 '12 at 0:13
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話せる/話せます "able to speak" is the potential form of 話す/話します "to speak".

See also the conjugation table at wwwjdic.

Edit: I didn't previously know this (and it's not used this way here), but apparently (according to the progressive dictionary and Daijisen), coming from the "able to speak" meaning, 話せる can also mean "is sensible/is reasonable/is good at understanding other people/able to collaborate with other people":

うちの校長は話せる
My principal/headmaster is sensible.

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