Common Mistakes I Hear While Teaching English

I’ve been teaching English in Japan for more than ten years now, and I constantly hear the same mistakes. There are certain words that are always misunderstood or misused. Some of them are so different than what they think it means, that what they say doesn’t make much sense. Let’s take a look at some.

Local

This is what I often hear: “Nagano is very local.”

This is what they mean: “Nagano is very rural.”

This is what an English speaker thinks they mean: “Nagano is near here.”

Their mistake is thinking that local means that any town or small city is easy to get around, so it’s local. However, local merely means that it is something that is near your current location. Nagano is not local. It’s a bit too far away to be local.

Skinhead

This is what I often hear: “Patrick Stewart is a skinhead.”

This is what they mean: “Patrick Stewart is bald.”

This is what an English speaker thinks they mean: “Patrick Stewart is a Neo-Nazi.”

They think that skinhead is a very innocent term meaning bald. Whenever I explain to them what skinhead really means, they’re quite shocked. I would hope they don’t go up to a white guy and tell him he’s a skinhead. Yikes.

One piece

This is what I often hear: “I wore a cute one piece on my date.”

This is what they mean: “I wore a cute dress on my date.”

This is what an English speaker thinks they mean: “I wore a cute swimsuit on my date.”

Normally, we don’t say “one piece” in English, unless we couple it with “swimsuit.”  So, we have a one piece swimsuit. Rarely do we think of a dress, though.

Drama

This is what I often hear: “I love the American drama Full House.”

This is what they mean: “I love the American TV show Full House.”

This is what an English speaker thinks they mean: “I love the very serious American drama Full House.”

In Japan, drama means any kind of TV show that is fictional and has actors. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, it’s still a drama. In English, a drama is serious. They often don’t realise that we never call a sitcom a drama.

The last two are actually used in the Japanese language as loan words. Local and skinhead are just a misunderstanding. Of course, people of pretty much every country gets terms wrong for other languages. One example is that in English, people often proudly call themselves “otaku” as a kind of badge of honour. They think it means they’re just a dedicated fan of something. However, in Japan, it’s a rather insulting thing. People think otaku are outcasts, strange, and unhealthily obsessive. They’re not just fans, they’re considered extremely weird. So, anime and manga fans, don’t come to Japan and proudly tell everyone you’re an otaku. They’ll think you’re very strange.

Do you know of any words that are misunderstood or used incorrectly from one language to another?

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8 thoughts on “Common Mistakes I Hear While Teaching English”

  1. English speakers regularly call soap soup in Spanish, and say they’re pregnant when they’re embarrassed. Which can get embarrassing. And if you’re young enough, get your mouth washed out with soup.

    1. Yes, that actually annoys me. I find that it’s more common among people who live in rural areas. Probably not a literal meaning of direction, but more related with how the big city is up compared to the countryside, so the US seems exciting and busy. It’s like moving up in the world?

  2. Part of my spouse’s work team is in India and he has a meeting with them nearly every day by phone. If they have a question about something, they are likely to say that they have “doubts,” which is not the way most English speakers would express it.

  3. If video games are any indication, in Japan, they say “X get!” to mean “You got X” or “I got X”.

    There’s even a Pokemon trainer class named “Skinhead” in Japanese. (In English, it’s changed to “Cue Ball” or “Roughneck” depending on the game.)

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