Japanese English

By Glenn Huntley
Implications of unique English forms found in Japan for teaching

Even foreigners who have only been in Japan a short time will have had a chance to notice that, for a country where few people have a good command of serviceable English, the English language is everywhere. Even the cashiers at some McDonald’s outlets can be heard to call out “one burger please” to the kitchen staff.

Most of the English that’s around is in the form of fairly meaningless corporate slogans and garbled messages. Other language consists of loan words that have been incorporated into Japanese, and that inadvertently, and often mistakenly, get recycled back into the English use during our classes. If you have been around Japan a while, you would have heard the word “claim” being used to mean “complain’ for example. While anyone based in Japan can understand these linguistic peculiarities, they would cause problems if Japanese are dealing with non-Japanese.

How can we make our students more aware of the language that they use? The problem for teachers is that while a lot of these loan words, or their usage and pronunciation, are quite different from regular English usage, the meaning of others is either close or the same as it is in “real” English. At the izakaya (Japanese drinking establishment) a common phrase you may have heard is “last order desu”. Not too much to fault there, though it really should be ‘last orders, please’, instead of being mixed in with Japanese. Another common borderline case is the use of the word “gorgeous” where the meaning is more-or-less the same but in Japanese it is used in a greater range of situations and lacks the emotional impact that accompanies its usage in English.

What can we do to improve students’ awareness of the language they use, and to help them make better language choices? One way is simply though correction and self-correction techniques. As with other common errors, try to get students to identify the problem with some of the Japanese English they have used, then explain the situation if they simply don’t know. Another way is to gather some examples of English commonly found in Japan and use it as a means of discussing any usage problems that exist, as another opportunity to extend awareness.

As well as the everyday examples that can be found all around us if we live in Japan, there are many internet sites that feature the more humorous examples. A major one is http://www.engrish.com. Students themselves can also find their own examples. The whole process can help them, once again, become more aware of language. The focus can be grammar, spelling, meaning or pronunciation. After all, the mangled pronunciation of McDonald’s is cringe-worthy legend. The difference between this and general error identification is that students will often have to detach themselves from their ingrained understanding of loan words within their own tongue, rather than correcting common and perhaps familiar English errors.

A follow-up discussion issue may be to identify some kinds of Japanese-English that are used at students’ own companies, if you are teaching business English. Sometimes, though they themselves don’t realize it, this language may be specific to their industry or even just to their company.

A related topic that may be worth raising with students is the legitimacy of a separate, and legitimate, form of Japanese-style English in this country. In the same way that different forms of English exist in many other countries, why is it not reasonable to consider the idea of a special form of English (Japanese-English) in this country as well? To take an example, is it always “wrong” to use Japanese-English forms, when English-speaking foreigners often use terms like “gaijin house” and “conbini” when talking to each other? The answer is that, as always, we should use the kind of language that is going to be appropriate and understood in a given context. Even mixing in the use of purely Japanese words such as “bento” is probably mostly fine when speaking English in Japan, as long as the people we are speaking to have been in Japan long enough to understand. On the other hand, such a word would obviously not be understood were the student to travel overseas on business. Purists would, of course, reject this kind of hybridization of language out of hand, yet if you have a look at any English-language dictionary and find Japanese words like “sushi” or “futon”, it’s clear that this is a perfectly natural process. It’s how languages evolve and adapt. In such an environment, what our job as communication educators should be is to help students communicate effectively in whatever situation they find themselves.

Written by Glenn Huntley for Teflnet September 2007
Glenn taught English in Japan for nine years.
© Teflnet

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