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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  1. I have heard that the reason the Japanese, at least the school children, can not speak proper English, is because the teachers are not trying to teach them proper English. They teach it the Japanese way and not the American way, for lack of a better term. So when you get to class in Japan, I guess you bow to the teacher and sit down. In America, not that I would do this to a teacher every single day O_o , but you would come in, shake hands and have a seat. That is an extreme example, but the Japanese teachers and students do not treat the class as if they are in America, they treat it as an English class in a Japanese classroom, so everything is spoken to them in Japanese, regardless of their proficiency in English, until it is time to actually cover a word or sentence in English.

    They are not forced to spend the whole class period as if they are in an English “setting”. Which may be why I did not learn much Spanish in Spanish class. We sat there and spoke in English and then “recited” a Spanish word or phrase from time to time. But we did not act as if we were Spanish or I suppose Mexican. Understandably if you have not learned the basics of a language how would one magically know to converse in it? I am referring to once you have the basics ground in, you can communicate on some what a level of at least a child or middle school person. You can continue on and practice at every class period and still learn something new with obviously unknown material being spoken in Japanese first. But once that word is learned you no longer say it in Japanese, unless someone just needed a refresher.

    This is what many people I have spoken to online say from either being an English teacher in a Japanese school or having a spouse or friend who is. I have also heard that the teacher is afraid of shaming the students of not speaking proper English so they kind of only half teach it, which to me makes no sense. Of course you do not want to shame your students, but if they are taking a class and being serious in their endeavor, it would make sense to try their best in the class. And I have even been told, although I am not sure how true it is, because it makes absolutely no sense to me, that an American can be an English teacher without really knowing Japanese. But how can that be, if you can not explain what an English word is in Japanese to a Japanese person!? If that actually is the case, no wonder these children are not learning English. And if anyone can confirm or deny it, please do so, because that is still so hard to believe. O_o

    1. Japanese people who learn english on purpose (for a job, or as a linguist) speak english well. As for schools... School is school ))
      For example, in my country we have english classes. However after graduating no one could recall anything except "Hello" and "goodbye". Well, except those kids who were really into english. Same stays true for whatever subject that is not used in everyday life. How many people remember something from history or geography lessons? Or how often in your life you need to find an integral of a function? I guess english is not so important in a country which native language is not english.
      Second problem, I think, is the fact that japanese people like english and try to incorporate fancy words into their speech. Seems unlogical, I know. But let me explain. They learn how read english letters and how to pronounce their own versions of english word (engrish). So basically they can get a meaning without knowing correct pronunciation. After they learned enough words and phrases they are like just used to this engrish. And then, if they want to learn english well, they have not to learn, but to relearn, which is obviously harder.
      My opinion is that it's easier to learn a language which has almost nothing common with your native. I know, sounds strange, but it's for me. First of all, it's interesting; second, you wouldn't make mistakes based on false similarities between that languages. As for japanese people... since they already "know" engrish after school it's hard for them to learn english, which is kinda strange tongue-twisting dialect of engrish )

  2. Another English word that Japanese people have problems pronouncing: world

  3. I bet japanese people could learn english if they want, since there're a lot of resources everywhere. I mean, there many different people speaking different languages and they somehow are being able to manage to learn foreign language, regardless of phonetical similarity/differences. The question is - why bother? Unless a japanese person wants to work abroad or to live there, there's no reason for tongue-twisting.

    That R/L though... I saw a video where a japanese person who was speaking english pretty good still had troubles with pronouncing _and_distinguishing_ english R and L. I think general reason is that they don't say R all the time, and they don't say L all the time. If you listen carefully then you'll hear one and the same person saying something like R, then something like L, then something like D! So, problem in general is not that they can't make that sound. Problem is that they can't distinguish them! So it's freaking hard to use something that is the same for ear.