How would I say “I have been [...]” as in “I have been studying Japanese.” or “I have been working at an office”?

If I remember correctly it is a particular verb conjugation and this would be considered past progressive tense. Correct?

I would translate “日本語を勉強していた。” as “I was (but am no longer) studying Japanese.” This is not the solution I am looking for.

  • Do you mean like "recently, I have been studying Japanese?" Tenses don't always agree between English and Japanese. – virmaior Oct 18 '14 at 7:16
  • Sort of. I mean recently and presently. "Recently, I have been (and still am) studying Japanese." I'm pretty sure there is a way to just say it like "I have been studying japanese." While meaning recently and presently. – Unique Depiction Oct 18 '14 at 7:20
  • 2
    Like 「最近、日本語の勉強を頑張っている」? – Will Oct 18 '14 at 8:14
  • Upon further research it would appear that "日本語を勉強していた。" is actually correct but that leads me to wonder how you would say "I was studying Japanese." as opposed to "I studied Japanese." or "I have studied Japanese." or "I did study Japanese." – Unique Depiction Oct 18 '14 at 10:59

「〜いる」 primer

Japanese is honestly far more simple than English when it comes to aspect.

In Japanese, the rule is that 「〜いる」 means you are currently (or will be) in some state related to the verb, while 「〜いた」 means you had been in some state related to the verb.

There are many such states:

  • The state of doing something (progressive).
  • The state of regularly doing something (habitual).
  • The state of having done something (perfect).
  • The state of having the experience of having done something (experiential).

For example, 「勉強している」 can mean

  • "I am studying." (progressive)
  • "I study." (habitual)
  • "I have studied." (perfect)
  • "I have the experience of studying." (experiential)

(Note that the last two readings are definitely not common and need context to be forced, but they are possible. Even the habitual reading is not the first thing that comes to mind without context. The future reading is also possible for each of these.)

Correspondingly, 「勉強していた」 can mean

  • "I was studying." (past progressive)
  • "I used to study." (past habitual)
  • "I had studied." (past perfect)

Which lines up perfectly, with the exception of the experiential reading disappearing because having the experience of doing something is permanent – you can't lose it.

"Have been" in English

You may have noticed I didn't list "I have been ...". The "have been" form in English is called the "perfect progressive", and is a bit of a weird form.

  • The progressive in English requires that the action is going on at the current point in time.
  • The past progressive in English requires that the action had been going on at some past point in time. It suggests that it is not going on now, but that can be canceled.
  • The perfect progressive in English requires that the action has been going on until now or just recently, and focuses on the duration.

With enough context, you can line some of the meanings up exactly:

"Lately, I am studying Japanese."
"Lately, I have been studying Japanese."

Adding "Lately" to the progressive results in it having the meaning "both now and up to now", which is nearly identical to the perfect progressive.

"Have been" in Japanese

As I said, Japanese is fairly simple in that it only has two forms. That means you can't get the fine distinction you're looking for just by picking one form or the other. Instead, what you need to do is the equivalent of adding "Lately":

"Lately, I am studying Japanese." ⇒ "Lately, I have been studying Japanese"

I would say that 「日本語を勉強していた。」 does not have the meaning you are looking for, and I'm not sure where you heard that.

?? 最近、日本語を勉強していた。
?? "Lately, I was studying Japanese."
?? "Lately, I used to study Japanese."
?? "Lately, I had studied Japanese."

As in English, it is hard to imagine where you'd say something like that. Another way to explain it: it is hard to have formerly been in a state lately.

As a side note, another thing that the perfect progressive "have been" does in English is allows you to specify how long you've been doing something: "I have been studying for 2 hours.". In Japanese, the 「〜いる」 form works just fine: 「二時間日本語を勉強している。」

Another note: the 「〜いた」 forms in Japanese have the same suggestion as the past forms in English: they suggest that you are no longer in that state. However, as in English, that suggestion can be canceled or irrelevant.

Aspect is Hard™, but hopefully this begins to help paint the connections between Japanese and English for you.

  • @UniqueDepiction I had been wondering about this myself. What I've found is similar to the end conclusion Darius has offered: To say "have been verbing" in Japanese, you seems to need some type of time qualifier (i.e. for two days, for three months, for some time, recently, etc.). When I studied Italian, this is exactly how we expressed this very idea. Recently, I had written something wanting to say: "I have been learning about iodine and the thyroid gland for the past week." I wrote it in Japanese as 「過去一週間, ヨウ素と甲状腺について勉強している。」 – Marnell Sample Oct 20 '14 at 16:35

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