Sunday December 3rd


Normally I write the text-updates in Dutch and the photo-updates in English so there is something for everyone. This time I want to write something about languages and especially the English language, so it doesnt really make sense to write that in Dutch. Furthermore I think this could be an interresting topic for many other foreign sudents here and for the Japanese.

In general, it is often said that "Japanese is a difficult language" and that "Japanese people are bad at English". Japanese people often agree with this or even state it by themselves. However, it is just a point of view. Now I have been studying japanese for a while, I see more and more really weird things in the english language, where japanese is more consistent. Japanese and English are just very different, which makes it difficult to learn "the other one".

Japanese speaking English

One reason why Japanese people dont speak english very well, is a lack of practice. This starts at the schools, where the number of english speaking teachers is simply insufficient, so the emphasis is on grammar and reading/writing. On a short stay you wont notice that they are much better at writing than at speaking, so many people get a bit biassed view on the japanese' level of english.

Another reason may be that many japanese feel very ashamed if they make a small mistake and therefore are shy and dont dare to try. Also the dubbed movies and a lot of Japanese songs and much less English ones, schoolbooks in japanese (even highly specialized university books) and the relatively closed society, make that japanese people dont have a lot of opportunities (or need) to practice english.

Some differences

It is well known that many asian people (including japanese) are not able to pronounce the R and make an L-sound instead. This is not fully correct, as it depends very much on the person. The main thing is that the japanese phonetic characters do not include this difference. Many japanese therefore have difficulty distinguishing between both (even when listening) and many make some sound inbetween (which in its place is very difficult for foreigners to do). Some even pronounce a R even when it should be an L.

Except from the R/L thing, there are many differences between the japanese and english phonetics. The japanese characters are always a combination of a consonant and a vowel (except for the N/M). It starts with "a - i - u - e - o" and then "ka - ki - ku - ke - ko" and the same with some other consonants. This means that many english words cant be pronounced according to this system and thus have to be "japanified": ice cream -> aisu kuriimu. And they are still lucky that in japanese the U is often silent. Another problem rises with the V, which has a very distinct sound, but is not available in the japanese phonetics. Mostly it turns into a B.

A big difference in grammar is that in japanese the structure of the sentence is defined by particles; ...-wa marks the topic, ...-ga marks the subject, ...-o the object, ...-ni the indirect object etc. "Jim gave Emma flowers" in english would correspond to [Jim]-wa [Emma]-ni [flowers]-o [gave]. Some particles are used for more than one purpose, which makes it quite tricky sometimes. Also -wa and -ga are very close to eachother. In English the structure is determined by the word order.

Some other differences:
  • The subject of the sentence is omitted in japanese if it is clear from the context. In English often the word "it/he/she" is used in such a case
  • A question sentence is the normal sentence, but ending with "-ka". In English the word order is changed
  • Japanese doesnt know a future tense (it is the same as the current tense)
  • These is no plural in japanese
  • There are many levels in politeness in japanese, mostly expressed by the (ending of the) verb.

What makes english so difficult

As will be clear by now, pronuncation is a difficult thing in english, even for speakers of other western languages! Everybody who thinks he/she speaks english quite a bit should read the (huge) poem "The Chaos" by Gerard Nolst Trenité, which starts with:
      Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;

just to make clear how weird English is. There seems to be no logic, as similar writing results in different pronuncation and different writing may be pronounced similar. The poem counts 275 lines full of examples and I have to admit that there were quite some words where I really didnt know what to make of it. Only the fact that you know it should rhyme or the fact that it is said not to rhyme, can help sometimes. Another example is "Eye halve a spelling chequer", which also shows that very differently spelled words may have the same pronuncation.

The other difficulties are very subjective I think. For native speakers of a very different language (such as japanese) the differences discussed before will lead to some problems. For many people the difference between "he" and "she" seems to be difficult (I also spoke french people in belgium with this problem). I have no idea why this is, as almost every language has this difference in male/female reference. Maybe it is just because the words look so similar...

Trying hard(ly?)

Ofcourse I have seen many typos here. I make a lot of errors as well. Sometimes its lazyness (not willing to type the ' in it's), sometimes sleepyness (which should be sleepiness) and sometimes I just forgot or didnt know (is sometimes one word? shoud it be some times?)...

