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.”
“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.
“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.
“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?”
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.