Common English Language Mistakes Made by Japanese Speakers

common language learning mistakes

by Delic Meliha

More and more Japanese continue to learn English, which is the common lingua franca across the globe and supposedly one of the easiest languages to learn. It should be made clear that mistakes, as a natural and necessary part of acquiring (any) foreign language , help us to grow and develop a much deeper understanding of a language.

William H. Bryant distinguishes several kinds of errors in English which Japanese students and/or speakers repeatedly make: I) interlingual (i.e., mother-tongue, or LI) errors; and 2) intralingual (or L2) errors, which are usually the result of misinterpretation and of syntact-overgeneralization.

Because I have been teaching English online to Japanese for almost 5 years now, I have noticed a lot of similar errors from different students, regardless of their level. Therefore, I thought it might be useful to point out some commonly repeated errors and some tips on how to avoid them. The truth is many of them are heavily coloured by aspects of their own language , such as grammatical patterns, word order, translation, etc.

So here are seven common language learning mistakes, each containing a common mistake and an explanation on how to use it properly.

Language Learning Mistake #1: Can you…? or Do you…?

Even as questions, these two verbs (can-modal/ do-auxiliary) don’t always have the same meaning. For example, my Japanese students quite frequently get asked Can you eat ramen?, Can you drive a car?…
I suppose one could argue that if you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you do it. It simply states that you have the ability (physical or mental) to do something.

So if one says, Can you eat ramen? It sounds like a person has some problems that are preventing him/her from eating ramen, or maybe they need permission from someone to order and/or eat it.
If one asks someone, Can you drive a car? One wants to know if a person knows how to drive a car, or does he need permission from someone to sit behind the wheel and drive it.
On the other hand, if you do something, it is obvious that you can do it, and it is simply your choice. For example:

If you ask someone, Do you eat ramen?, it implies whether or not you like eating it. Perhaps you prefer sushi to ramen. Or you only like fast food.

Or if someone asks you, Do you drive a car?, that person wants to know if you have a car and how often you drive it, from time to time, seldom, etc.

Language Learning Mistake #2: during vs while

Even though these two prepositions have similar meaning, many people find it hard to grasp their different grammar.

For example, my Japanese students quite frequently say something like: She worked as a baby-sitter while the summer. My father was washing his car during my mother was cooking….

The main difference between these two is as follows:

In the first sentence we have an event and/or action e.g. babysitting and we want to show when it happened….. in the summer. As a general rule, during precedes a noun or a noun phrase, which often represents an activity . She worked as a baby-sitter during the summer.

The second sentence has two independent clauses: My father was washing his car. My mother was cooking. This makes sense because we have two actions that happened at the same time (or will happen), and their duration is not important. If we want to combine them into one sentence, we would need a conjunction, in this case while. It precedes a verbal phrase (while + subject + verb…), referring to a background period of time in which another activity happened : My father was washing his car while my mother was cooking.

Language Learning Mistake #3: articles

Mixing up articles, apart from prepositions, is a frequently encountered mistake of all English learners and/or speakers. It is especially hard for learners and/or speakers, such as Asian and Slavic, whose mother tongues have neither definite nor indefinite articles.

For example, Japanese tend to say, I had dog but actually mean I had a dog. In fact these two have pretty different meanings.

The first one I had dog means that someone ate dog meat. While the latter one I had a dog refers to having an actual animal as a pet.

The same goes if you say, I like orange instead of I like oranges. As seen in the previous example, if you say I like orange, it means you like just the color named orange. On the other hand, if you say I like oranges it means that you like fruit called orange.

The indefinite article in I had a dog, and plural in I like oranges, are used to single out an object or individual from a number of similar things .

Also, this error is probably due to the fact that we mostly use the verb eat when we want to describe what we have eaten, or will eat, but nowadays the verb have is much more common and more versatile, because it includes both drinks and food, whereas eat cannot be applied for both.

Language Learning Mistake #4: preposition

This type of mistake is a fairly common one. Some prepositions correspond to prepositions in our mother tongue, whereas others have to be learnt by heart.

Japanese speakers often say He died for a heart attack, but instead they should say, He died of a heart attack.

When it comes to the verb to die, we can have up to five different prepositions, namely of, from, by, in and for.
When an English speaker says, He died of a heart attack it describes the cause of death, someone who dies of or from a disease or injury. * If you hear die for a heart attack, it means that that person had sacrificed (=be killed while fighting to defend something) their life, in order to help find a cure for a heart attack .
*Die of is more common than die from.

It is incorrect to say, He died because of a heart attack.

Language Learning Mistake #5: Right!

Another classic error is the use of right to denote direction; when do we say it, and what is the difference between on the right, in the right and right?

If you look up right as an adverb in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary you can read that one of the meanings is the following:

  1. True or correct as a fact: Did you get the answer right?
  2. The right side of direction: Turn right at the intersection.

Thus, as we can see right (side) is irrelevant here. What matters are the prepositions.

If we said She is on the right side of the picture, it would refer to a particular position in a photo, the right side of the photo. But not She is in the right side, as that is simply incorrect.

However, if you say I know I’m in the right, you are actually claiming to be correct in what you believe, not referring to direction at all.

Last but not the least is the famous Henry is the right man for this job, means that someone is the perfect and/or best for something.

Language Learning Mistake #6: bored vs boring

In these two sentences I am bored and I am boring, we have examples of some very common mistakes which Japanese students and/or speakers often make in English.

Even though they come from the same verb to bore , which generally means to tire or make weary by being dull, repetitious, or uninteresting, the meaning is really different. The problem here is that:
boring is used when something is not interesting as in, That’s a boring movie.
whereas bored is used when referring to a feeling that people have when they are not interested in something, as in, The children quickly got bored with the game.

In simple words, when we are describing the way someone feels, we use the –ed (participle) ending:

I’m bored.
I’m interested.
I’m confused.

In other cases, we use the –ing ending to describe how people or things are affecting us.

That’s a boring movie.
He’s an interesting man.
The instructions are very confusing.

Language Learning Mistake #7: safe vs safety

The last important but pretty common error is in the difference between safe and safety.
Should you say I am a safe driver or I am a safety driver?

What happens here is that, the word safety is an umbrella term for many types of issues, such as car accidents, injuries, etc.

Basically, in English, to indicate that someone is protected from any danger and/or harm, one usually chooses the adjective safe , as in, You are safe.

Safety , on the other hand, indicates the state of being safe from danger or harm so it is a noun, as in, Your safety is important to us.

Japanese speakers often say I am a safety driver. But instead they should say I am a safe driver. If one says safety driver, it sounds like a person is driving for some insurance and/or car company called Safety.I n fact, a safe driver means that that person’s driving skills are really good and nothing will happen. It is also perfectly correct to say I’m a careful driver.

I hope you have found these explanations useful. If you stick to the rules above, you will be correct in almost all cases.

Are there any other common errors that you can think of? If there are, I’d love to hear from you.

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