5 Common Grammar Mistakes Your Students Will Make

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If you’re an English teacher in Japan, you probably expect to have hardworking, diligent Japanese students paying rapt attention to your lessons. However even with all of your hard work, there are some aspects of English grammar that your students will inevitably get wrong.

Here are just a few grammar mistakes that, in general, you’ll see in your English classroom in Japan.

1. Much vs. Many

One aspect of English that Japanese simply doesn’t have is the idea of uncountable vs.countable, especially with descriptors. In Japanese the word “たくさん” (pronounced takusan) is commonly used for much and many. Put into an English sentence, it would look like “Wow! That’s takusan rain!” or “Wow! that’s takusan apples!”

While in English, we use “much” to describe uncountable items, and “many” to describe countable ones. Probably, your Japanese student will want to say “Wow! That’s many rain!” or “that’s much apples!” Make sure to nip this one in the bud to get them heading in the right direction.

2. Idioms

Read that last sentence again; now imagine explaining that to a Japanese speaker. Even with Japanese having some idioms, they will rarely be translated and used the same way. It is said that there are over 25,000 idioms in the English language, with a large number of them being used daily either in conversation, news, movies, music, or television.

Your students will want to use the ones they’ve learned, in order to sound more like a native speaker, but when they talk about how its “raining dogs and cats” you’ll start to see how difficult it is to get them to remember the correct order (cats and dogs).

3. -Ed vs. –Ing

The first few times you hear your student say, “I am exciting!” or “That movie was very bored,” you might think its kind of cute, in a funny sort of way. But after getting these –ed and –ing endings wrong time after time, you start to see their need to understand the difference.

Simply put, -ed is typically used for people and animals, while –ing is used for objects and situations. Once your student can say, “I am excited!” and “That movie was very boring,” you know that you’ve done your job well.

4. Prepositions

Why do we get in the car but on the bus? Why are we born in January but on Friday?

While prepositions are difficult for any non-native English learner, Japanese will have particular trouble with them as they don’t have prepositions in their language at all. At least Spanish and French have and use them in a generally similar way; but in Japanese, there are particles instead.

So, while your Japanese student may never fully grasp the use of prepositions, taking a lot of time to correct and teach this is very important. You don’t want your student to tell people that they’re “on” Starbucks. Be sure they know saying incorrect phrases like this would make others question their sanity.

5. Expecting to sound like a native speaker

As great as this sounds, the truth of the matter is that a very small percentage of non-native speakers will end up sounding like a native English speaker. This seems to be the goal of all Japanese English learners, and unfortunately, their expectations are often set too high. This could be for a number of reasons, such as keeping the flat-lined Japanese rhythm when speaking rather than the flowing, lyrical sounds of English.

Or, they could be so focused on making their grammar flawless that they forget that native speakers rarely speak perfect English. One of the most common errors in listening is not realizing the concept of connected speech.

On paper, the sentence may read, “I am going to go the store to get a melon flavored drink.” In reality, though, it may sound like “I’m gonna go ta the store togeta melon flavoredrink,” when spoken. Native speakers like to connect consonants and link words such as changing “going to” to “gonna.” This concept makes no sense to someone whose native language is based on syllables, like Japanese.

Even though Japanese ESL students may never learn to get rid of their strong accent or remember if it’s “much” or “many” they should choose, helping them through their mistakes as a teacher is more rewarding than you can imagine. If you take time to realize and correct these common mistakes, your students will always thank you.

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Navy wife, esl teacher, travel enthusiast.

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  • Sae Kyung says:

    Good post! I really agree with your suggestion. Few months ago I faced some problems in grammar then I found a very useful site NounPlus. It is a grammar checker that finds my common spelling errors and grammatical mistakes in English. Thanks for sharing with us such a wonderful blog.

  • kelsey says:

    Hey Kenneth- Thanks for your valid points. To give you some background, #5 was discussed to describe some Japanese learners who aren’t aware that native English speakers also make grammar mistakes. Especially when taking all the varying dialects into account, some learners need to be reminded that their goal of one kind of “perfection” doesn’t exist.

