Anyone learning a new language makes a lot of mistakes. For example, I once tried to talk about religion with a Japanese friend. I wanted to talk about, “religion as a spiritual experience.” The Japanese word for spiritual is “reiteki” but I misspoke and said “seiteki.” So what I said instead was, “religion as a sexual experience.”
If you have ever visited Japan, you were probably quickly inundated with what the Internet has fondly come to know as “Engrish,” signs with funny or mistaken English translations. Most of the time, these are simply one-off mistakes, and if most Japanese people really take a good look at them, they quickly realize it’s wrong. Here are 3 common and funny English mistakes that most Japanese people make and why.
One of the phrases I find most confounding is using “Let’s …!” This is seen nearly everywhere and because it seems so innocuous, it is the most disturbing for me.
Why is this so common? In Japanese, you can add “shou” to nearly any verb to make it “Let’s …” And this is much more common in Japanese than in English. So when you see a big sign in a supermarket that says, “Let’s meat,” it seems wrong in English, but is perfectly acceptable in Japanese.
If you have any bald friends that live in Japan, they have probably been mistaken for Neo-Nazis. Japanese people commonly use the term “skinhead” to refer to people who are bald, or shave their heads. In American English, the term is most commonly used to refer to Neo-Nazis. Japanese people just don’t know about this usage and they use it very innocently. I remember the first time I heard it, I was showing pictures of my family and friends to a Japanese student, and he pointed at a bald friend of mine and said, “He is a skinhead!” I was very shocked.
This is a topic that really deserves its own article, but wasei-eigo is prevalent throughout Japan. Wasei-eigo are English words that have been Japanified (for lack of a better word), and now have taken a very different meaning. For example, アイスキャンデー (ice candy) which means popsicle, or how about キャッチボール (catch-ball) which means to play catch. But those are somewhat comprehensible, then there are some really strange ones. One of the most baffling to me is ハイテンション (high-tension), which apparently means to be enthusiastic or really positive.
One reason that most Japanese people mistakenly use these is because they think that they are real English words. I remember the look of perplexity on one of my student’s faces when I tried to explain to him that Americans don’t understand the meaning of ペーパードライバー (paper-driver) or someone who has a license but never drives. He just kept saying, “But it’s English?!”
All of us make mistakes, it is part of being human. It is also a natural part of learning. You can’t learn without making mistakes. So before you get to making fun of Japanese people’s “Engrish,” listen to your own Japanese first and know people are sniggering at you, too.