Native speaker teachers copying student errors

This post is a list of things that annoy me dressed up in academic finery.

Postgraduate education lends both credence and specificity to Internet grumblings, but sometimes does very little for employability.

Native speaker (NS) teachers in Japan are partially, or primarily depending on the job, hired as models of the ideal English user.  Now, a lot of us reject this idea for many good reasons, but you can expect students to embrace and even to be highly motivated by it.  My thinking is that teachers should be mindful of the fact that native-like proficiency is an unrealistic goal for most students, but also that NS and other fluent speech is full of teachable points which, when explored in class, may yield benefits for students other than their coming to sound just like you.

With that in mind, I’ve been cataloguing various ways in which NS teacher speech in Japan sometimes comes to mimic their students’ non-target-like speech.  From many perspectives, these items would be considered errors in the sense that they are nonstandard in the teacher’s L1 community.  One may be tempted to call them part of a unique dialect reflective of syncretism between various NS dialects and Japanese English learners’ interlanguage, but in my estimation most teachers are unaware that this is happening and continue to see their speech as “standard”.  This not only robs students of the models they’re looking for but also limits the abilities of those teachers to explore the issues that hide in the differences between the teacher’s and learners’ understandings of the language.

These changes can happen for a few different reasons.  In cases of subtle grammatical changes, NS teachers who were never conscious of certain language features may have heard them being used in novel ways and were unable to see and reject them as non-standard.  They also may have begun using them out of solidarity with their learners, unable to see how linguistic innovation is sometimes just an error under a different name.  They also may have adopted them out of a conscious desire to effect the formation of a Japanese dialect of English like Singlish.  In this last case there is nothing wrong with the idea, except that students may not be in on the teacher’s plans and may regard his or her use of, for example “flying start” (a false start in a race) as evidence that that particular lexical item is understood in the teacher’s country of origin rather than part of the teacher’s contribution to recognition of a pidgin dialect in Japanese English.  Again, students in Japan reject the idea of a Japanese variety of English and want to learn a native variety, no matter how difficult or impossible this may be.  My position is a compromise: NS speech represents a model that learners can gain something from, even if what they gain isn’t native-like abilities.

And although I’m about to start my list of Japan-adapted NS “errors”, none of this should be taken as a sign that I embrace the concept of the NS teacher as mainly a model of correct English use or pure cultural representative, i.e. that all accommodations to Japan and Japanese learners’ English act to reduce a NS teacher’s value.  First, Japanese English teachers also should know and understand the logic behind these changes and their correct forms in whatever variety they use as standard English.  Also, the problem is not change itself but unexamined change and ignorance of what has changed when, for example, a bowl of ramen is described as “very delicious” as opposed to “very good”.  This holds true for all English teachers.

“Could” and “Can”

Misuse of “could” is as common an error as you are likely to find among intermediate Japanese learners.  The error is using “could” as if it were a synonym with “was able to” or “managed to”, which of course it sometimes is.  The difference is that “I was able to finish all my work” strongly implies that you both had the ability to do it and that you actually did it, whereas “I could finish all my work” has a range of meanings of which factual completion is one of the less prominent.  More prominent meanings include hypothetical ability (“I could finish all my work if I had time”), suggestions (“I could finish all my work; yea, that’s the ticket”), past ability (“When I was in my 20s, I could finish all my work before lunch”) and the usual set of requests, requests for permission, and offers (“Could you please…”). Except in some subordinate clauses like “I’m glad we could meet“, “could” doesn’t mean “did”, and student utterances that put it right up front as a straight confirmation of some past action like “Some friends visited.  We could have fun” are non-target-like enough to be considered simply wrong by the students’ standards.

The origin of this problem, as with what seems to be the second most prominent error among intermediate learners in Japan (“almost” as in “almost people have cell phones”) is that this usage of “could” transfers a meaning that a similar expression has in Japanese (できた dekita, used for a variety of meanings including accomplishment – “dekita!” is what preschoolers shout when they finish drawing a picture, for example) and makes that meaning the default rather than the meaning of that word as most fluent speakers understand it.  That is, the word that is the past tense of “can” (できる dekiru)  is used in Japanese for accomplishment of past actions, and learners transfer this onto “could”, which they learn first as the past tense of “can” (a relationship I took awhile to see, not having learned English as a second language).  And yes, transfer errors of this sort are common in a society where most people spend six years with grammar-translation.

Not making fun.  This guy comes pretty close.

I have heard NS English teachers mimic this usage, but more often they simply fail to recognize it as non-standard when used by students.  This is a problem, as a learner telling his/her host family that he/she “could make friends at school” is likely to be misunderstood as either swallowing the n in “couldn’t”, and therefore the exact opposite of what the student meant, or talking about a possible plan for the future.  The meaning “I was able to and actually did make friends” is unlikely to occur to English speakers who don’t spend a lot of time interacting with Japanese NNSs.  NS and other teachers really ought to be aware that this is a big issue, and the assumptions underlying it (that English modals have only one meaning, which is its literal translation in Japanese) are likely to stymie progress in other instances as well.

