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If someone asks me if I speak Japanese, in English I would answer "I speak very little Japanese", but what would be a proper way of saying this in Japanese?

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If you really want them to understand that you are a beginner, better not use anything too sophisticated. I think that a simple

私{わたし}は日本{にほん}語{ご}が下手{へた}です。
Watashi wa nihongo ga heta desu.

would be good for this situation.

If you don't want to say that your Japanese is poor, you can dodge it with

  • 私は日本語が上手{うま}くないです。
  • 日本語が少{すこ}しだけ話{はな}せます。 (thanks Felipe Oliveira)
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    how do you feel about [日本語を少しだけ話せます。] ? – Felipe Oliveira May 3 '17 at 18:04
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    I don't think this is necessarily a good suggestion. 下手 means "poor/unskillful at". While I agree there is some overlap in "amount of ability" and "depth of ability", "speaking very little" does not necessarily imply that you are poor at it; you may be very skilled at the little you do know. Although claiming to be 下手 is a very Japanese thing to do, so pick your poison I guess... – istrasci May 3 '17 at 19:50
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    @broccoliforest How about this? japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/25721/… – siikamiika May 3 '17 at 22:31
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    @siikamiika 日本語が話せる is like 日本語が + 話せる, that is "have speaking ability in Japanese". 日本語を話せる is on the other hand 日本語を話す + れる, more like "able to (exercise) Japanese speaking". So 日本語を少しだけ話せます strikes me as "I can speak Japanese for only a short while" or such things. – broccoli forest May 3 '17 at 22:58
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    @siikamiika There may be disagreement among regions or generations, but in theory potentials are supposed to solely take an argument X with が to mean "X is V-able". を appears when a potential attaches to the entire predicate, or in [YをV]-れる schema. This form is usually only allowed when an instance of action is referred, or to avoid AがBがVれる kind of cacophony. – broccoli forest May 3 '17 at 23:51
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There is something very peculiar about trying to find ever more elegant ways of saying "I don't speak much Japanese." Learning a language is about coming to understand what people say to you (without "thinking", or "translating in your head"), and finding yourself being able to reply because you know what to say (again, without calculation). My suggestion is:

日本語{にほんご}(は)、少{すこ}し(...)

You only need to understand (internally, really understand) three things here: nihongo and sukoshi you probably do already, and は(wa) is a topic marker. The topic here is not you, it is Japanese, since that's what we are talking about; this means "With regard to the topic of Japanese, 'not much'".

Here's a transcript of an actual conversation which occurred the other day in a local hospital:

Doctor's assistant: 日本語{にほんご}は大丈夫{だいじょうぶ}ですか

Me: 大丈夫{だいじょうぶ}です

This is much more natural for two reasons: No watashi-anata stuff, which is not about learning Japanese, more about learning "translated English". And an oddity of English: When we say "Do you speak German?" we really mean "Do you understand German?" In Japanese (and probably many other languages) it is more natural to say "分かりますか?", and if you really know almost no Japanese, the following is more useful to memorise as a sentence:

 日本語{にほんご}は分{わ}かりません

Literally "I do not understand Japanese"; English "I don't speak Japanese"

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