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So, in English, we tend to use phrases like "Do you speak English?" when what we're really talking about is ability -- i.e. "Can you speak English?"

My question is, does this work in Japanese? The impression I get is no, but I want to make sure. Like, if someone were to ask "日本語しゃべるの?", it wouldn't be "Do you speak Japanese?" as in "Can you speak Japanese?", it would be "Do you speak Japanese?" as in "Do you ever speak Japanese?", or possibly "Are you going to speak Japanese?", right? To ask about ability, I have to actually use a potential form of the verb -- しゃべれる. Right?

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  • The first thing that popped into my mind would be using 話せる{はなせる}, as in, 「日本語{にほんご}が話せます{はなせます}か?」. After that maybe 「日本語{にほんご}を話します{はなします}か?」. – Xeo Oct 22 '14 at 8:02
  • I would use 「できる」:「日本語ができますか。」. But let's see if this is acceptable. – Szymon Oct 22 '14 at 8:35
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The most common form is 「日本語ができますか?」 or 「日本語(を)喋れますか?」. It's completely OK to directly ask someone's ability in this case.

I usually make "indirect" questions like 「日本語をお話しになりますか?」 only when I talk to someone who is far higher than me and have to be super polite.

「日本語しゃべるの?」 sounds a bit weird to me, because 「しゃべるの?」 is a casual expression but the speaker is asking too indirectly. 「日本語しゃべれる(の)?」 or 「日本語できるの?」 is better when you are talking to your friend.

In certain situations, as you suspected, 「日本語しゃべるの?」 can mean "Are you gonna speak Japanese (e.g. in the meeting tomorrow?)".

Likewise, "Do you drink?" is "お酒飲める?" (casual) or "お酒はお飲みになりますか?" (polite) in Japanese.

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    Just curious, but why is できる preferred over 話せる? – Troyen Oct 22 '14 at 9:20
  • I know this is nitpicking, but I believe 飲む becomes めしあがる in sonkeigo. – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Oct 22 '14 at 13:39
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    @Troyen Of course 話せますか is always correct, but I feel it's a bit too stiff in daily casual conversations. – naruto Oct 22 '14 at 14:37
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    @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi There is more than one way to say it. – naruto Oct 22 '14 at 14:37
  • In beginners class I learned 話す, which means to speak. So I would ask by saying 日本語を話しますか? – starcorn May 6 '15 at 21:27
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Naruto's answer has good advice on politeness; 「日本語しゃべるの?」is extremely casual and could result in problems if used in the wrong situation.

Beyond that, one point: verbs have different conjugations, one of these is the potential form which implies "capability to become".

日本語をしゃべれますか? literally means "CAN you speak Japanese", while 日本語をしゃべりますか would mean "DO you speak Japanese" as you ask. In context it's unlikely anyone will mark a difference between them.

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  • The last paragraph is probably unhelpful. 喋る and 話す in this meaning don't use the 可能形 normally. These are in the category of verbs where the 辞書形 implies the 可能 like 入る – virmaior Oct 22 '14 at 9:15

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