Learning English? Remember this!

As an English teacher in Japan, I’ve heard many mistakes by students studying English.  The mistakes vary from the simplest, most mundane to the hilarious.  Japanese grammar is the opposite of English grammar.  It’s actually similar to the way Yoda speaks, leaving the verb at the end of the sentence.  So, it can be a challenge to adjust to a completely different set of grammar rules.

I understand that English can be a challenge to native English speakers, as well.  I’ve heard many people in Canada who don’t seem to have a very good grasp of their first language, and with the popularity of the Internet and text messaging on cell phones, there’s been a reduction in linguistic ability lately.  Native speakers have trouble with “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”  Also, “to” and “too” give people difficulties.  And then there are those who use “could of” instead of “could have.”  But I want to talk about some of the common mistakes that Japanese speakers have while learning English.


The most insidious class of words in the English language are the articles.  Japanese people usually don’t know how to use “a/an” or “the.” My usual advice is when introducing something, use “a.” When you mention it again, as a main topic, use “the.”  That may be a very simple way to think about it, but it often does work.  But these are very simple words, and they don’t result in misunderstandings, usually.  Although misusing them can have some unintended results.  What could possibly happen?  This is what I’ve heard.

“I ate a chicken for dinner.”

“You ate a whole chicken?”

So, be careful, English learners, you may unintentionally eat an entire animal for dinner!


This pair of words confuses so many students, it seems almost everyone gets it wrong.  When they want to use “most,” they almost always use “almost.”  For example,

“Almost Japanese eat rice everyday.”

“Who?  Are you telling me that people who are trying to be completely Japanese, but not quite making it, eat rice everyday?  What about full Japanese people?  Do they eat rice everyday?”


“At least these not quite 100% Japanese people like rice.”

When dealing with numbers of people and things, and it’s not quite 100%, please use “most.” If you want to talk about something that is not quite finished, or it’s not quite at a certain time, use “almost.”


Japanese people confuse these words, as well.  They don’t seem to realise that “naive” doesn’t mean sensitive.  Once it’s explained to them that “naive” has a more negative meaning, similar to being stupid due to lack of experience or ignorance, they get that they’re using it wrong.


“I live in a mansion.”

“Wow!  You must be rich!”

“No, it’s very small.  Only a 2 room mansion.”

The Japanese use the word “mansion” when they’re talking about a modern concrete and steel apartment building.  It does not mean they are rich or live in a large house.  The English “mansion” is a large house, of course.


“I saw so many girls in swimsuits at the beach.  I’m so ashamed.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain that these two words have different meanings, yet they both translate as “hazukashii” in Japanese.  The connotations are totally different.  “Ashamed” is much more negative, as if they have made a big mistake that they feel sorry for. The results may have unintended consequences for others.  “Embarrassed” is nothing to be so worried about, as it’s just an uncomfortable situation.  Other people are not affected.


Japanese people often use “too” when they really should be using “very.”

“That game was too fun!”

“It should be less fun then?”

“No, I enjoyed it too much!”

“Well, maybe we’ll make it more boring next time.”

“No, I don’t want it to be boring.  I want it too fun!”

I could keep going and going.  My point is, “too” should only be used if the following adjective (or adverb) is affecting you negatively.  Otherwise, if you just want it to be strong, use “very.”

Adjectives ending with -ed and -ing

Once again, students, ending an adjective with -ed describes your feeling.  Ending it with -ing describes things.  Take “boring” and “bored” for example.

“I am so boring.”

“I’m sorry to hear that you think you’re boring.  Why don’t you try to be a more interesting person?”

“No, there’s nothing to do.  I’m so boring!”

They don’t seem to realise that they’re insulting themselves.

“That game is bored.”

“Then give it a new player if you think you make it bored.”

See/watch/look at

“I watched an amazing painting yesterday.”

“That sounds boring.  Paintings don’t do anything.”


