Be prepared to tell your blood type to Japanese school children

If you a Westerner, when visiting big tourist attractions like the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)


Kyomizudera (Kyoto)


Nara’s wooden temple


or Himeji castle


you can be sure to see big groups of Japanese school children. The pupils are there because their schools want them to learn about the history of Japan, in the same way as, for example, Finnish school children visit historical sites in Finland, although, visiting a Russian tzar’s summer house from the 1880s in my home town (Kotka, Finland) as a primary school pupil may not have been quite as spectacular a setting as many of the school trips Japanese kids get to go on. In any case, when the Finnish kids go on school trips, the purpose of those trips is usually increased cultural/historical understanding, but Japanese school children often multi-task. Namely, their school excursions double as an English lesson. Thus, when spotting Westerners they will, usually in groups of 2-6, approach you in a shy manner and ask if they could have a conversation with you. If you agree, what’s coming is however not really a ‘conversation’. You see, their ‘conversation’ consists of a pre-written questionnaire which they will execute in a rehearsed interrogatory manner, asking you several questions one after another and expecting one-word answers. For example:

What’s you favourite sport? (expected answer e.g. Soccer)

What’s your favourite food? (expected answer e.g. Pizza)

What’s your blood type? (expected answer e.g. A) (note that pretty much all Japanese people know their blood type and many of them believe that blood type is one important factor determining your personality. You can read my earlier blog post on the topic here.)

These rather one-directional conversations in which each student in the group asks you one pen-pal type question are quite fun, and the students are very polite, sweet and giggle a lot but needless to say, with pre-written questions and an expectation of one word answers, they come completely unprepared for Western-style conversations. After all, in a naturalistic situation in Europe/North America, whether it is a pub or a school playground, someone walking over to you and firing a series of questions at you would (or should) never happen. Moreover, if you responded to those questions with single-word answers, you would be sending a pretty clear passive aggressive message that you wanted that person to bugger off, right? Thus, the question is: What do these strange ‘conversations’ teach Japanese students about the use of English in conversational settings? An answer might be: not much.

I think students going and chatting with foreigners is a great idea, but for them to be better prepared for oral communication with native English speakers, the manner in which the practise is done should better correspond to real life, non-staged situations.

So, here is an example of a conversation where I’ve tried to provide a more authentic Western-style conversation in which answers are rarely one word long and in which both parties ask questions/give answers.

Student 1: What’s your favourite sport?

Me: Do you mean to watch or to actually do it myself?

Student 1: (doesn’t understand my question)

Me: (decide to go with the sport I like doing most and say) Downhill skiing.

Student 1: (looks perplexed as they don’t understand what ‘downhill skiing’ means)

Me: (act as if I’m downhill skiing)

Student 1: Ahh!

Me: Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: (thought that their turn was already over and is looking at the person whose turn it is to talk to me, thus my question goes unanswered)

Me: (persisting, I point at the student and repeat my question) Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: No.

Student 2: What’s your favourite food?

Me: Hmm, there are so many… maybe pizza or tempura or pasta with wild mushroom sauce. I don’t know. What’s yours?

Student 2: (panics and turns to their friends for help. After a 20 second silence the student manages to utter) Udon.

Me: I love udon too.

Student 3: What’s your favourite Anime character?

Me: I don’t know any.

Student 3: (is confused presumably because they cannot understand that there are people who do not know anything about Anime)


I assume that at least one reason for Japanese school children preying on tourists for an English conversation is due to old-fashioned methods in language teaching. Namely, many Japanese schools use the grammar-translation method which focuses, well, on grammar and translation. In addition, English in/outputs are done solely or predominantly in writing with minimal spoken interaction (as a linguist whose research areas include first and second language acquisition, I am eager to see Japan adopt more modern approaches to language teaching). Due to the bulk of teaching being translations of texts, most students never really hear English in the classroom. Furthermore, in Japan, foreign TV/films are dubbed and many Japanese youths prefer Japanese and/or Korean music to English music. Thus, Japanese students get minimal exposure to spoken English also outside the classroom. The lack of exposure to English (combined with other factors) has resulted in widespread poor oral competence in English, even in people who have extremely good written skills of English, e.g. doctors, and even English teachers! I am not kidding. I have encountered several native-Japanese English language teachers in Japan who needed a translator to interact with me in English, and my understanding is that many (or most) Japanese students never hear their native-Japanese English teacher use English. I have also had appointments with Japanese doctors who advertised themselves as providing consultations in English,  but when sitting opposite them in the consultation room, they’ve shown me a laminated card asking me to write my question(s) on a piece of paper, show the piece of paper to them, after which they would write a reply.

