Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Why Japanese Can't Speak English?

Watching anime in Japanese, I'm sure you've already seen some obscene Engrish word like reberu レベル, "level," thrown around and it made you think: why can't the Japanese speak English? Are they just really, really, really lazy? Do they like their Japanese language better than English? Or what? What's the reason for this travesty?

Phonetic Differences Between English and Japanese

Perhaps the biggest problem for someone who only speaks Japanese to learn English is that English is actually, believe it or not, different from Japanese. Yep. English and Japanese are different. Big news, everyone.

The deal is that, basically, the English language has way too many fucking sounds. Like waaaaaayy too many. Like, there are people in America trying to make a new alphabet to replace the ones they use there, because spelling bees turn out to be too difficult and stressing for children (and adults), because English has many more phonetic sounds than it has alphabet letters. (the new alphabet thing will never work, though)

But that's not all. To make matters worse, Japanese has way too few sounds. Like waaaaayy too few. Like, there are so few sounds in Japanese that it has dozens of homonyms, which are different words with the same sound, like kanji 感じ, "feeling," and kanji 漢字, "Chinese letters." Which is also kind of a problem, just like having too many sounds.

Missing Sounds in Japanese

So what happens when Japanese people try to learn English? Well, for one, trouble.

For example, there are no syllables starting with L in Japanese. There simply aren't. No la, le, li, lo or lu in the Japanese alphabet. You want to say lolipop? You can't. You either say roripoppu ロリポップ or you really don't because you can't pronounce it. That's right. the Japanese people cannot say that English word.

Think about it. You were born in Japan. It has no words with L syllables. The fuck you would use L syllables for? They are useless. There are no words for it. Therefore, you never learn to say the L syllables. You don't have vocal, muscular, and cerebral training to pronounce lolipop right!

In fact, there are no F, V, or Q syllables either, no single word can end in P, L or R, and there are no syllables with H in the middle either!

Missing Sounds in Other Languages

This isn't a problem just in Japanese, mind you. I'm from Brazil, my native tongue is Brazilian Portuguese. It has all sounds of Japanese, alright, but it doesn't have all sounds of English.

The th sound in words such as the, that, this, those, these and so on does not exist in Portuguese. Nobody who starts learning English in a Portuguese-speaking country can say these words right at first, and if they're unlucky they won't ever say them right in their whole lives.

Phonetics Solution

By now you might be thinking: so are all Japanese cursed to speak broken Engrish for the rest of their lives forever? Well, not really. There is a way to learn to pronounce new sounds. It is a very easy, simple way, of which most Japanese people can't afford. Actually, almost nobody in the world can afford it.

It is to spend some time talking out loud with people in English.

That is it.

Just like English natives learn to speak English and even those dreaded th words as babies, adults can also pick up new sounds if they train themselves enough. Sadly, repetition is important here as it's actually vocal and muscle training that is the problem.

Your vocal chords aren't used to this English bullshit you're trying to do, so you need to keep trying to say th or lolipop or level or whatever exactly the same way your English native friend is saying, over and over, until your body gets used to saying it right.

Since this would take 1) your time and 2) a native English speaker around all of that time, it's rarely done. So without a native English teacher most Japanese (and everyone else from the rest of the world) never become able to say "proper English". But that's alright, because most Engrish words you hear in anime are not English! They are actually Japanese words!

English-Engrish vs. Japanese-Engrish

When someone who's Japanese tries to speak English and they can't do it, when they try to create complete phrases in English, so someone who speak English may understand, and they make mistakes, then it's because they need to practice speaking English more.

However, when there's an English word in the middle of a Japanese phrase said for other Japanese-speaking people to understand, then it's not actually English. No matter how bad it sounds, it's not English.

It's a loan-word.

I Loaned So It's Mine Now

In pretty much no language in the world a borrowed word sounds the same in both languages. The English word potato, for example, comes from the Spanish patata, which comes another language's batata. (Wiktionary) Would you say potato is an Spanish word? Nope. No longer. It's an English word now.

Likewise, when the Japanese language borrows a word from English, it turns it into something else, something the Japanese can pronounce, through a process called katakanization, and it's then no longer an English word, but a Japanese one:
  • keeki ケーキ
  • koohii コーヒー
  • aisu kuriimu アイス・クリーム
    Ice cream.
  • amerika アメリカ

Since romaji is closer to Portuguese pronunciation than to English pronunciation you may not realize it, but the sounds of the Japanese words above are (somewhat) close to the English pronunciation of the words they came from.

Those words are understood by any Japanese person. They are Japanese words. That is, if someone said "ice cream" in proper pronounced English to a Japanese person, they may not understand what word it is, but if they said the katakanized aisu kuriimu, then they would get it easily.

I'll Make My Own English With Blackjack & Hookers

The words in the examples above are classified as gairaigo 外来語 because they come from English, and if you know English you know what they mean. On top of them, there are also some weird Japan-only English words called wasei-eigo 和製英語. Such words look like English but if you don't know Japanese you won't know what they mean.

For example:
  • sukinshippu スクンシップ

Skinship. That sounds like English. Is it English? Nope. It isn't English. You go to America, say skinship to someone, chances are they don't know what the fuck you're talking about. You go to England, do the same, same should happen. Because it looks like English, but nobody who speaks English speaks this word.

It's a Japanese-made English-word, wasei-eigo. And it's meaning is: the improvement of a relationship through physical contact (hugging, etc.), in other words, the act of having physical intimacy.


Now, if you're thinking Engrish is something that only happens in countries where people don't speak English, then... well, you'd be right. Yeah. That makes sense. Uh... NOW, if you're thinking a similar sort of thing can't happen with English-speaking people, you'd be wrong!

Plenty of words English has imported from Japanese, words such as anime, which comes from animeアニメ, and manga, which comes from manga 漫画, are pronounced in English differently from how it's pronounced in Japanese, and that's alright because those are not Japanese words anymore, they are English words with different meaning, eisei-wago 英製和語.

To have an idea of how mispronounced a word may be, just ask someone to say gaijin 外人, chances are they'll pronounce it like "gay Jim."

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