In my article, The Truth behind English Conversation Classes, I mentioned that one possible way to teach Japanese people English involves comparing the grammars of the two languages. To people who do not know any Japanese, this probably is not particularly helpful advice. To you, I offer this, and my next article, Differences between English and Japanese Grammars (Part 2), as sources of reference. To people who either already know some Japanese or are interested in the linguistics of world languages, consider these articles as something of academic interest as well. I am going to talk here about some of the more noticeable differences I have discovered between English and Japanese grammar.
Often when people start learning another language, they might learn the literal words of their new language, but will not necessarily know how to put those words together. As a result, it is common for non-native speakers of a language to speak that language while using the grammar of their native language or some other language with which they are more familiar. For example, when a native French speaker attempts to say the sentence “I do not eat apples”, they may say something along the lines of “I eat not the apples”, because that sentences structure follows the word-for-word grammar of the equivalent French sentence, “Je (ne) mange pas des pommes”. Japanese speakers speaking English are just as wont to do this, and as a result their English does not sound natural. While their unnatural-sounding sentences are more often than not perfectly understandable to the ears of a native English speaker, if the Japanese person wishes to learn to speak English more like a native speaker, there are a few grammar differences that it wouldn’t hurt to have pointed out to them. These include:
- Different sentence order – This is probably one of the very first things any Japanese person is taught about English. English sentences follow a basic Subject-Verb-Object structure, so in the sentence “I ate an apple”, “I” is the subject, “ate” is the verb, and “an apple” is the object. In Japanese, however, the sentences follow a Subject-Object-Verb structure, so the sentence “I ate an apple” in Japanese, 私はりんごを食べた, literally translates to “I an apple ate”. Most Japanese people are well aware of this difference in sentence structure, but to those that are not, this is probably one of the first things they need to know.
- Covert vs. overt subjects – This is probably one of the main grammar differences with which both Japanese people learning English, and native English speakers learning Japanese, have trouble. Fortunately it is not a particularly debilitating problem, but not having any knowledge of this difference or forgetting about this difference results in some noticeably strange-sounding English or Japanese.
In English, every sentence has an overt subject. This means that any sentence that does not have a spoken subject sounds strange. In the sentence “I went to the park”, “I” is the subject. Every sentence in Japanese also has a subject, but very often that subject is covert, meaning that it is not spoken/written/heard/read in the actual sentence, but it is understood through discourse and context that the subject is there. The Japanese for the sentence “I went to the park”, 公園に行った, more literally translates to “the park to went”.
Sometimes in English the subject is also understood through discourse and context. When this happens, we will often use the word “it” to act as a subject. In Japanese this is of course not necessary. Consider the sentence “It was the first time”. A Japanese person wishing to say this in English might simply say “first time”, as that is a more literal translation of the Japanese sentence 最初だった. A native English speaker will generally understand what the Japanese person means, but the sentence does sound somewhat strange.
- Use of determiners – Determiners are words that come before nouns in English, whose function is to specify the noun in question. Consider the difference between saying “apple” or “person” or “pencil case”, and saying “the apple”, “a person”, “her pencil case”. Japanese has some determiners as well, or at least some words that function as determiners, so in Japanese you can literally say “her pencil case” (彼女の筆箱), or “this car” (この車), but Japanese has no “the” or “a”. So for instance, if you wanted to say "the apple" or "an apple" in Japanese, these would both translate most accurately to りんごだ or the more polite りんごです, which also just means "apple". This is a fairly significant difference between the two languages, because many of the nouns we use in English require at least a “the” or “a” before them. So it is fair to say that it is important for Japanese people to practice using “the” and “a” in a number of different contexts, if they are attempting to learn to speak English like a native speaker.
- Head initial vs. head final – In linguistics, the most important part of any phrase is known as the head. So in the phrase “the beautiful flower that blooms every spring”, “the beautiful flower”, as the noun, is the head. English is a head-initial language, which means that the head of a phrase comes before something like a relative clause, which is used to describe the head. Another example of this exists in the verb phrase “running like you have stolen something”, where “running” is the head of the verb phrase, and “like you have stolen something” is the prepositional phrase being used to describe the verb.
- Japanese, however, is a head-final language. Because of this, sometimes Japanese is referred to as a “suspenseful” language, because you have to wait for the whole phrase to be uttered before you know what exactly is being talked about. For example, the noun phrase “the beautiful flower that blooms every spring” in Japanese, 毎年春になると咲く美しい花, more literally translates to “every year at spring blooming beautiful flower”. “Beautiful flower”, as the head of the phrase, appears at the end. This is a difference that takes some getting used to, but as one of the fundamental syntax rules in both languages, I would say that it is a pretty important difference and one well-worth mentioning.
These are a few of the basic differences between the grammars of English and Japanese. In my next article I will look into some of the more advanced grammatical differences between the two languages. I hope that this article has been of some use to those of you who are currently teaching or are hoping to teach Japanese students English whilst in Japan. To those that are not planning on doing any such thing, I hope you have at least found this article interesting from an academic perspective.