What can English speakers learn from the Japanese language?

by Ciaran Donnelly

English Language Japanese Japan Flag Bestow Education

The extent to which learning a language will change your way of thinking is ambiguous. However, it is indisputable that it will give you an insight into another culture and way of life.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Japanese language is a great example to English speakers of how language can affect our perceptions of different concepts.

One particularly interesting and contrasting concept between the English language and Japanese language relates to placing blame.

Japanese language and placing blame

For an example, take a cup that was broken by accident.

In Japanese, it is fine to say ‘the cup broke itself’. This would be a laughable answer to ‘who broke the cup?’ as a response to an English speaker.

In Japanese (and Spanish), there are different verbs to express whether something is broken accidentally or deliberately. This highlights how language can influence our understanding of causality. The English language generally requires a person to blame while the Japanese language facilitates an understanding that these things happen without needing to allocate blame.

Further, there are studies that show how this affects our thought processes.

Caitlin Fausey conducted studies at Stanford University to discover how this may affect remembering events. Speakers of English, Spanish, and Japanese watched videos of people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and spilling drinks (either deliberately or accidentally). After watching these clips, there was a surprise memory test.

Spanish and Japanese speakers were not able to recall as many names of the people who accidentally caused the incidents compared to English speakers.

There was no discrepancy remembering who deliberately caused the incidents because in this form, all the languages need a subject.

Linguistic differences between English and Japanese

In Japan, bowing is a custom used in many social circumstances to signify different expressions such as:

  • Showing respect
  • Expressing deep gratitude
  • Saying goodbye

The Japanese language also offers an opportunity to express humility. Keigo is a Japanese word that can be translated to ‘polite speech’ and has three forms:

  • Honorific form – show your respect to particular people (not only your listeners)
  • Humble form – show your respect to recipients of your actions by humbling yourself
  • Polite form – show your respect to your listeners by speaking in a polite tone

There are also many Japanese words that have no exact English translation. This vocabulary enables us to discover different aspects of the world that Japanese speakers acknowledge more than English speakers.

As an opportunity to learn from the Japanese language, we will be posting pictures on our Instagram and Pinterest accounts. The schedule for these posts is:

  • Monday: Japanese words with no English equivalent
  • Tuesday: Japanese idioms
  • Thursday: Words in English that are Japanese
  • Friday: Giveaway!!!! Check out our Facebook on Friday to find out more

Conclusion

When we learn a language, we learn about a different culture. The Japanese language is very thought provoking in this regard.

Are there any areas of the language we have left out? Do you have anything to add to this blog? We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Further reading

The Japanese words for space could change your view of the world – Article

The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture- Book

Beginning Japanese Textbook: Revised Edition: An Integrated Approach to Language and Culture- Book

Finally, If you are interested in learning more about English, read some of our blogs. If you have an English language requirement, search our online classes or contact us.

4 thoughts on “What can English speakers learn from the Japanese language?”

    1. Great question! ‘The cup broke’ is perfect English, but it does not provide a reason as to why the cup broke. It is in this area that the Japanese language facilitates a different understanding of causality.

      The Japanese language incorporates a belief that a cup can break without blame needing to be allocated somewhere. It is similar to saying in English ‘these things happen’. However, many English speakers would believe that is an excuse/disingenuous reply rather than a genuine answer.

      This point was used to show how a culture and language can reflect concepts that aren’t as easily reflected in the English language.

      1. This is the same in other languages, if we pick what we want to say. In Czech, say, we can express the same thing like the Japanese, and so in English : The cup broke, or on Czech, hrnec see rozbil. The trick is to ask why, that thing broke, or insist on ”itself’, if it indeed self destructed, or if we want to lie.

        1. Thank you for your input, Walter.
          Personally, as a native English speaker, I find the notion nearly inconceivable that the cup could ‘break itself’. I would be searching for the reason and yes, probably someone or something to blame. An acceptance that these things happen is linguistically and culturally strange to me.
          Maybe it would be better to say that while it can be expressed in English, it is a strange concept. On the other hand, the Japanese language can accept and express this a lot more readily than English. What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *