I was recently trying to explain to a Japanese friend what the phrase “to make fun of” means.
“It’s like bullying or teasing,” I said, specifically choosing words I was positive she already understood. She tilted her head, confused. “But…why?” When I thought about it, I couldn’t blame her. Make? Fun? How could those words strung together possibly mean bullying?
English is full of phrases that are puzzling to non-native speakers. How do you explain logical reasoning for phrases like “I got kicked out,” (no, you’re not literally kicked — well, hopefully not), “I pitched in,” (it has nothing to do with baseball or camping), or “hang in there”? (um… where?).
When talking to a native Japanese speaker in Japan, I find myself internally swapping these for what I perceive to be easier to understand English—“They asked me to leave,” “I helped,” or “You can do it!”
Foreigners in Japan often find themselves speaking in a strange form of “Japan English,” an English that’s technically grammatically correct, yet highly—and often awkwardly—simplified.
Ever found yourself dropping a pronoun “a” or “the,” or combining adjectives like “cold” or “crying” with gestures? Not only does it happen when we omit words or use oversimplified ones, but also when we over enunciate the “you” in “see you,” or talk at half the pace we would normally.
After living in Japan for an extended period of time, we know our “Japan-English” sometimes comes out by accident to native-English-speaking friends. “Why are you talking like that?” our friends from back home may ask when we call for the first time in a month.
Our “Japan English” starts to infiltrate our lives to the point where we have to train our brains to switch gears.
Why does our English change when we move abroad?
It’s no secret that knowing English has innumerable benefits. It’s handy when looking things up, as 80 percent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. And since it’s the most widely used language in the world (when combining native and non-native speakers), knowing it is an incredible way to build relationships all over the world.
But out of the more than 70 countries that are considered English-speaking, only about 18 are considered native English speaking. In fact, non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers three to one.
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