Learning Japanese can be a rewarding and enriching experience, but it can also be challenging and frustrating at times. You are not alone. For native-English speakers, Japanese is said to be one of the hardest languages in the world to master.
In this article, we will explore some of the most common mistakes that English speakers make when learning Japanese, and how to avoid or correct them.
1. Confusing similar-sounding words/Words that are written the same in hiragana but have different meanings
Japanese has many words that sound similar to each other, but have different meanings, spellings, or kanji. For example, the words 会う (au), 合う (au), and 逢う (au) all have the same pronunciation, but they mean “to meet”, “to fit”, or “to encounter”, respectively. Similarly, the words 橋 (hashi), 箸 (hashi), and 端 (hashi) all sound the same, but they mean “bridge”, “chopsticks”, or “edge”, respectively. These words are called homophones, and they can cause confusion and misunderstanding if you are not careful.
You should pay attention to the context and the kanji of the words you encounter. Kanji are the Chinese characters that are used to write some Japanese words, and they often provide clues to the meaning and nuance of the words. For example, the kanji for 会う has the radical 人 (person), which indicates that it is related to meeting people. The kanji for 合う has the radical 口 (mouth), which indicates that it is related to fitting or matching things. The kanji for 逢う has the radical 辶 (walk), which indicates that it is related to encountering someone by chance. If you just use hiragana, it might be impossible to tell which word is meant. This is a challenge in listening as well, when you can only tell by the context of the surrounding words what the meaning of the word with identical meanings is.
Also it can be very difficult to distinguish similar but different words, like “un” (yes) versus “uun” (no) when listening, so it’s very important note the long vowel sounds (like yuuki versus yuki).
2. Mispronouncing vowels and consonants
Japanese has five basic vowels: a, i, u, e, and o. Each vowel has only one sound, unlike English vowels, which can have different sounds depending on the word. For example, the vowel “a” in Japanese always sounds like the “a” in “father”, not like the “a” in “cat” or “cake”. The vowel “i” in Japanese always sounds like the “ee” in “see”, not like the “i” in “sit” or “bite”. The vowel “u” in Japanese always sounds like the “oo” in “too”, not like the “u” in “cut” or “put”. The vowel “e” in Japanese always sounds like the “e” in “bet”, not like the “e” in “beet” or “bait”. The vowel “o” in Japanese always sounds like the “o” in “pot”, not like the “o” in “boat” or “boot”.
You should practice pronouncing each vowel clearly and consistently. You should also avoid adding extra sounds or gliding from one vowel to another. For example, some English speakers tend to say エイ (ei) as [ei], but it should be pronounced as [e-i], with two distinct vowel sounds. Some English speakers tend to say オウ (ou) as [ou], but it should be pronounced as [o-u], with two distinct vowel sounds.
Japanese also has some consonants that are different from English consonants. For example, the Japanese “r” is not like the English “r”. It is pronounced by lightly tapping your tongue against your upper gum ridge, not by curling your tongue back or rolling it, so that it almost sounds like an “l”. The Japanese “g” is not like the English hard “g”. It is pronounced by slightly closing your throat and making a soft sound, not by pushing air through your mouth and making a hard sound. And what is maybe the most difficult is the sounds “tsu” and “ryo”, as these are not found in English, so English speakers tend to say “tih-soo” and “ree-yo”.
Try listening carefully to native speakers and imitate their pronunciation. You should also pay attention to the position and movement of your tongue, lips, teeth, and throat when making different sounds. You can use a mirror or a recorder to check your pronunciation and correct any errors.
3. Mixing up particles
Particles are small words that are attached to nouns, verbs, adjectives, or sentences to indicate their function or relationship in a sentence. For example, the particle が (ga) marks the subject of a sentence, the particle を (wo) marks the direct object of a verb, the particle に (ni) marks the indirect object of a verb or the location of an action, and the particle で (de) marks the means or method of an action. Particles are essential for understanding and constructing Japanese sentences, but they can also be tricky and confusing for English speakers.