I will not go into any detail in relation to the language teaching in Japan or what pedagogical steps might be helpful for the Japanese educational system to improve their students’ oral communication skills in English. But what I would say is that if you are in Japan and encounter groups of pupils in tourist attractions, please have a chat with them, if not to provide the students with an opportunity to practice their English (whether you go along with the interrogatory style or make it more interactive is up to you) then maybe for the little gifts/messages they usually give you for your time. Below there are a couple of sweet hand-written messages that I have received for participating (regardless of the fact that the pupils got a slightly more Western chat than what they were after).



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Learn 10 words in Japanese/Finnish in less than a minute


My acquisition of Japanese over the past year and a half that we’ve lived in Osaka has been painfully slow, which is rather embarrassing given that I am a university professor whose expertise lies in first and second language acquisition. I keep on telling my Japanese students of English the old phrase that is used predominantly by inactive, overweight, chain-smoking, recreational drug using, alcoholic doctors (and in this case also struggling psycholinguists):

‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

My poor attainment of Japanese is a result of

  1. me having been extremely busy with work, being a single parent 6 months of the year, and spending my free time trying to hunt for fabric toothbrush bags for the kids’ post school lunch oral hygiene sessions or trying to establish in the local supermarket where the hell they keep their hummus, halloumi and quark (I’ve finally discovered that apparently nowhere)
  1. me finding many Japanese words quite difficult to remember, due to the fact that they resemble none of the languages that I know at least the rudiments of (Finnish, English, Swedish, German, Spanish, Russian).

You see, one thing that seems to help second language learners to learn new words is if they can associate the new word with a word that they already know, for instance, if the new word sounds like another word in their vocabulary.

The fact that some languages are historically related means that those languages share many same or similar words. For instance, the word for a very young child in English, German and Dutch is baby and thus, learning the English word baby is easy for a German/Dutch speaker. Finnish and Japanese are not amongst the languages that are historically related to English (although some English loan words do exist both in Finnish and Japanese).

Finnish and Japanese are not related to each other either and thus Finnish and Japanese do not share many (if any) words that have the same/similar pronunciation and meaning, like baby does in English, German and Dutch.

However, in terms of the syllable structure, i.e. how the language breaks words into smaller units (syl-la-ble), Japanese and Finnish happen to be similar. A typical syllable in Japanese and Finnish consists of one consonant (e.g. k, p, s, t) followed by one vowel (a, e, i, o, u). This means that there are quite a few words in Finnish and Japanese that are pronounced (if not completely identically due to different word stress patters or slightly different articulation) in a very similar way. In the midst of my busy schedule, thanks to these cross-linguistic coincidences, I have managed to pick up quite a few words in Japanese, namely the ones that are pronounced more or less identically to Finnish words, as I’ve only had to associate the Japanese meaning to, essentially, a Finnish word.

So, if

  1. you are a Finnish speaker and want to learn some Japanese with minimal effort or
  2. you are a Japanese speaker and want to learn some Finnish with minimal effort

it shouldn’t take you more than a minute to learn the list of words (and their meanings) in Finnish/Japanese below, given that you don’t have to learn the word itself, e.g. KITA, you just need to memorize the meaning of KITA that you didn’t already know (NORTH if you are a Finnish speaker, and JAWS if you are a Japanese speaker).

If you are an English speaker, unfortunately you’ll have to do the work of actually learning the words below and the two meanings associated with those words (one in Finnish, one in Japanese). Maybe this is only fair, given that you have the advantage of learning hundreds of words in a numerous language easily (because many languages have adopted words from English into their vocabulary, or English has adopted words from those languages). However, the list below will give you a great opportunity to do ‘multitasked’ language learning and learn two new words (one in Finnish and one in Japanese) by just memorizing one lexical item. Since it is not obvious to a non-Japanese or non-Finnish speaker how to pronounce the words below, English spelling (hopefully resulting in near enough correct pronunciation) is given in brackets next to the target word where needed.

I know there might not be any English speakers out there who would be tempted to learn Finnish and/or Japanese (as these aren’t exactly the most useful languages on the planet). But if you are a fan of order, raw seafood, long awkward silences, relatively introverted people (at least in comparison to your typical American) and/or drinking sessions that end up in pretty much everyone in the group comatose, you would probably love it in Finland and Japan and should you choose to relocate to these lovely places, the words below might come of use.



