Monday, December 15, 2008


Yesterday morning, one of my student was pecking at her electronic dictionary to find a translation for a particular concept or word and she showed me the result in the dictionary. The result was "fomp". I never heard of such a word so I checked at and it turned up no result. The urban dictionary has three results, but I'm pretty sure that none of them (particularly not the extremely disgusting last one) apply to the relationship between her grandmother and her family.

For years now, I've been telling Japanese people that they cannot trust their Japanese to English dictionaries and that the results they get have to be double-checked with an English only dictionary. In particular, I've encouraged them to check example sentences when looking up a word to check the proper context in which various words are used. For years now, I've been looked back at as if I were making up fairy tales. The students simply don't believe that their dictionaries, which are the finest technology major electronics companies offer, are more fallible than their teacher who is just some schmo who ended up teaching English in Japan.

I'm pretty sure that the three cornerstones of bad English in Japan are:
  • Inaccurate dictionaries and textbooks full of bad translations.
  • Japanese teachers of English who aren't even close to fluent and teach their students all of their mistakes.
  • The plethora of mangled Engrish and Japangrish which saturates the culture and makes people think that certain phrases are proper English use.
In regards to that last note, I used to see and read people repeating crap English used in big advertising campaigns. About 15 years ago, JR did a big advertising campaign where they wrote "traing" ("train" + "ing") to promote the idea of "let's travel by train" (because "ing" is used for gerunds). I started to get reports from students around that time with nouns that had "ing" added to the end of them, aping the expansive ad campaign. Another contamination by advertising I still experience to this day is "charm point". Students will ask what my "charm point" is as if this is a set concept everyone understands. What they really mean is "outstanding feature".

I guess that the mangled English is a two-edged sword. The presence of so much English (or "Engrish") provides a point of reference for students which increases their overall ability to understand and relate to English. On the other side though, breaking bad habits or the use of incorrect phrases, words and grammar is pretty much impossible. Once a Japanese high school teacher drills students to say things like, "I have ever been to (place)," it is completely beyond my magic teaching skills to break the student from using this incorrect phrasing.

Someone really should do something about the dictionaries though. There's really no excuse for that besides being too cheap or sloppy to get the information in there correctly.


Girl Japan said...

For as expensive as they are... these mistakes should not be there and list "fromp" as some type of made up idiom..

Helen said...

I really try to dissuade my students from using an electronic dictionary in class, and have had to do some serious arm twisting to get them to use an English-English dictionary at all.

A few years ago, a student looked up the word "commute" in his English-Japanese dictionary. The only definition there was the one about reducing a criminal sentence, not the more modern definition of travelling to work.

My biggest peeve "crap English" is "safety driver". Egads. The number of students who have announced to me that "I am a safety driver" is astounding.

I could go on...but I'd better let someone else have a go!

Wally Wood said...

I remember sitting on the Yamatanote Line beside a young salary man who was memorizing English phrases from an open book that I could read. Each page had perhaps 15 or 20 examples, and every page had one or two that were clearly wrong.

It is so hard to learn the damned language in the first place...and then to learn it wrong....

Sherry said...

It has always amazed me that big companies in Japan will spend who knows how much money on campaigns with English in them, yet it would seem won't spend a single yen getting a native English speaker to give it a quick check before they plaster it all over the country.

My favorite bad English was on the front of some delivery trucks back in 2000 "Let's challenge safety 21st Century!" Given the way people drive and cycle here I would say they have already done a good job of challenging safety in the 20th century.

Kelly said...

My husband still says "i have ever..." and he says "anyone" instead of "someone" or "noone", courtesy of nova english school.

For example he would say "if anyone isn't going" instead of "if someone isn't going". Ugh. You're right, trying to break the cycle of saying it is very hard, no matter how many times i correct him!