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Japanese vs English

Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by about 125 million speakers, primarily in Japan, where it is the national language.

According to recent research by the FSI Japanese is the hardest language for English speakers to learn and, presumably, Japanese speakers find learning English the hardest also. This article then is about the kind of problems and issues Japanese speakers have when they learn English.

Word Order in Japanese

Japanese is an SOV‏‎ language which means in a standard sentence the verb follows the object it acts upon:

subject + object + verb

* john + breakfast + ate

* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence denotes an ungrammatical sentence

English on the other hand is an SVO‏‎ language, that is, the verb precedes the object it acts upon:

subject + verb + object

john + ate + breakfast

This is a very basic grammatical difference between the two languages, so you may well hear and see mistakes like this with Japanese students:

* Cat house went
* I you give book

It is worth noticing also that In many SOV Japanese sentences there is no expressed subject, which means the subject is inferred from the context and the verb form.

Word Formation in Japanese

Japanese is an agglutinative language and uses suffixes added to the root of a word in order to change the meaning of that word. Whilst English does this to a certain extent, it is much more common in Japanese.

This is especially noticeable with verbs‏‎; however this does actually make conjugating‏‎ Japanese verbs relatively straightforward, especially since Japanese has only two significantly irregular verbs unlike English. For the English teacher this means irregular verbs will need to be pointed out and stressed in class.

Meanwhile, nouns in Japanese appear always in the same form, not changing even to indicate a plural form. This means you will likely need to stress the way in which nouns change in English when dealing with singular and plural and use different activities to allow your students to practice these differences.

On the subject of articles‏‎, there are no gender specific articles as in English, and distinctions between plural and singular are missing almost completely.

Often English words are used in spoken and written Japanese to give the message a more modern, “cool” vibe.

Pronunciation in Japanese

A typical problem Japanese speakers encounter when leaning English is with pronouncing the English /l/ and /r/ sounds. The reason why they find these two sounds difficult is because they do not exist in the Japanese sound system.

There are a number of ways to help Japanese speakers with this and they are explored in this article: Teaching the /r/ and /l/ sounds.

Japanese also makes heavy use of homophones‏‎, that is, words that are pronounced the same way, but have different meanings. In the writing system Japanese also makes a fair of use of accents.

Lengthening a vowel sound is also used to change the meaning of a word. In fact, Japanese has five vowel sounds that can have two different lengths. This does not occur in English.

Japanese Writing

The Japanese writing system consists of 3 different sets of characters:

  • Kanji, consisting of several thousand Chinese characters
  • Hiragana used for native or naturalized Japanese words, and for grammatical elements
  • Katakana – used for foreign words and names, scientific words, etc.

Traditionally Japanese is written in vertical columns from right to left. However Japanese texts can also be written in western style, that is, in horizontal rows from top to bottom. Both writing styles exist side by side in today’s Japan.

Japanese speakers will need to have extra help and practice in writing as sometimes using the English alphabet‏‎ can prove to be awkward for them.

As a curiosity, the kanji characters of the word used for “Japan” mean “sun-origin.” To observers in China, the sun rising from the East seemed to rise from Japan, which is at the eastern most part of Asia. For this reason Japan is known as “The Land of Rising Sun.”

Formal and Informal

Differentiating between formal and informal speech is important in Japanese. One thing is addressing an unknown person or a superior, another is talking to a child, family member or a close friend.

For instance, there are more than five different words for the English word I, which are used depending on the context. For formal situations, a honorific language level (keigo) is still in common use. Again, in your teaching you will need to explain how in English there is a more subtle way of showing formality.

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