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Photo credits: – Shoes – umbrella, invitation – tap – market place – pile, sweeties – barrel, bird, squirrel, twig, sky, jaws – Myth

Husband and son in England, the rest of us in Osaka



My husband and our son went back to England for a month about a week ago. So, it is just me, our daughter and our au pair who will have to survive just the three or us for the next 4 weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a helpless female relying on my husband to chew my food for me, but I have to admit that I am a little worried because I feel that now I am on my own trying to sort things out in a culture I don’t know very well, in a language whose basics I’m even yet to learn. I feel it’s somehow less stressful trying to pay our gas and electricity bills at the corner shop or transferring our rent from my Japanese account to our landlord’s account on an ATM that displays only some of its functions in English when there are two of us there, even when both of us are equally clueless about how to do these things. Luckily, our Kiwi estate agent, who speaks Japanese offered to help me with the payment of our rent and my colleagues at work have been beyond helpful in translating our bills and letters, buying ‘Oyster’ cards for public transport, investigating where I can do the hobbies that I’ve implied that I might want to try during our stay in Japan, chasing missed Ikea deliveries, organizing bank card deliveries etc. I really don’t know if we could have survived the first 5 weeks of our stay here without all the help we have received.

The main reason why things would have been difficult, or impossible, to sort out without the help we’ve received is to do with many Japanese people’s English-language skills. I mean, if your children want a career in hospitality or customer service industries, send them to Japan. I guarantee, that experience will transform them! But if you want them to learn English, you might want to think twice before sending them over here. Japanese people are a bit like Glaswegians in that their English is extremely poor. In terms of writing, there are mis-spelled, grammatically incorrect and downright gibberish signs everywhere in Osaka. I think the Japanese have not heard of ‘proof reading by a native-speaker’ or even ‘proof reading by a non-native speaker with a relatively good understanding of how the English language works’. Anyway, I’ve attached below a small selection of erroneous signs I’ve encountered within the past 5 weeks. I’m not joking, if one was randomly to pick three signs written in ‘English’ when walking around Osaka, you would be lucky if only one of those three has an English-language error. The level of errors varies. Some of the errors like ‘Please power off the mobile phone’ which I saw on the train the other day, is not too bad, given that all English speakers can understand what the message of that sign is. It is just the unconventional use of the combination of the noun (power) + preposition (off) as a phrasal verb (power off). However, some of the signs make no sense at all, although usually one can guess what message the writer intended to convey. There is also the matter of typos. I mean, I am not as anal about typos as my husband or my mother-in-law, but the initial humour factor wears down pretty quickly when mis-spelled words are everywhere.






In addition to errors in writing, many Japanese people also make several errors with English pronunciation. Their difficulty in distinguishing, for instance, the sounds r and l and b and v means that:

Tom and Jerry becomes Tom and Jelly

Really? becomes Rearry?

Steering committee becomes Stealing committee

Hello! becomes Herro!

Right becomes light (or write)

Vermicelli becomes bermicelli

Libby become Livvy

I am not trying to imply here that Finnish or English speakers do not make mistakes when they speak foreign languages. Because they do. For instance, most Finnish people are unaware of the fact that the s-sound at the end of the words dogs and cats have different qualities, dogs ends in z-type sound while cats end in s. They also struggle to identify that certain word-initial consonants (e.g. p, t, k) need to be produced with a puff of air. Hence, a typical Finnish person attempting to produce the word ‘pill’ in English sounds more like ‘bill’ to an English person. I can’t resist and point out though that while most Japanese and Finnish people try to learn English (and other foreign languages) most native English-speakers have the motivation level of a kangaroo to learn anything other than the phrase ‘Do you speak English?’ in a foreign language. Let’s however imagine that there was an English person, who was eager to learn a foreign language, for instance, an English statistician who wanted to challenge themselves with a particularly difficult but rule-based language like Finnish (I’ve understood that statisticians like rule-based phenomena. Hence they are one for those few people who would choose to study Finnish). Even if the stats guy (or gal) took to the Finnish inflectional morphology like our son has taken to eating octopus dumplings they would probably struggle with the vowel qualities of Finnish and find it difficult to discriminate between long and short vowels and consonants. Consequently, if the statistician asked a Finnish person for a pear (päärynä) the chances are that he would be handed a potato (peruna) because s/he would produce the first vowel of the word too short and mispronounce the second. The point of this paragraph is to illustrate that even though Japanese people are particularly bad at English, learning foreign languages is difficult for everyone. After all, I have lived in Osaka for about 5 weeks now and one of my key sentences in Japanese is still ‘Do you speak English?’

The fact that it is rare to find a Japanese person who speaks good English, means that foreigners stick together. Yesterday on the train, a Korean man asked me, rather than the 40 Japanese people in that carriage, whether the train was going to a specific station. Any non-Japanese person is more likely to be able to give an answer even when they, of course, are less likely to know the city and its train routes as well as the 40 local people. In the park and children’s playgrounds Westerners also sniff down other Westerners and start chatting. Perhaps ‘sniffing’ is not a very good word to use here. The reason being that an old fashioned Japanese view is that Westerners stink. I bet you didn’t see that coming! Japanese people (used to) think that the fact that Westerners consume relatively large quantities of dairy products make them smell of cheese. This snippet of information has curbed our 20 year-old au pair’s previous habit of drinking several pints of milk a day. I believe he quite likes the local ladies and does not want to ruin his chances of getting invitations to ‘karaoke’ by unpleasant aromas of Edam.

