Re: @ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese
there are (at least) 6 different honorific forms
I don't think there are that many, but maybe I'm wrong on that. You really only have to learn two form: the dictionary forms (like taberu, kiku, aru, iru, etc.) is informal, while (if you're a foreigner) the polite forms (tabemasu, kikimasu, arimasu, imasu, etc.) are perfectly fine for almost any social occasion. Conjugation of both forms follow some very simple rules, with a minimum of irregular verbs. It's only if you're talking with someone of very high standing or you want to ask someone to do a favour for you that you need to worry about other forms. Apart from a few set phrases (things like "itadakimasu", "gochisousamadeshita), knowing how to ask someone of higher status to do something for you or describing something they have done for you (conjugating agemasu and morau, to give and receive) and the odd time you might have to use "degozaimasu" instead of the regular copula "desu", there's really not much to it. The only other major pitfalls as regards levels of politeness are to do with avoiding using certain verbs when a more polite version is appropriate (sometimes in specific social circumstances, so one never uses the verb kiru, to cut, at a wedding, since it conjures up thoughts of divorce in that context, but generally because, eg, kuu, to eat, is conventionally vulgar, while taberu and itadaku are safer or more polite, respectively) or not using the honorific prefix o- (or, sometimes go-) when talking about certain things (or using honorific terms to describe yourself, which is never acceptable regardless of your rank).
I think that these three levels (dictionary form, polite -masu form and a smattering of more idiomatic phrases) are enough for most interactions in Japanese. I find that yakuza films and (to a lesser degree) older samurai films (since the language used can be a bit dated) are a handy way of picking up at least some of the ultra-polite expressions. Of course, as I said, as a foreigner you can get away with just using -masu forms for the most part, and you'll be forgiven for most mistakes. But then, even Japanese people have difficulties with ultra-polite language. There's a particularly good scene in "Ososhiki" (the funeral) where the next-of-kin have to watch an instructional video to learn the appropriate phrases for greeting mourners. It mightn't teach you any practical phrases, but I'd recommend the film nonetheless...