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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. Jun 11, 2012 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."
    – Golden Cuy
    Jun 11, 2012 at 23:31
  • "Do you speak English" is definitely more common but we can and do use both. The version with "can" seems to emphasize ability a bit more - some people might use it when they expected somebody would know English but the evidence is so far suggesting otherwise. May 13, 2014 at 6:02
  • English can and could are also used when forming requests. We can force the request interpretation by adding please: "Can you speak English, please?"
    – user1478
    Oct 10, 2014 at 13:48

2 Answers 2

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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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  • 2
    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'.
    – user458
    Jun 9, 2012 at 11:51
  • What do you mean by "halfway (inaccurately) tied to the traditional terminology?" Jun 9, 2012 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.
    – user458
    Jun 9, 2012 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. Jun 10, 2012 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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