    As for the contractions in Japanese, that’s very true! I hear Japanese contractions all the time. The idea that these (such as “gonna”) in English don’t make sense to the Japanese listener, though, is referring to just that-listening. Not merely understanding the concept.

    But truthfully, I’m no professional linguist, only an English teacher of a few years. This was only meant as a quick synopsis of some mistakes, maybe I can go more in depth in future articles. Thanks again!

    • kenneth679 says:

      It’s possible that I misunderstood you intentions in the section on contractions. The comment about Japanese being a “syllable-based” (you mean mora-timed??) language made it sound like you were tying the problem to a difference between English and Japanese. (If so, then my point is that it’s not relevant.)

      More importantly, you’ve reiterated the “native speakers also make grammar mistakes”. I was too harsh and brief in my first comment, but what I’m trying to say is that this idea, though common in the general public as well as among language teachers, is misguided, not to mention counterproductive. I realize now that this requires some explanation.

      The prescriptivist view of grammar is that there is a single way that a language *ought* to be spoken. The problem with this is that there is a wide range of language that falls under the umbrella called “English” (for example), including not only regional dialects and inter-regional standards, but also differences among socio-economic classes living in the same area, stylistic variation across different social situations, and changes in a language over time, just to name a few.

      If there is a “correct” or “grammatical” way to speak English, then who gets to decide which one it is? This decision is arbitrary at best, and in practice is usually based on older language forms with some additional invented “rules” that do not match any existing variety of a language, such as the ever-popular ban on “split infinitives” in English which was inspired by Latin (which lacks the separable “to” particle in its infinitive verb forms that English has).

      The alternative is a “descriptive” view of grammar, which seeks to describe language as it is actually used. So, whatever stylistic variants are used by speakers of English in situation X (to keep it simple) are correct for situation X, and those used in situation Y are correct for situation Y. Likewise, if the older generation says A while the younger generation is starting to say B instead, then that’s just how it is.

      Under this view, it is incoherent to say that a native speaker can make a grammar mistake, excepting speech errors and pathological cases, which I doubt you are talking about. Formal writing is also (partly) another story, but here too it is better to follow what writers actually do, regardless of what your English teacher told you (such as the complete ban on the word “I” in essays, which is too simplistic).

      It’s especially important to follow the descriptive view for the purposes of second language teaching. Here, the view that native speakers simply “make grammar mistakes sometimes” is thoroughly unhelpful because it obscures reality, which is that there are different ways of speaking that are all correct under different conditions. I know that you were just using the comment as a kind of consolation for teachers and students, but just having this worldview makes impossible to convey to your learners how to think about variation in English.

      Instead, a better piece of advice is that as teachers, linguistics background or not, we should think about the different ways that we speak according to our age, the setting of the conversation, and everything else, and use that to inform our teaching.

      Hopefully this will prove to be more constructive.

      • kelsey says:

        Thanks for taking the time to explain that. For the first
        point, actually, mora-timed would be more accurate. This is where I will need
        to gain education on the professional terms (as these are not always necessary when teaching ESL).

        And for the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist view- again, I hadn’t heard these
        terms but definitely get what you are saying. And actually, my teaching style is of descriptive view, I’d have to say!
        It’s so true that “correct English” (spoken) really doesn’t exist, as well as
        the other points you made. In my article, I was more referring to how the
        Japanese (and any other second language) learners inaccurately perceive English at times. Unfortunately, some are striving for “perfection,” when there isn’t even one correct mold of English for them to go by. (like that< prepositions at the
        end of a sentence! Haha) As far as written English, it is a different story,
        but for now I am trying to encourage students to be understood and understand the listener; rather than try to sound like “Standard American/British English.” Because, what is that, and when, anyway?

        Hopefully with advice like this students can change their focus, and be
        encouraged in the process.