All three of these words have the same word in Japanese.  It is difficult to distinguish them for a Japanese speaker, unless they learn how to use them properly.  “See” is quite general, you don’t really concentrate on anything specific.  “Watch” is used when you concentrate on something that moves or changes over time. You’re observing its behaviour. “Look at” is similar, but you’re concentrating on the appearance of that object.

It’s similar for “listen” and “hear,” which use the same word in Japanese. “Listen” is when you concentrate on the sound, while “hear” is general, and you don’t pay attention.


Japanese has different words for “blue” and “green,” but there is a case when “blue” is used for something that is actually “green.”

“When the light turns blue, then you can go.”

“Okay, now it’s green.  When will it turn blue?”

“Now!  It’s blue!”

“No, it’s green.”

Yeah, traffic lights are apparently blue in Japan.  Last I checked, they appeared green to me.

Black eyes

“Can you describe him to me?”

“He has black hair and black eyes.”

“What?! He got into a fight?!”

“A fight?  No, he didn’t.”

When you ask a Japanese person what colour their eyes are, they will likely answer “black.”  Of course, if you look at their eyes, they’re really dark brown.  But many Japanese people say they have black eyes.  It should be brown or dark eyes, not black.  It’s only black if you have a bruise around your eye.

Winnie the Pooh

“What’s your favourite character?”

“I like poo!”


Japanese people tend to refer to Winnie the Pooh as “Pooh.”  I don’t think they should say that to an English speaker.  It’s a totally different and unintended meaning!  Unless they mean Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo, of course.


“What kind of place is your hometown?”

“It’s very local.”

“Oh, really?  How long does it take to get there from here?”

“6 hours by car.”


Japanese people seem to think that “local” means a small or countryside location.  It really means that it’s nearby.  I have to explain this to so many people, including high level students.

Curly hair

“What does your friend look like?”

“She has a long afro.”

“That’s an odd hairstyle for a Japanese woman.”

I hope that they will understand that an afro is very tight curls that you find in African hair. Curly hair does not mean afro!  I’ve heard of loose curls being referred to as an afro in Japan.


“When you’re ready to go left, turn the handle.”

“You want me to open the car door while driving?”

“What?  No!”

This is quite simple.  In Japan, the steering wheel is called the handle.


I will finish off with this big mistake.  This always happens with kids classes, when they’re learning to spell and do phonics.  In one lesson, they have to spell the word “six” based on the CD.  Half of the time, they write “sex.”  And I’m pretty sure most of them know what it means, because they snicker when I ask them about it.

Well, that is all for now.  If you’re a native English speaker, I hope you enjoyed this.  If you’re Japanese and learning English, I hope you learned something new.


Book Review – A Game of Thrones

A Game of ThronesA Game of Thrones” is a medieval fantasy book that has the world talking lately.  It’s the first in the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series by George R. R. Martin, and has recently been adapted for TV.  As I always read the book before I see the movie or TV series, now was a good time to get this started.

The version I’m reviewing appears to be a special alternate cover, and while it is paperback, it’s the size of a hardcover book.  Not so easy to carry around, and it seemed that the pages took much longer to read than a normal book.  But anyway, that’s just the version I’d bought.

When you think of fantasy novels, you usually think of a naive, inexperienced farm boy going on a heroic quest for self discovery and to defeat evil.  Well, there’s none of that here.  Dragons and magic are a part of this story, but they’re quite minor in this book.  What’s important here is politics.  There’s plenty of it!  The main characters are all high society, lords, ladies, kings, queens, and highly respected knights.  No one is entirely good and no one is entirely bad.  Everyone is in a grey area.  In other words, they are human.  There are a lot of characters to hate, as there’s a lot of despicable behaviour, and some of them you just want dead.  There are characters you root for, but they have flaws, just like regular people.

