Do You Speak Engrish?

I spent one-year living in Tokyo so I can tell you that, theoretically, their level of written English is actually very good. It’s not uncommon to find Japanese who scored 700-800 on their TOEIC test (the maximum number achievable is 990), which is really good. But somehow, it is very difficult to find Japanese who’s willing to speak English with you. Oftentimes, knowing that I speak Japanese as well, even though you speak English to them, they will respond to you in Japanese. Weird, huh? Unfortunately, it’s because their sole purpose to learn English is to get a good grade, both in school exams and English test, they don’t really intend to put it for practice.

Some of the youngsters go for an exchange year in the States, though, more often than not, they came back with no significant improvement  in their level of English. Some of the others who’s not fortunate enough to get a chance of study abroad, are more than willing to pay at least JPY2,000/hour to hire foreigners as their language teacher. Well, practically, it’s more as speaking partners, or, just to be in a company of a foreigner-kind of way. Funny thing though, sometimes they regard “white foreigners” are more compatible than “Asian looking” people (in this case, me). While the fact is, not all “white foreigners” speak English fluently. I have several European friends who only speaks very basic English, but they got paid like JPY7,000/hour just to keep those Japanese company (easy money, really!)

Sometimes, when I am tired and lazy to speak Japanese, I’d acted clueless and speak English all the time. There’s this one time when I wanted to exchange some good in a major brand store, I asked the first shop-keeper I could find, which got panic and run away to find another shopkeeper who (she thought) would be able to help her. I knew I was being mean, but it was fun to watch their reaction and hear their conversation, which went as follow (translated from original speeches in Japanese) :

A : Don’t you learn English?

B : Well, yes I do.

A : But you can’t speak English?

B : Well if I speak English, I will not work here!


On top of their lack of confidence in speaking English, there’s also the problem of weird pronunciation (if you’ve ever spoke English with a Japanese – you’ll know what I meant). Firstly, in case you’re not familiar with Japanese at all, I’d like to introduce you to Japanese letters :

HIRAGANA : Japanese basic writing system, mainly used for native words with no Kanji.

KATAKANA : mainly used for words taken from foreign languages (English, French, etc)

KANJI : Chinese characters adapted to Japanese language.

When they’re learning English, most of the text books will use Katakana to show the pronunciation of the words as reading aid. This is called FURIGANA, which I believe, is the source of pronunciation problem for most Japanese.

Sample :

– VISION will be written in FURIGANA as “BI-JO-N” Thus, Japanese will pronounce the word VISION as BIJON

– TRAVEL will be written in FURIGANA as “TO-RA-BE-RU” Thus, Japanese will pronounce the word TRAVEL as TORABERU (which can easily mistaken as TROUBLE, which, in case you’re wondering, is pronounced TORABURU)

Unfortunately, because this has been the way they learn English from the very start, they don’t realize that this has caused them trouble. If you remember the movie, Step Up 2 there’s one Japanese female dancer called Jenny Kido.

Below is the excerpt from their dialogues :

Jenny Kido : “I like your teeth!”

Smiles : “Thanks. I like your accent.”

Jenny Kido : “What accent?”

Smiles : “That accent you got. You have an accent.”

Jenny Kido : *confused*

Then there’s the problem of “make up words” which is mostly taken from normal words in English, but apparently have slightly (or sometimes very) different meanings for Japanese.

Sample :

sarariman (salary man) which refers to male white collar workers.

sumaato (smart) which means “stylish” or “slim”

maikaa (my car) which refers to private cars, but can be used for other people’s as well as yours

doraibu (drive) which refers to driving your car for leisure.

(e.g. : For next summer, how about going doraibu with your maikaa?)

Also good to mention their deep love for abbreviation, which will definitely make your life more difficult.

Sample :

dejikame which is short for dejitaru kamera (digital camera)

ooeru which is short for OL (Office Lady) and refers to female office workers

kyasshuon which is short for kyasshu on deribari  (cash on delivery = COD)

konbini which is short for konbiniensu sutoaa (convenience store = small stores which opens for 24H and usually sells, well, everything from lunch boxes to cosmetics to baby diapers!)

Regardless of its weirdness, sometimes it is fun to try to guess what those words actually mean. Well, maybe it’s just because of my fascination of languages?! And somehow those words really grows on you, and without realizing, you’ll use those words even when you’re speaking in English. And that’s the most wonderful thing with languages. It really is evolving through times and multiple influences. Words that were once foreign, are slowly adapted as local language, with their very own meaning and could be totally different from their actual meaning. Words that were once considered as “cool” get old and replaced with more modern word. Thus, for me, learning language is never boring!


11 thoughts on “Do You Speak Engrish?

  1. As language is so organic and always changing, problems will continue. What you say about the Japanese way of learning (for tests and with strange pronunciation) is quite interesting. I spent a year teaching in Korea and many of them were only keen on learning for tests and their speaking was terrible.. hence why they employed foreign teachers. My aim was to work heavily on their speaking and pronunciation. However, to teach in Korea, you do not have to be good at teaching, you just have to hold a passport from an English speaking country again highlighting the problem about ‘how you look.’ I had a Korean friend who spoke excellent English (and obviously Korean), yet I got a much higher paying job despite not speaking any Korean. Why? Because I look how the parents of the private school want me to look. I hope that language learning can improve in the future.

    • Pretty much similar with what’s happening in Japan! They do appreciate westerners more rather than asian-looking people to do the teaching job. There’s actually schools who looked down upon one of my American friend just because she is Chinese descendant! They would prefer Europeans because – as you said – of the looks! That’s just stupid. That’s why I gave up trying to find teaching jobs in Japan/Korea because my passport won’t allow it. I used to think that Koreans speak better English than their Japanese neighbors, but from your comment, apparently not. Asians do put more emphasis on the test results – which is very unfortunate.

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