        • kenneth679 says:

          I’m glad that it made sense. Although I hadn’t thought of it before, what you are trying to say also works much better under these assumptions. (P.S. Don’t be bothered by “preposition stranding”, which is the only option in “for” clauses. A better example of roughly equal alternatives would be “I don’t know if/whether X”.)

          • kelsey says:

            Thanks! Yea, as I said, this is such a short synopsis of the idea I’m try to get across that it may not come off exactly right. Haha, that must be another example of “imperfect English,” huh? (That’s a good idea about the prepositions;)

  • David Owen says:

    Twelve year old whiskey is perfectly fine, but the stuff that mellows in the cask for another few years is simply sublime. 🙂

  • Sik says:

    Incoming wall of text!

    #1: I guess that an easy way to get out is to just say “a lot of”, but I suppose that completely defeats the whole point of learning the difference (much like how you can replace “who/which” with “that”). Still, may be worth explaining.

    I suppose it could be explained as “much” being “a large single thing” and “many” being “a large amount of things” (not exactly 100% accurate but it’d help get the point across).

    #3: eh, I can see where’s that coming from (same conjugation is used in Japanese for both situations), but that one is easy to explain. Use “-ed” when it’s an adjective, use “-ing” when it’s a verb. If you can get students to understand that, eventually they should start using the conjugations correctly once they get accustomed to it.

    #4: as a native Spanish speaker it *still* is an issue (in Spanish all of that would be “en”, which would match Japanese “に”). People still keep correcting me when I end up saying “in” (the literal translation) instead of “on” or “at”. At least everybody seems to understand when I just say “in”, so I suppose that could be taught as a fallback.

    For the record, using “on” for bus doesn’t make sense at all either since you’re going inside, not over it (probably coming from the idiom of “riding the bus”, which in itself doesn’t make any sense because of what I just said).

    #5: eh, it may be worth explicitly teaching “gonna”, “dunno”, “wanna”, etc. (since they’re indeed their own words). Also it’s likely I’d actually say “going to the store” instead of “going to go to the store”.

    The biggest problem with English really isn’t the accent (which is different for each region anyway, jeez!), but the vowels, even if you simplify them to match the sounds available in Japanese (which is not as bad as it sounds, lack of proper L and R sounds is worse). To put it simple, what is written has nothing to do with how it’s pronounced (the “rules” even vary for each word!), I’d argue that learning English pronunciation is akin to learning Japanese kanji in terms of difficulty.

    (not gonna talk about #2 because honestly I can’t think of anything to suggest, and idioms change between regions anyway, except for a few common ones – really, just try to convince the students that as long as they can get their point across it’s fine, most idioms aren’t used or are used incorrectly anyway)

    • kelsey says:

      Those are some really good suggestions. I agree, explaining in more detail really makes a difference. This is just a quick synopsis, but really you can’t leave out those explanations when teaching! Thanks for the comment!

  • James Lowrey says:

    Born “in January” and “on January 1st” is a weirder example ;P
    Seems like “on” is for more specific places in time. Like, it can be anywhere INside of the month of January.
    Going to pass this on to my Japanese friends.

  • Matt Erik Katch says:

    While technically it’s true that there are prepositions in English and particles in Japanese, linguistically those particles are typically referred to as postpositions, and they operate essentially the same as prepositions except for they come in “post.”

  • Dave Collier says:

    The teacher was boring, and the students were bored. The damaged ship sank to the bottom of the ocean. After the suggestion in point number 3 your students would say – The teacher was bored and the students were bored. The damaging ship sank to the bottom of the ocean.

    • Stephanie Gertsch says:

      Good point about number 3. I don’t think the explanation given holds water.

      What makes the most sense to me is to think of the —ing as the thing that has the characteristic. While the —ed is the thing that’s reacting to that characteristic. However, it doesn’t work in every situation because not all words split neatly into those two forms.

  • Sam Jones says:

    almost Japanese people say this

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