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Does Living in Japan Change the Way We Speak English?

Since moving abroad, you may have changed more than your residence status.

By 8 min read

I was recently trying to explain to a Japanese friend what the phrase “to make fun of” means.

“It’s like bullying or teasing,” I said, specifically choosing words I was positive she already understood. She tilted her head, confused. “But…why?” When I thought about it, I couldn’t blame her. Make? Fun? How could those words strung together possibly mean bullying?

English is full of phrases that are puzzling to non-native speakers. How do you explain logical reasoning for phrases like “I got kicked out,” (no, you’re not literally kicked — well, hopefully not), “I pitched in,” (it has nothing to do with baseball or camping), or “hang in there”? (um… where?).

When talking to a native Japanese speaker in Japan, I find myself internally swapping these for what I perceive to be easier to understand English—“They asked me to leave,” “I helped,” or “You can do it!”

Foreigners in Japan often find themselves speaking in a strange form of “Japan English,” an English that’s technically grammatically correct, yet highly—and often awkwardly—simplified.

Ever found yourself dropping a pronoun “a” or “the,” or combining adjectives like “cold” or “crying” with gestures? Not only does it happen when we omit words or use oversimplified ones, but also when we over enunciate the “you” in “see you,” or talk at half the pace we would normally.

After living in Japan for an extended period of time, we know our “Japan-English” sometimes comes out by accident to native-English-speaking friends. “Why are you talking like that?” our friends from back home may ask when we call for the first time in a month.

Ever found yourself dropping a pronoun “a” or “the,” or combining adjectives like “cold” or “crying” with gestures?

Our “Japan English” starts to infiltrate our lives to the point where we have to train our brains to switch gears.

Why does our English change when we move abroad?

It’s no secret that knowing English has innumerable benefits. It’s handy when looking things up, as 80 percent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. And since it’s the most widely used language in the world (when combining native and non-native speakers), knowing it is an incredible way to build relationships all over the world.

But out of the more than 70 countries that are considered English-speaking, only about 18 are considered native English speaking. In fact, non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers three to one.

Breaking the Mold: Can You Teach English in Japan as a Non-Native Speaker?

And this can be advantageous to other non-native speakers—who often use simpler, easier-to-understand English with one another.

One BBC article even suggests that native English speakers need to relearn the language to be understood by a global society, hinting that since native speakers haven’t had to actively try to learn English, they’re the odd man out compared to the non-native speakers.

Despite all this, it’s not something for only native speakers to consider—other non-native English speakers likely modify their own English to communicate effectively in Japan, too, despite Japan’s attempt to improve levels by adding English at an earlier age.

[…] 80 percent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English.

At the end of last year, only about 42 percent of third-year junior high students had achieved Grade 3 of the Eiken English Proficiency Test, a mere two percent improvement—missing the mark on the government’s target improvements.

Japan’s English is improving at a slower rate compared to other Asian countries. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, China is now considered to be at a “moderate” proficiency as of this year, improving from their “low” rate for the first time since 2011, while Japan still ranks 11th among the Asian countries in the study and is considered to be “low.”

We all want to be understood, and we want people to understand us; so how can we be more thoughtful English speakers, native or not?

The answer may go back to how English is taught.

Variances in non-native English

Practical English varies from country to country because the way countries learn it varies drastically.

Japan leans on brute-force memorization and direct translation. Since Japanese relies on kanji, or Chinese characters, for many idiomatic phrases, my students’ English writings are often direct translations about heartfelt emotions that are far too deep and unnatural for a short-answer question about their preferred brand of chocolate.

Others ditch direct translation and try to teach it more naturally. In small European countries, the majority of their entertainment media is only available in English, so children may be exposed to British or American slang from a young age. In the Philippines, motivation is built in by teaching other subjects like math and science in English.

Since Japan lacks in both of these areas, the English we hear from early learners is often strange to the native ear.

Why Can’t Japanese Teachers of English… Speak English?

The way in which folks learn English in comparison to their native language says something about the common mistakes English teachers find themselves correcting.

In Japanese, plurals and future tense aren’t used in practice, so we often find a lack of plural in sentences: “I bought three peach at the supermarket.” And while English has a subject-verb-object, or SVO sentence order, Japanese sentences are set up in an SOV order directly read as something like: “She an apple eats.”

For this reason, struggling learners may then misunderstand English test questions about who is performing the action.

Understanding the Japanese language and its similarities and differences in English may help native speakers better communicate their message. After all, the ability to break down and simplify complex information is key in English learning.

But there’s a fine line between overly “dumbing down” the language and respectfully grasping the skill of altering it to a comprehensible vocabulary and speed.

In Japanese, plurals and future tense aren’t used in practice, so we often find a lack of plural in sentences: I bought three peach at the supermarket.

Does simplifying our language in Japan do more harm than good?

In the early months of moving to Japan, I was having dinner with a friend, telling a story in what I thought was in my simplified Japan-English (which was the better choice here, as her English was still lightyears better than my Japanese was). At a lull in the conversation, she hesitantly asked, “I’m sorry, could you use more easy English please… and speak more slowly?”

But there’s a fine line between overly “dumbing down” the language and respectfully grasping the skill of altering it to a comprehensible vocabulary and speed.

Conversely, I dated a guy for a while who was fluent in English, but I still found myself talking to in my usual simplified language to ensure we understood each other. One day when I was stuttering over myself trying to explain a complicated concept in easy terminology, he stopped me and said he noticed that I did that a lot and asked if I could start “leveling up” the vocabulary I used with him.

In both cases, I was so happy they’d spoken up so we could better understand each other (and so I could steer clear of accidentally speaking patronizingly to someone who understood more).

Not everyone in Japan is so willing to speak out if they don’t understand—or over-understand, for that matter—native English. In fact, this very fear may be a reason why after a point, many give up on the language altogether.

The Japanese government has taken measures to try to increase English proficiency ahead of the 2020 Olympics, yet, the country still ranked as “low proficiency.” People speculate far and wide into the reasons behind this, from flaws in the education system to lack of motivation.

One day when I was stuttering over myself trying to explain a complicated concept in easy terminology, he stopped me and said he noticed that I did that a lot and asked if I could start “leveling up” the vocabulary I used with him.

Are ex-pats who are living and often teaching English in Japan helping move the needle at all? Some English educators would argue that we should speak to Japanese people as close to a native level as possible as exposure to the level they can expect to hear when they travel to another country.

But colloquialisms change from country to country, region to region, even city to city. Is there an imaginary line for English learners to pass after grasping the bare basics? Where is it? And if not, how do we go about integrating those weirdly complex, yet common, phrases into their regular vocabulary?

Put simply, there’s no easy answer, but here are a few places to start when communicating with Japanese speakers in English:

  • Speak with the awareness that your own verbal communication habits could lead to misunderstandings—but not outright assuming that it is going to
  • Ask clarifying questions before diving into a topic that might be confusing, for example, “Have you ever heard of ____?”
  • Continue studying Japanese to get a better idea of what common misunderstandings might occur

Languages and our individual knowledge of them are so very complex—no matter how well you think you know a person, you can never fully know their breadth of understanding.

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