The book is told from a third person point of view, centered on many of the main characters.  Each chapter has a different point of view character, and the narration is told in such a way that you can feel their personalities in the words.  I felt like I could get to know the characters better that way.  In some ways, I could sympathise with most of them, but others I just didn’t like as people.  But the characters that are supposed to be the bad guys have a certain amount of good in them.  The focus is mostly on the Stark family, including Lord Eddard Stark, his wife Catelyn, and children Bran, Sansa, Arya, and Jon.  The main antagonists are the Lannister family, though we only follow the imp, Tyrion.  We get to view the actions of the other Lannisters through the eyes of Tyrion and the Starks.  There’s one other main character, Daenerys, the daughter of the previous King.  I can’t say whether she’s a protagonist or antagonist in this series, though.  It’s not completely apparent.  Through these people, we get to see what their world and circumstances are like.

Fantasy usually has a central hero.  This does not.  It’s an ensemble cast, and none of them is a hero.  The story doesn’t show heroic deeds, but it does show incredible tragedy, and a lot of it.  For those of you who like tragic stories, this is a great one for you.  But there are some major victories to be had.  There is a lot of death, rape, injustice, and treachery.  It’s dark.  The deaths are often gruesome.  There’s also sex, but it’s not graphically described. It’s depicted as just a fact of life.  And it seems like death must always be accepted, since it seems to touch everyone’s lives.

I came into this book knowing that it’s popular, and that many people thoroughly enjoyed it.  So, my expectations were set quite high.  I wasn’t sure whether to expect a typical heroic fantasy or something completely different.  The story was not predictable.  I was surprised often, which is a very good thing.  I wanted to read more and more with what little time I had.  I was more than satisfied.  This book has made a new fan.  It was quite excellent, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves this kind of story.  It exceeded my expectations.

5/5 stars.  Outstanding.

World creation, development, and planning

Last month, I touched a bit on the development of the fictional planet for my series of science fiction novels.  I will talk about it in more depth, starting with how I created it, the maps I made, and what I’m doing next.

In the beginning, I had an idea for a story I wanted to write.  But that story needed a setting.  I took a piece of paper and drew a rough map of a world with four continents, one large and three smaller.  I drew mountain ranges, large lakes, and rivers.  I drew polar ice caps.   This was all on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet.  I gave the planet a name, then discarded that idea.  To this day, I still don’t have a name for the planet, other than a designation based on its parent star, which was a target star for the search for exoplanets in the Goldilocks zone.  But this part came much more recently.  I developed this planet back when we knew of only a small fraction of the extrasolar planets that we know of today.

The second part of my map-making process was to blow up the planet.  No, not destroy it, but to draw it in more detail, on 16 pieces of paper.  I first traced a second map on another sheet of paper and drew lines of latitude and longitude.  The top row of papers were the northern half of the northern hemisphere from 45 degrees to 90 degrees north.  The next row was from the equator to 45 degrees north.  And same for the southern hemisphere.  I marked out where the tropics were, as well.  I used this for future reference.  On my much larger map, I drew all of the countries and capital city locations, then gave them all names.  As this planet is a colonized world, the oldest countries had names that are related to Earth locations.  The newer countries had more exotic names, although some of them had names of people I know, including family.  I even named a place after my favourite astronomy professor.  I drew all of the countries in order from oldest to newest, so I could get an idea about how the world’s population expanded.  I also gave approximate dates for the establishment of each country.

After the large map was made, I then drew another small map with climate/ecosystem zones.  I then drew yet another map with tectonic plates and indicated areas that were seismically and volcanically active.  I developed these maps with the knowledge I’ve gained in university, including the geology classes I’ve taken.  Who knew my university education would be useful for science fiction?
Also, because of my love of geography, this was a very enjoyable process.  And with this love of maps, I created two polar projection maps for the northern polar sea and the southern polar continent.  So, kids, if you’re really interested in making maps for science fiction or fantasy worlds, math and science are actually very useful!  And it’s a fun way to use it.