Another well-known instance of modals being translated literally from Japanese and in the process losing their more common pragmatic functions is questions starting “Can you”.  In this case the meanings in Japanese and English overlap when it is literally a question of ability, like “Can you swim?”.  Like “could”, the version of “can” that appears in questions like “Can I go home?”, “Can you leave us alone?” or “Can I get you something to drink?” are ignored.  The usage of “can” that I have heard NS teachers transferring out from their students’ speech is a pragmatic one.  This usage of “can” is a question of ability that serves to save face for people who clearly don’t like something by framing their refusal to eat or drink it as a matter of ability rather than caprice.  For instance, “Can you drink saké?” is not a question of ability per se, but it is phrased as such so that when you decline to get drunk with the rest of your officemates, everyone can pretend it’s not just because you don’t want to.  Americans use the same strategy when inviting people to events an hedging with “if you can make it”, but in Japanese the disguising of a preference as an ability occurs very commonly with personal taste as well.

The idea that pragmatics and conventions of social behavior are not encoded identically in every language is an important insight and potentially very useful for people like many of our students who don’t have the opportunity to figure these things out by trial and error or experience.  The fact that the communication strategy of avoiding going “on the record” with potentially awkward preferences by stating them as abilities is so common in Japan and less so in the US is instructive.  Teachers should know that other such strategies differ by language and culture as well and ignoring these differences means you will have a much harder time conducting yourself in public in a country that uses that language.  Copying your students’ pragmatics means losing an opportunity to make this valuable point.


A sensitive ear can yield a lot of information about a word that isn’t available in its bare dictionary definition.  You’ve probably never heard NSs asking of a given dish, “Is it delicious?” or answering “Yes, very delicious”.  This is because “delicious” isn’t simply an adjective meaning “tastes good rather than bad”.  It happens to share its status as a positive assessment of food with the Japanese adjective おいしい oishi.  However, oishii unlike “delicious” is both the default expression for all food that meets a minimum standard of taste and is gradable up or down with adverbs similar to “a bit” or “very”.  On a scale of -10 to +10, oishii is anything higher than 0.  “Delicious” on the other hand is a top-shelf word for things that are much better than average, at least +5 or +6.  Its collocations according to COCA hint at this – it is most commonly premodified by “most”, “so”, “absolutely”, and “really” (besides apple-related exceptions like “golden”), all common with other ungradable adjectives.  Students using “delicious” as a synonym for oishii are ultimately robbing themselves of expressive ability by taking a word off the top shelf and using it for anything just better than flavorlessness.

There is a small menagerie of these ungradable adjectives which are basically Super Saiyan versions of words like “scary” or “fun”, but grant access to a whole world of playful hyperbole.  What’s more, many of them follow the same participial adjective patterns that vex our learners when it comes to “interesting” and “interested” (e.g. “I was very interesting in the movie”), allowing review of an issue that learners have most likely encountered before.  Ungradable adjectives also facilitate the introduction of some new adverbs as well like “completely” rather than “very”.  All these teachable moments are achievable if you realize how “delicious” is being misused by learners, and maybe also by the teacher.

For example, in the name of your school.


Japanese usually doesn’t use plurals, and words translated from Japanese into English can be rendered permanently singular (メンバー menbaa “members”), permanently plural (ナッツ nattsu “nuts”), uncountable, or countable regardless of the actual properties of those words as understood by fluent English speakers.  These can show up on an ad hoc basis or can be transfer errors stemming from regular properties of English loanwords in Japanese.  In my experience, two errors that occur regularly as products of competent but misapplied morphological rules are 1) turning a countable-looking but uncountable noun into a countable one, and 2) changing the referent of a group noun from the group into a member of the group.  NS teachers often reciprocate learners’ errors in this vein and begin to adopt them as regular parts of their vocabulary, seemingly without noticing that anything has changed.

As for the first error, turning an uncountable noun into a countable one, part of the blame lies with the proliferation of near synonyms where countability is the only aspect that differentiates two words.  Many words have both countable and uncountable versions that refer to nearly the same physical phenomena – “a coffee” and “coffee” could be be used for the same cup of liquid bean extract (although not after you pour it down the drain).  Other times the meanings are quite different, like “an air” (e.g. of respectability) and “air”.  “A speaker” and “equipment” could both refer to the same thing (so, for that matter, could “a thing” and “stuff”), leaving little salient contextual information besides the easily missed indefinite article to tell the learner that in one case a bounded object is being referred to and in the other case an unbounded mass.  Learners confusing these is to be expected.  A teacher, on the other hand, should know that seemingly random uncountable words are part of the landscape of English, and shouldn’t be tempted to call “an equipment” standard or consider “a gas” the same word as “gas”.  Having one is generally more pro-social than having the other.

As students’ interlanguage develops, this will become a more salient issue.  Leaving out articles altogether, then applying them to most things, then misapplying them while trying to figure out the rules and exceptions is part of what I believe to be a normal U-shaped development for their acquisition.  As students start climbing up the far side of that curve, they will need input that maintains standard divisions between countable and uncountable words – particularly the ones that really seem like they should be countable like “furniture” and “equipment”.  Teachers who adopt students’ usages of “furnitures” and “equipments” will have a harder time making the point that part of the usage of countable and uncountable words is just convention and has no immediate logical explanation.