To avoid this mistake, you should learn the meaning and usage of each particle and how they interact with different types of words. You should also learn the exceptions and special cases where some particles can have different meanings or functions. For example, the particle に can also mark the time of an action, the direction of an action, or the purpose of an action. The particle で can also mark the place where an action takes place, the duration of an action, or the reason for an action.
You should also pay attention to the pronunciation and intonation of particles. Some particles have different sounds depending on the word they follow. For example, the particle は is usually pronounced as [ha], but it is pronounced as [wa] when it marks the topic of a sentence. Some particles have different intonations depending on their meaning or function. For example, the particle か is pronounced with a rising intonation when it marks a question, but it is pronounced with a falling intonation when it marks a choice or an alternative.
4. Misusing honorifics and politeness levels
Honorifics and politeness levels are important aspects of Japanese culture and language. Honorifics are suffixes that are added to names or titles to show respect or courtesy. For example, the honorific さん (san) is added to someone’s name or title to show respect or familiarity. The honorific さま (sama) is added to someone’s name or title to show high respect or reverence. The honorific くん (kun) is added to a male’s name or title to show affection or friendship, or for young boys. The honorific ちゃん (chan) is added to a female’s name or title to show affection or friendship, or for young girls.
Politeness levels are different ways of speaking that reflect the relationship between the speaker and the listener. For example, the plain form is used when speaking casually with friends or family. The polite form is used when speaking formally with strangers or superiors. The humble form is used when speaking modestly about oneself or one’s actions. The honorific form is used when speaking respectfully about someone else or their actions.
To avoid this mistake, you should learn the rules and conventions of using honorifics and politeness levels in different situations and contexts. You should also be aware of the social cues and expectations that govern Japanese communication. For example, you should use honorifics when addressing someone who is older, higher in rank, or unfamiliar to you. You should use politeness levels that match your relationship with your listener and the tone of your conversation. You should also avoid using honorifics or politeness levels that are too high or too low for your situation, as this can be seen as rude, arrogant, or sarcastic.
5. Translating idioms and expressions literally
Idioms and expressions are phrases that have figurative meanings that are different from their literal meanings. For example, the idiom “to kick the bucket” means “to die”, not “to kick a bucket”. The expression “to break a leg” means “good luck”, not “to break a leg”. Idioms and expressions are common in every language, but they are not always easy to understand or translate from one language to another.
You should learn the meaning and usage of idioms and expressions in Japanese and English separately. You should also avoid translating them literally from one language to another, as this can result in confusion or misunderstanding. Instead, you should try to find equivalent idioms or expressions in both languages that convey the same idea or sentiment. For example, instead of translating “猫に小判” (neko ni koban) literally as “a gold coin for a cat”, you can translate it as “pearls before swine”, which has a similar meaning in English.
6. Omitting subjects and objects
Japanese is a language that allows for subjects and objects to be omitted from sentences when they are clear from the context or previous sentences. For example, instead of saying 私は日本語を勉強しています (watashi wa nihongo wo benkyou shite imasu), which means “I am studying Japanese”, you can simply say 日本語を勉強しています (nihongo wo benkyou shite imasu), which means “(I) am studying Japanese”. This makes the sentence shorter and more natural in Japanese.
You should learn when and how to omit subjects and objects in Japanese. You should also pay attention to the clues that indicate who or what is being talked about, such as pronouns, demonstratives, or topic markers. For example, if someone says あなたはどこに行きますか (anata wa doko ni ikimasu ka), which means “Where are you going?”, you can reply (place)行きます ((place) ikimasu), which means “(I) am going”, without repeating あなたは (anata wa) or どこに (doko ni). However, if someone says 彼はどこに行きますか (kare wa doko ni ikimasu ka), which means “Where is he going?”, you cannot reply 行きます (ikimasu), which means “(I) am going”, because it would change the meaning of the sentence. You have to say 彼は行きます (kare wa ikimasu), which means “He is going”, or specify the place where he is going.
