Relating Your Japanese Back to English

Learning a foreign language inevitably gives you a new perspective on your own language. I became aware of some new things about English when I learned German a while back, and learning Japanese has added new observations. Although some of the other chapters also cover the relation between English and Japanese, in this one I want to make some more explicit statements.

Totally Ridiculous English Verb Forms

In particular, studying Japanese has given me a new appreciation of verb forms. I find myself paying more attention to conjugations and tense usage, even in English. And I’ve thought of a few very strange verb forms that must drive foreigners bats.

  • “Should” as an indicator of uncertainty.

    There are cases where the otherwise unambiguous verb “should” is not used to mean “ought to.” Think of the lyrics to the song “Stand by Me”:”If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountain should crumble to the sea…”What? What a strange way to use “should”! The explanation turns out to be that “should” in this case is a subjunctive form (of the verb “shall”). The subjunctive often ends up looking like the past tense, but can in fact be used for uncertainty, to bring up a fictional condition (“If I were a millionaire”), and to be polite (see below). Native English speakers just aren’t so aware of this tense because we know the grammar intuitively.

  • Use of present tense when telling stories.

    Have you noticed that we relate stories about the past in present tense? I suppose this adds drama or something. When you are telling your friend about what happened on the way home, you will slip into present tense: “So I’m walking down the street, right? And guess who shows up? My brother! And he looks really funny…”I got some helpful email about this: “This might not really explain where it came from, but Latin has what is called a ‘historical present,’ meaning they used the present tense for past actions in order to make the reader feel like they are in the story. A very prominent example of this use is almost all of Caesar’s Gallic commentarii. These ‘historcal present’ verbs are usually translated into the past tense in English.” I claim no wisdom about whether this is a related phenomenon, but I’ll throw it out as a possibility.

  • Use of past tense instead of present in some polite phrases.

    There are times when we use past tense to mean present or future. For instance, “I had wondered if you were planning to go tomorrow…” What an odd thing to say! Clearly, it is that I am wondering right now, not that I “had wondered” some time in the past. And I don’t want to know if you were planning to go, I want to know if you are planning to go. For some reason, using these past tense forms has come to be considered softer, and more polite.Again, the explanation comes down to that subjunctive case. It can be used to soften language, and it looks like the past tense. Must be tough for non-native speakers.

  • “Aren’t I”?

    As I noted in another chapter, we ask questions by inverting the subject and the verb. So “he is” becomes “is he?” and “you are” becomes “are you?” Following this pattern, the question we ask about ourselves is “am I?” since it goes with “I am.”

    But what about negative questions? For everyone except ourselves, this is straightforward. We say “isn’t she?” (“yes, she is”) and “aren’t you?” (“yes, you are”). By the same logic, we should say, “am’t I?

    But we don’t say “am’t.” We say “aren’t I?” I suppose the grammatically correct answer would be “Yes, I are.” (Weird, huh?)

    [Once again, the voices of the web have provided some insight. I have gotten several emails informing me that the perfectly acceptable contraction of “am I not” used to be “ain’t.” However, some dialects started using “ain’t” as a contraction for all sorts of things, like “is not” and “have not.” This came to be regarded as rural and low-brow, which led to the abandonment of “ain’t” altogether in mainstream English. Oops, then there was no contraction for “am I not”! So people invented “aren’t.” At first, this sounded weird, but at least it didn’t sound low-brow (according to thinking at the time). Over time, it came to be normal.]

  • Present progressive as future tense.

    In some cases, we use the present progressive when we mean the future. For example, it is perfectly normal to say, “Tomorrow I am going to the store” or “Next week I am giving a seminar.” Don’t we mean that we will go to the store tomorrow and we will give a seminar next week?

How to Speak to Japanese People in English

OK, so you know the basics of Japanese. Guess what? You can use this knowledge to make yourself more comprehensible when you speak to Japanese people in English. Because of the grammatical structure of Japanese, some things in English are going to be hard for them to understand—just like some weird Japanese constructions are hard for Westerners to understand. Here are some suggestions for speaking comprehensible English:

  • Avoid negative questions.

    Negative questions are used for politeness in Japanese, and the answers are sometimes the opposite of what is conventional in English. So asking, “Don’t you have any water?” is more polite than asking “Do you have any water?” in Japanese, even though the former sounds a little more abrupt in English. Furthermore, these questions are answered in Japanese by answering the truth or falsehood of the word “don’t”. If you do have water, the answer to the first question above is “No” (I do), and if you don’t have water, the answer is “Yes” (I don’t).

    This is just way too confusing for everyone involved. Do not ask negative questions to Japanese people in English. Don’t say, “It’s getting late— aren’t you going to that movie?” or “Didn’t you say you were from Hokkaido?”

  • Limit the use of relative clauses.

    Take a look at the chapter on Adjectives. Japanese adjectives always come before the noun that they modify, even when they are adjectival phrases and clauses. English is much more confusing: we put plain adjectives before the noun, but phrases and clauses after the noun. Thus, we say “the blue chair,” but also “the chair that John was sitting in.” Cases like the latter are hard for Japanese people to hear, especially if the phrase gets really long. Try to avoid saying things like, “That’s the car that I was planning to buy last summer when I had money from my university job.”

    Particularly bad are sets of embedded relative clauses. For instance, “I thought that the book he was reading, which looked long and dense, was probably for the new law class he is taking.”

    More generally, try to avoid putting long qualifiers after the main idea in a sentence. Japanese sentence construction always places the independent clause at the end, as the final clause. In English, we have the freedom to put the independent clause in other locations, which can be confusing for Japanese people. So after you’ve said the main idea, don’t add a bunch of other stuff. This would be a bad sentence: “Yesterday I bought my sister this camera— which turned out to be a bad idea after I realized my mom had already bought one because her birthday is coming up next week.” (This sentence has other problems too, like the excessive use of pronouns. Remember that pronouns are a lot less common in Japanese. Try to avoid pronouns that don’t have really obvious references).

  • Do not use lengthy “or” constructions.

    If you give a Japanese person a complicated choice with the two parts separated by “or”, you will almost always get the answer “yes.” For example, “Do you want to try windsurfing even though it’s raining or would you rather spend the day at the museum”? Answer: “Yes.” (The reason for saying “yes” is that the person hears their choice somewhere in the complicated phrase that you said, so they just agree and hope that all the stuff they didn’t catch wasn’t important).

    I had originally thought that long “or” constructions did not exist in common Japanese usage. (It boggles my mind that Japanese does not have an “or” concept that applies universally to nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but it’s true). However, I later learned that such constructions are indeed common (…desu ka, soretomo … desu ka). So I guess the problem with long “or” constructions is that they are simply too long. They fall in the category mentioned above where you have crammed too much information into the sentence, so the person cannot parse it all.