Teaching in Japan: 5 Common Student Mistakes

Teaching in Japan
5 Common Student Mistakes

Gwyneth Jones
by Gwyneth Jones 14,012 views |

When teaching English as a foreign language, you will encounter a lot of mistakes.

While you can choose to simply correct those mistakes and move on, it is usually worth looking at which mistakes crop up time and time again. Common mistakes can be due to the way you’re teaching something, or they can be due to a feature of the student’s native language.

It is important to understand not only what the common mistakes for Japanese learners of English are, but why they pop up so often. Here are some of the most common mistakes that I encountered while teaching in Japan – including the reasons behind them. Once you have an idea of where these errors come from, you can work on tackling them in more detail.

The Most Common Mistakes are the following:

  1. 1

    I rike red!

    This isn’t just confusion about which letter to use – most learners genuinely can’t distinguish the difference between the two sounds.

    Those racist impressions have some truth behind them – Japanese speakers often mix up the sounds “R” and “L” when they speak English. This isn’t just confusion about which letter to use – most learners genuinely can’t distinguish the difference between the two sounds. While Japanese does not use an “L” sound, but its “R” is not quite an “R” as we would say it, either. Practice the two sounds, and notice where your tongue is. Their sound is somewhere in between the two.

    When English words get transcribed into Japanese, they are written in katakana – the alphabet for imported words. This alphabet (like the rest of Japanese) doesn’t have an “L” – or a “V”, for that matter. Ls become Rs and Vs become Bs, while both “th” sounds become either S or Z. Consonants also don’t exist without vowels after them (except for “n”), so “hot” becomes “hotto” etc. When you can translate English words into katakana, you’ll start to recognise why students pronounce things the way they do.

    The best way to practice this is to get students to focus on their tongue and teeth placement when making the sounds, and to drill them with certain words over and over. Only practice can help with this – and discouraging the use to katakana in their books to “help” with pronunciation!

  2. 2

    I ate fried potato and pan.

    A lot of imported words are used in Japanese, especially relating to imported food or ideas. You can recognise them from the katakana alphabet that offers “hamba-ga” and “ko-ra” on the menu. However, not all words are adopted from English. Study the language and you’ll soon find a lot of strange words, such as “arubaito” (from the German “arbeit” – work – which in Japan is the word for a part-time job) or “pan” (bread, from Portuguese or French).

    A lot of students assume that if a word is written in katakana, then it must be the English equivalent. Sometimes the words are English, but the meaning has changed – “fried potato”, you may have guessed, is fries/chips, but there are some far stranger words that you’ll come across. Take, for example, “pasacon” – which is a shortened version of “personal computer”, or “baikingu” – from the word “Viking”, but in Japan it’s used to describe an all-you-can-eat dinner special.

    You’ll have to teach students that, sadly, katakana and English are not the same thing. It’s a good idea to arm yourself with knowledge of these imported words, so you can figure out what your students are trying to tell you.

  3. 3

    I am very enjoy!

    One thing that cropped up all the time was the use of “enjoy” (or even “enjoyment”) as an adjective. When your students tell you that “I was enjoy”, what they mean is that they enjoyed something, they had a good time, or it was fun. The mistake comes from attempting to translate “tanoshii” or “tanoshii-katta” from Japanese.

    “Tanoshii” is a word that means fun, enjoyment, or pleasure, but the way that it’s used is different in Japanese. In English, we ascribe emotions to ourselves – “I am angry” or “she was happy” – but it’s a little different in Japanese. If you directly translate the sentence “Watashi wa kowai desu”, it could mean either “I am scared” or “As for me, [it is] scary”.

    So, what semantically means “I had a good time” comes out as “For me, it was enjoy” – and as it seems to be a sentence that crops up a lot, it’s good to know what your students are trying to say. Teach some stock phrases rather than all available possibilities, to avoid confusion.

  4. 4

    Please teach me your phone number.

    It sounds a little strange, but the confusion between “teach” and “tell” is a common one, and down to a very simple reason – the word for both is the same in Japanese (“oshiete”). When you’ve grown up only knowing one word to mean several things, it can be confusing to try distinguishing between two meaning – why is it “tell” here, yet “teach” here?

    Japanese and English often disagree on the usage of words. Another example is coming and going. In English, you might text “I’m coming now!” if a friend asked you where you were, and you were en-route to their location. In Japanese, however, you would say “I’m going now”, which sounds a little strange to native English speakers.

    It’s good to be aware of these differences, so that you can catch them and correct them. The more Japanese you learn, the easier it will become to identify mistakes and understand why they happen.

  5. 5

    I read book in a school.

    Japanese does not use articles (the, a, an) – or plurals, for that matter. Actually, it often omits pronouns (he, she, I, you) – so “Hon o yonda”, a perfectly valid sentence in Japanese, translates to “read book”. It can take a lot of time (and confusion) to teach students to use pronouns for every sentence, and even more to get them to understand articles. Many students end up randomly shoving articles before nouns in the blind hope that they’re right.

    In English, the rules of when we use “the” are pretty confusing, even for native speakers. There’s no need to go into a lot of detail with beginner students – you’ll scare them off. The basic idea is that if we both (speaker and listener) know WHICH book/boy/sandwich you’re referring to, we can use “the”. If there’s only one of these things and we don’t use “the”, we have to use “on”,“a/an”, or turn it into a plural. Otherwise, when your kids say “I love cat!” it sounds a little dubious.

    Students get frustrated with the complicated nature of English often enough, so don’t focus on every tiny mistake unless they’re advanced learners.

    Praise them for their efforts, and gently correct them as they go along. The more you know about their language, the more you can help them by recognising their mistakes and catching them early on.

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