Here a lot of typos can be explained from the pronuncation of the english word (and thus often the japanified spelling). This way "Price List" may become "Prise Rist", "hall" becomes "holl", "transfer" becomes "transfar" etc.

More interesting is however, the commercial slogans that you sometimes see. Some just dont make any sense at all...

On a set of envelopes (brand: Misuzu co.,LTD): "The art performance Misuzu hasbeen created expertly by the excellence and authentics of seniors in history." ("hasbeen" was written as one word indeed). Please send me an e-mail if you have any serious clue about what they are trying to say... It is probably a "dictionary-translation" from some japanese sentence.

On Hachi meat curry sauce: "Deliciousness of the material has been full of life. An article cooked strictly by the curry store." Well, luckily it was NOT full of life, but I have to admit the taste was not optimal.

On a T-shirt: "Make them eat cake" with a picture of 2 guns on the back. Before you go on rolling on the floor lauging... later we found out that "Make them eat cake" would be the name of a finnish metal band or so. On the other hand, the very popular brand "A Bathing Ape" originated here in the streets of Harajuku... (see wikipedia)

On choco kuchen:"The delicious taste and flavor spread in your mouth were born as a result of Yamazaki Baking' craving for good-tasting." Well... just a weird way of putting it.

Something you see quite often: "Let's cooking!" which should be either "Let's cook!" or "Lets start cooking!".

On a carton 100% pine juice it said: "Enjoy the delicious juice made from the careful selection pineapple, please.". First of all the "please" is a bit strange. Then the "the" (2x) are not supposed to be there, finally I think "carefully selected pineapples" makes more (grammatical) sense.

On a ferry: "SUNSET CRUISE - Please enjoy cruise in delicious food and the delicious drink". I get the meaning, but that's all...

Funny misunderstandings

I dont want to make fun of people here, but I like to illustrate how some errors can cause a sentence to have a whole different meaning.

After getting off the plane you may hear: "you have present fright?" Three things go wrong here... first of all the L is pronounced as an R (pLeasant fLight) and secondly the word order should be changed for this question sentence (adding "to do" -> "did" in this case). The third thing is that "a" is omitted, in japanese (and chinese and probably some other languages) there is no equivalent of the/a/an.

"you are boring" may just be a question and not a statement. Again the fact that in japanese the question is the affirmative sentence followed by "ka" makes the japanese unaware that they have to change the order of the sentence. The other thing is that "boring" could be a state of being, like "sleeping", which actually makes perfect sense. However in English we should ask "are you bored?"

I had no clue what was meant when I heard "I have to trouble for an owl". It takes some practice to listen to japanese people speaking english, just because of the different alphabet. As I said the R/L mixup also happens with the V/B. Once you are aware of these things and get used to some extra vowels in words, everything makes much more sense. The other thing plauing here is that trouble in english is more or less pronounced like trabel. What was meant was "I have to travel for an hour".

it suits us very well was pronounced as "it suites us very well". Here the (originally french) word suite (hotel room) is pronounced where the word suit (to match, to fit in) was meant. This is a clear example of the difficulty in deriving the proper pronuncation from a written english word.

I discussed with someone the importance of putting the "a" (or "an" or "the") in a sentence. It is very difficult to tell when to put it, it is merely a matter of feeling. Also when to use the general "a" and when to use the specific "the" is sometimes difficult to explain. After finishing dinner, the person I talked with came up with the pair "I am full" versus "I am a fool". The "a" here makes a big difference. Although "fool" has a slightly longer sound than "full", the listener wont notice this and bases his interpretation of the sentence on whether or not the "a" was pronounced.

Ofcourse I have the same problem here in japan. Many words are almost the same

Final word

By showing so many "funny" examples of errors people make when trying to speak or write english, I may offend some or make them scared to try. I really hope this is not the case and I support everyone who has the courage to try and improve his/her skills. Sometimes these funny errors can help to remember a certain difficulty and avoid a sort-alike error in the future.

I hope I also made clear that English has a lot of difficult aspects, in pronuncation, but many more for people with a native language as different in its structure as Japanese or Chinese for instance. In the Netherlands there is an expression "you lean by falling and getting up again" and "you have to learn from your mistakes". So just try! plactis plactice practice!