The same applies for group nouns (which, unlike uncountable “mass” nouns, are usually countable but in practice are rarely counted) such as “an audience”, “a staff”, and yes, “a vocabulary” (e.g., “I have a large vocabulary in Spanish but a small one in French”.  There is an uncountable “vocabulary” too).  Again, because Japanese usually has no plurals and all nouns need a phrase equivalent to “one piece of” to count specific instances of them, group nouns are likely to be used to stand for individual group members, and regular nouns are often used to stand for groups.  メンバー menbaa is a common example – its features as a Japanese noun mean it can stand for many of its referent, as in “I went to a party with the usual member” (“member” in Japanese refers to any group, formal or informal, permanent or just for one event), and referring to one of them often take a form like “one person of the member”, “member” again referring to the group.  In this way countable nouns can be used to stand for a group composed of that noun.

The opposite case, using a group noun to refer to a single member of that group, occurs as a result of generalized patterns for converting nouns in Japanese into nouns in English.  Since nouns in Japanese can be used for groups of those nouns as well, there may be no difference to learners between a word like “member” and a word like “audience”, since both to the learner can refer to groups of people.  If a learner realizes that the indefinite article can be used to single out members of those groups, then he or she will be just as likely to apply it to “an audience” as “a member”.  He or she at this stage hasn’t figured out that those two nouns actually refer to different countable objects – a single person or a single group of people.  To him/her, “an audience” refers to a single member of the audience just like “a member” refers to a single member of a group called “member”.

(Googling “member” in English yields quite different results than メンバー in Japanese.  I don’t recommend the former if you’re at work.)

The distinction between group and uncountable nouns may seem subtle, but there are plenty of ways the teacher can highlight the difference – one that I used was asking students to compare the various part-time jobs they’ve had in their lifetimes, asking which had the friendliest staff, for example (“a staff” referring to a group of workers).  On the other hand, if the teacher accepts and reproduces the understanding of these words (as I have heard many times, in particular with “staff” and “audience”) reflected in students’ interlanguage, the distinction is lost and with it a very interesting point about how grammar chops up reality into meaningful chunks to be talked about.

I don’t, by the way, believe that teachers ought to be stopping students every time they make one of these errors and saying, “Actually, you may have noticed, I don’t say it that way; I say it this way and you should too”.  But keep the option open by being aware of your own speech and be ready to focus on the issue when the time is ripe.

Soup, Renewal, Mansion, Live, Challenge, Refresh, Fight, and other loanwords

It can be hard to tell what exactly is happening when NS teachers use Japanese words that have their origins in English (e.g. the above or even some of these) in their English speech.  They could be either 1) using Japanese words in their English while still considering them Japanese words, the same way you would say “I love chow mein”; or 2) using those words while considering them English, and adding the new loanword-specific usages to the definitions of the words already in their heads.

For example, when a teacher says, “she lives in a mansion”, is it in the sense of “the type of apartment building called マンション manshon in Japan”, or “a large, expensive building, which in the US is for a single family and which in Japan is divided and rented to many residents”?  If he/she says “You need to challenge to a new level of test”, is it with awareness that in Japanese but not in English one can “challenge” a thing, or has the speaker’s mental dictionary entry for “challenge” been overwritten to take new kinds of objects and prepositions?   In my view, the former is preferable to the latter, since we are after all talking about words from different languages, and again awareness of the accommodations you are making toward the interlanguage of your students is important.

Basically Pepsi with extra caffeine and an even stranger aftertaste.


In either case, how misleading these are for students when their teacher uses them depends on the students’ and teacher’s understanding of the amount of L1 the teacher uses in class.  If the teacher regularly uses Japanese metalanguage, as I did, students might not assume that everything the teacher says in class would be understood by any English speaker.  If the teacher never uses Japanese, for example because the teaching context forbids it, then students are likely to hear “mansion” coming from the teacher’s mouth and think that condo-like buildings in the English-speaking world are also called “mansion”.


The point is not that English and Japanese should never mix.  I codeswitch all the time when talking to people like my wife who speak both, or in class when I need to explain something and I didn’t care about which language the message used to get in the students’ heads.  But some adoption, especially unconscious adoption, of Japanese conventions of English usage (either interlanguage or words and phrases with established but non-target-like usages) robs you and students of many opportunities to explore the ins and outs of standard English, which after all is what they come to you to learn.  Behind every seemingly trivial difference in usage between native English and learner English there is a bigger issue lurking which may be productive to dive into once it is brought to learners’ attention.

2 thoughts on “Native speaker teachers copying student errors

  1. Hi I found my own pic on this page. I lived abroad for many years but wasn’t so confident about what I was saying on the post u referred to. I got some of the ideas from a different eng blog written by a Japanese teacher, feeling a little weird about some of the sentences I used as examples. I realized it’s not safe to simply trust some source on the internet (including my own blog) I’ll try my best not to give wrong info on mine though. Oh and I made some corrections to some of the sentences and explanations. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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