Japanese English explained

Why do Japanese English students say “What is your hobby?” instead of “What are your hobbies?”

It is sometimes due to the fact there are no plurals in Japanese, but at other times a culture idea that one hobby that you dedicate yourself fully to is more than enough.

Why do some of my Japanese students sometimes get the v and b sounds right with some words?

Why does the English word ヒップ (hippu= hip) mean arse in Japanese?

Why do the Japanese ask “Can you eat sushi” instead of “Do you like”?
It’s a direct translation from Japanese

Why do the Japanese have problems understanding and using the English word “favourite”?
In Japanese the question is simply “What fruit do you like”, to which the answer is usually favourite.

Why do even adult Japanese students say “I played with my friends”?

It’s a direct translation from the Japanese友達と遊んだ(ともだち と あそんだ,tomodachi to asonda)usually meaning “I went out with my friends”

Why are the Japanese quite happy to say “I slept” or “I cleaned my room” as an answer to “How was your weekend?”

For one thing, unlike the UK for example there is no social pressure to do anything useful and educational in your free time. If you want to read kids’ manga or watch 5 hours of variety shows, nobody much minds. Actually, though, they might have done something more interesting but are hiding it in order to avoid speaking in English or not to attract unwelcome attention or envy. One more factor is that saying these things emphasizes the fact that they have been working hard all week- not something that the Japanese try to hide.

Why do the Japanese sometimes answer yes/no questions in English with the answer ‘maybe’?

One reason could be being asked a question that is not standard in Japanese. For example, “genki desu ka” is often given as the translation of “how are you” but is in fact very rarely asked, perhaps because it could be seen as intrusive. Another is that there are many ways of being vague in Japanese but they are not taught ways to be vague in English. For example, “so desu ne” (That’s so) and “so desu ka” (Is that so) can be given many fine shades of meaning including doubt by changes in intonation etc. These are probably the phrases in their head when they say ‘maybe’.

How can the same nation that has office workers who work 12 hour days and station masters who run up and down the platform in white gloves to make trains run on time produce such unmotivated language learners?

For most people English is a hobby. In Birmingham, the only French lessons available twice a week were exam classes- and most Japanese see learning English like the English see learning French. The other factor is that some may be keener than they seem- the Japanese are as reluctant to draw attention by being too enthusiastic as they are about being “the nail that stands up” out in any other way.


Macmillan Dictionary English Loan Words in Japanese


  1. February 2, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    In casual Japanese, omission of particles, prepositions, and subject or topic markers is quite common. This makes for very simple and quick communication. It’s usually quite effective, but sometimes even Japanese people have to stop what another person is saying and check to see if they understand what is trying to be communicated to them. For example, ‘dare ga dare ni itta no?’ (who said that/it to who?).
    I think when you burden a Japanese person with the responsibility of almost always having to remember not to drop subjects or prepositions, it makes the process of communication quite cumbersome. I think this is a big reason why many Japanese see English as ‘mendoukusai.’

  2. alexcase said,

    February 2, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    Good point. Could be why my students love learning “Long time no see”. Maybe I should starting teaching “Been there done that” etc. as well.

  3. higanbana said,

    June 15, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I’m certainly a bit surprised to read that Japanese are suppossed not to understand “favourite”. Judging from my own experiences they simply overuse it. “What’s your favourite …?” – My favourite … is xy.” seems to be one of the sentence patters which seems to be taught to beginners of any age. Possibly because that’s the word-by-word translation of “(Anata no) SUKI-NA … ha nan desu ka.”

    HIPPU is taken as an equivalent to KOSHI which also includes the bottoms.

  4. Rebecca said,

    June 11, 2012 at 5:51 am

    Agree with higanbana, I’ve heard many Japanese students use favorite correctly. The difference is in Japanese they say “suki” which they’re taught means “like,” hence “What sport do you like” is easier for them to process in their Japanese-thinking brains than “What is your favorite sport?” But I’ve seen kids and adults do it fine.

    “Why do some of my Japanese students sometimes get the v and b sounds right with some words?”

    The same reason they sometimes get L and R right? There’s no V sound in Japanese so even if they do B every time they’re going to be right once in a while… and obviously the better students will get it right more often?

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