Now that the maps had been drawn, I went on to write out details about each country.  I included land area, which required me to determine the size of the planet.  I calculated the diameter, circumference at the equator, as well as the length of the lines at 45 degrees, so I can fudge the land areas in more temperate and polar latitudes.  I used this to make a grid on a transparency sheet and overlaid it on the more detailed big map.  It was pretty simple to calculate land area from that, as simple geometry was required.  I then determined land use percentages, length of coastline and rivers, then used a website to calculate a medieval level of maximum population. I’m surprised that website still exists, although the original page that describes how to do the calculations has moved, and can be accessed here.  After that, I wrote about the forms of government, described the climate and geography, date of independence, and so on.

This brings us to today.  I haven’t actually worked on the backgrounds of the nations for quite some time, though I have developed the story quite a bit.  I am planning on starting a new website dedicated to my books sometime in the near future, and this will include an atlas for my world.  I will, over time, write country profiles for every country in my world, including general history.  However, it will be left a bit vague, as I plan to fill in more details as I write the books.  I’ll be able to keep the stories consistent with the history of the world, and also provide readers with a very handy reference guide.  Will I publish a book based on this world?  Probably not.  It’ll be a constant work in progress, and the best way to do it is provide it for free on the internet.

I’m really looking forward to getting these books written, but I’m also looking forward to playing with maps and creating history.  So, keep coming back here as I detail my process of writing more in the future.

Out, Damned Poll! Out, I say!

Yes, the Shakespeare poll has been closed and if you’ve noticed the title of this post, the winner is Macbeth!  It will now go in my blank spot for my reading order.  So, the updated order is:

  1. A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin (Currently reading, almost finished)
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson
  4. Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds
  5. Guards Guards – Terry Pratchett
  6. The Reality Dysfunction Part 1: Emergence – Peter F. Hamilton
  7. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. Dune – Frank Herbert
  9. His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
  10. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – Douglas Adams
  11. Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  12. Ringworld – Larry Niven

Rating Books: What do the Stars Mean?

It’s long overdue for me to explain my ratings. I’m sure it’s similar to other people’s standards, but I’d like to clarify what they mean for me. I use a 5 point scale, 1 is the worst, 5 is the best.

5 Stars

These are the best books. They are special. To get 5 stars, it has to be moving, draw me in, make me excited about reading more. They can make me laugh a lot, surprise me, or make me sad. They are highly recommended.

4 Stars

These books are very good. I enjoy them very much, but they don’t have that extra little bit that make them excellent.  I like them a lot, but they don’t move me.  I thoroughly enjoy these books, so they are definitely recommended.

3 Stars

These books are good. I enjoy them, but they aren’t special. They have flaws that detract from my experience and the characters and story may be predictable or cliche. However, I do recommend them.

2 Stars

These books are incredibly ordinary. They’re not bad, but not good, either. I can finish reading them, but I find it difficult to push myself to read them. Not recommended.

1 Star

Awful books. I did not enjoy them and found them extremely difficult to finish. I want to finish them so I can move on to something better. Absolutely avoid!

If I can’t finish a book because it’s so bad, I won’t give it a rating. I want to be fair and read the entire book before I rate it. I’ll write a partial review, though.

Settings in Fantasy: Learning from Historic Monuments

As I read fantasy novels, I notice that many locations tend to be similar to medieval Europe.  Fantasy gives me the impression of the time of knights and kings in Europe.  Many of the places reflect old Europe, the castles in particular. However, it’s not always European history that fantasy takes after. Deserts are often Arabian, grasslands are Mongolian, cold wastes are sometimes Inuit, and wild and arid places are African. That’s what I notice culturally.

What I intend to do is every once in a while, choose a country and find a landmark that seems interesting.  I’ll describe it and discuss how I may use something similar in a fantasy setting. If a stock photo or a photo in public domain is available, I will use it to help illustrate what I’m imagining.  Finally, I’ll write a brief scene using the location.

This will be a writing exercise for me, and I would appreciate any feedback.