7. Using the wrong word order
Japanese is a language that has a different word order from English. English follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, which means that the subject comes first, followed by the verb, and then the object. For example, the sentence “I eat an apple” follows the SVO word order. Japanese follows the subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, which means that the subject comes first, followed by the object, and then the verb. For example, the sentence 私はりんごを食べます (watashi wa ringo wo tabemasu) follows the SOV word order.
You should learn and practice the SOV word order in Japanese. You should also learn how to use modifiers and connectors to form complex sentences in Japanese. For example, to say “I eat a red apple”, you have to say 私は赤いりんごを食べます (watashi wa akai ringo wo tabemasu), which literally means “I red apple eat”. To say “I eat an apple and a banana”, you have to say 私はりんごとバナナを食べます (watashi wa ringo to banana wo tabemasu), which literally means “I apple and banana eat”.
8. Misunderstanding counters and classifiers
Japanese is a language that uses counters and classifiers to count or classify different types of nouns. Counters are words that indicate the number of items or occurrences of something. Classifiers are words that indicate the category or type of something. For example, to count books in Japanese, you have to use the counter 冊 (satsu) and the classifier 本 (hon). To count people in Japanese, you have to use the counter 人 (nin) and the classifier 名 (mei).
To avoid this mistake, you should learn the different counters and classifiers in Japanese and how to use them with different nouns. You should also learn the irregular forms and pronunciations of some counters and classifiers. For example, to say “one book” in Japanese, you have to say 一冊の本 (issatsu no hon), not 一本の本 (ippon no hon). To say “two people” in Japanese, you have to say 二人の名前 (futari no namae), not 二名の名前 (nimei no namae).
It’s a real pain having to learn different counters for everything, but at least make sure to learn the basics (days of the month, people, common objects).
9. Overusing personal pronouns
Japanese is a language that does not use personal pronouns as frequently as English does. Personal pronouns are words that refer to oneself or others, such as I, you, he, she, etc. In English, personal pronouns are often used to avoid repetition or ambiguity. In Japanese, personal pronouns are often omitted or replaced by other words, such as names, titles, or honorifics. This is because personal pronouns can sound rude, arrogant, or distant in Japanese.
To avoid this mistake, you should learn when and how to use personal pronouns in Japanese. You should also learn how to choose the appropriate personal pronoun for different situations and contexts. For example, to refer to yourself in Japanese, you can use 私 (watashi), which is the most common and neutral personal pronoun. However, you can also use 僕 (boku), which is more casual and masculine. To refer to someone else in Japanese, you can use あなた (anata), which is the most common and neutral personal pronoun. However, you can also use あの人 (ano hito), which is more polite and respectful, or お前 (omae), which is more rude and aggressive.
10. Neglecting culture and context
Japanese is a language that is deeply influenced by culture and context. Culture refers to the values, beliefs, customs, and norms of a society or a group of people. Context refers to the situation, environment, or background of a communication. Culture and context affect how people speak, write, listen, and read in Japanese. They also affect how people interpret and understand messages in Japanese.
Be sure to learn about the culture and context of Japanese language and communication. You should also be aware of the differences and similarities between your own culture and context and those of Japanese speakers. For example, you should learn about the concepts of 丁寧語 (teineigo), which is polite language, and 謙譲語 (kenjougo), which is humble language, in Japanese. These are ways of speaking that show respect and modesty to others. You should also learn about the concepts of 内 (uchi), which is inside, and 外 (soto), which is outside, in Japanese. These are ways of categorizing people based on their relationship and familiarity with you.
These are some of the most common mistakes that native English speakers make when learning Japanese. By being aware of these mistakes, you can try and avoid making such mistakes and sound more fluent. It is always good to have some formal study to go with your casual learning, so if you are looking for a Japanese language course, we recommend these courses.