In addition to Westerners, our au pair and I have been lucky enough to have had a chance to talk to Japanese people in public places as well. It is a shame that the bonkers old lady who came and talked to us last Sunday in the park had an extremely limited vocabulary of English and the only things we could establish were: (a) what my, my daughter’s and my husband’s names were, (b) whether I wore make up, and (c) whether my eyes were truly green (which they are). Our au pair got his share of this lovely old lady as well. We still don’t know whether she was asking or proposing when she looked at our au pair and repeatedly uttered ‘wife’.

I have to admit, I am a little jealous at my husband for being back in the UK. First, he gets to see all our friends, and the second night back in Brighton he went to the pub with some of his friends. I have not been to the pub here yet, because of our childcare arrangements were not in place when my husband was here, and now that I have childcare that I could take advantage of I don’t really know anyone I could go out with. You see, I don’t know anyone else in Osaka other than my work colleagues. The problem is that (a) it might be a bad idea to expose my cider and gin & tonic loving side to my work-colleagues and (b) no-one at work has actually asked me out drinking (yet). I don’t know whether it is because they don’t like me (or my cheesy aroma) or because they themselves do not go out either. But it is starting to look like my gin & tonic days are over.

Second, I am jealous at my husband because he can walk into a shop and buy European stuff at ‘normal’ prices. I mean, some things in Japan are really inexpensive. For instance, going out for food in Osaka is roughly the same price as going to the supermarket and buying ingredients for that food and cooking it yourself. So we eat out at least a couple of times a week and I never take packed lunch with me to work. But some imported goods can be a complete rip-off. The other night after work I went to a local shop to buy some hair spray. I had noticed that many Japanese hair sprays weren’t quite the same as the ones I usually use, so when I found some non-Japanese hair spray in the shop I bought three bottles. It was only at home that I realized that I had paid for my hairspray in total 4500 JPY (£27 or €35). I know you are thinking: what the hell am I raving about. It’s only 9 GBP per bottle! Yes, it is only 9 pounds but it is about twice as much as what you would pay for that product in England. I’m Finnish and therefore tight with money. So, spending that extra £13.50 on those hair styling products really pissed me off and made me promise myself that I would check prices more carefully from now on.

Third, while in England, my husband gets to eat English and European food. I am getting so desperate to having a burger and chips for a change that I am actually seriously considering doing something I have not done since my mid 20s – going to McDonalds. Japanese food is really tasty, but there is only so much rice and noodles a Westerner can take. 14 days into our Japanese experience my husband and I were already dying for something other than rice/noodles. So we went for pizza – with some high hopes I might add. I can’t emphasize enough how disappointing that meal was. It was disappointing for two reasons: (a) the pizza was not the size of a pizza that you get in England or Finland. It was about one quarter of it (see photo). So, size-wise it certainly wasn’t satisfying, and we nearly ordered a second lot of the same, but then felt that we would have insulted the chef had we done so. (b) I would not exactly call the mountain of salad leaves on a soggy frisbee ‘a pizza’.


The cross-cultural cuisine exchange does not quite work in England either. A couple of years ago we had an Italian student stay at ours for 4 weeks. When she was leaving to go back to Italy, she gave us 5 kilos of sausages that she had kept in her room. She explained that the assumption amongst Italian people is that English people cannot cook pasta; they over-cook it. And I am sure the Italians are right: many people do over-cook pasta. So she was well prepared for her England experience and brought with her 4 weeks worth of rations. Without sounding too pleased with myself, I take the fact that she left us her rations to the last sausage to mean that one Italian person learned that a Finnish/English person can cook pasta (nearly) as well as an Italian person!

One good thing about my husband being back in England is that when he comes back he can bring with him some tights for me. I did bring several pairs with me when we arrived in Japan but 5 weeks of wear is showing. The fact that Japanese hosiery shops do not have what my husband calls ‘a Godzilla section’ I cannot find tights/stockings big enough to fit me. The biggest size in most Japanese sock and tight shops seems to be L-LL. Presumably translating into Large-Large Large. This size, according to the tight packaging, corresponds to a person’s height 155-170cm (so Large would fit a person who is 155cm (5ft) tall!). The fact that I am approx. 170cm tall should therefore entail that the LL size fits me, but think again. My legs are not as thin as Japanese women’s legs. This means that some of the length of the tight goes in the width. This in turn means that tights whose upper limit fits 170cm person (with skinny legs) the crutch will be somewhere in the region of my knees when I try to squeeze into them. So, this Godzilla’s husband will be her tight-mule on his travels between England and Japan.