jump to navigation

The trials of being an English grammar nerd in Tokyo. April 22, 2004

Posted by LHK in Japan.
add a comment

I bought a great t-shirt shirt today at the market that hides itself on the side of Kinshicho station. It’s pink with screen prints of ballerinas, and, in dark brown print in the middle, it says:

A ballerina can apply a curse
and has to keep on dancing.
It is… pitiful.
A prince comes some day
and a curse will be solved.

Classic. Well worth the 500 yen for the humor value; the comfyness of the shirt is a fantastic bonus.

The phenomenon known as “Japanese-English” is undoubtedly the biggest enemy to those of us trying to teach actual English to those people who really want to learn it. I won’t try to explain the origin of this strange language the Japanese have created from English — but it’s everywhere. Even at Shinjuku Gyoen, one of the most well-traveled parks in the city, the signs are written in broken English. How big a deal would it have been to briefly hire a native English speaker as a translator for the English phrases before whittling incorrect grammar into the wooden signs and posting them all over the park? And if it’s not incorrect, it’s at least very strange and awkward (downstairs, in my apartment building, on a poster noting the garbage disposal guidelines for Ichikawa City: “Make a big box smaller before you are placing it in the disposal container”). So we’ve got these students who come in feeling confident that they can speak English, when instead they’re using these Japanese-English phrases and plugging them into Japanese grammatical structures. It’s certainly not every student who does this, but when you meet one who does, it takes a lot of reteaching and a lot of gentle and creative ways to say, “Sorry, I know that sounds like English, but it’s totally and completely wrong.”

Last week, I was teaching a level 3 woman who was doing wonderfully in her lesson. We were talking about advertising, and I was having her create a commercial for new Nova brand canned coffee. She made five or six really great, creative sentences in which she compared new Nova brand canned coffee to Georgia brand canned coffee. And then, just before the bell was going to ring, she came out with: “New Nova coffee will refresh your mind and give you lucky fortune!”


I didn’t have time to correct it. The bell rang and the only thing I’d been able to tell her was that “lucky fortune” was a little redundant, and that she might want to use “good fortune” instead. And I had to leave it like that instead of correcting the whole thing (I would have risked being late for the next lesson, as well as risked destroying the woman’s confidence before exiting stage right). I think the main requirement for a Japanese-English phrase is that it’s something that sounds cool or pretty, but lacks in any sort of sensible meaning. All the Coke machines have been plastered with the phrase “special magic.” Fine. Cute. But how does that make me want to buy Coke? Are they saying that Coke is special magic? Or that you will feel special and magical after you drink it? You have to tell me how “special magic” applies to Coke before I’m going to buy into the idea.*

Also, I’d be so happy if I never had to hear or see the word “refresh” again. It’s always used as an adjective. Never a verb, and never as “refreshing.” There’s a Virginia Slims ad I’ve been seeing in the trains since March or so, depicting a Scarlett Johanson-esque girl dancing in a field, presumably under the influence of Virginia Slims menthol ultra-lights (Dorothy’s old brand. She said they were shit), and next to her are the words, “Fresh season. Refresh sense.” I try to ignore that poster. Instead I sit and slooowly read the posters in Japanese, or I sit and read my D.H. Lawrence book, which seems so loquaciously proper compared to the bits of English around me in the advertisements. I’m having a hard time getting past page 70.

* — I lie. I buy beverages from the Coke machines all the time, because coffee and tea drinks outnumber sodas in Coke machines by about 10 to 1. Pepsi machines have Pepsi and about fifteen varieties of Suntory coffee. Coke machines have Coke, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, some sports drink called Aquarius, and about fifteen varieties of Georgia coffee. They’re also the home to Royal Milk Tea, to which I am horribly, horribly addicted. The Coke machine at work only has the hot variety of Royal Milk Tea right now, left over from the winter. Once the vending machine guy comes in on Saturday morning and changes it to cold milk tea, I’m all over it.