The most common mistake native Japanese speakers make when speaking English [English Grammar vs. Japanese Grammar]
In my experience of teaching English to Japanese native speakers, the most common mistake I’ve heard is one that will come as no surprise: my students often forget to mention the subject of the sentence!
Omitting the subject is a natural mistake to make
And of course, this makes total sense since the subject is rarely mentioned in Japanese.
But in English, omitting the subject is grammatically incorrect and might throw your listener into sheer confusion—preventing you from making yourself understood.
Why is the subject so important in English? Here are two ways to look at the question.
Remember: English doesn’t have “keigo”
Of course, there are ways to express various degrees of politeness through choice of words and tone of voice in English. But there’s no distinction between people who are “below” (目下) and people who are “above” (目上).
For instance, if you say in Japanese: “ご都合” you’re obviously not talking about yourself! And if you say “連絡いたします。” you’re obviously talking about yourself. English doesn’t have these hints that allow you to guess who the subject is, hence stating the subject makes what you want to say much clearer.
And remember: English grammar is linear. Word order is important!
A second way to understand why the subject is so important in English is to visually represent the Japanese sentence vs. the English sentence. The English sentence is linear, almost logically constructed, whereas the Japanese sentence is made of elements that complement each other, in an almost concentric way.
Let’s take a few examples below and see if that helps!
English sentence 1: James ate his carrots without complaining.
Order is important and all the information must be given.
English sentence 2: James ate his carrots without complaining, which surprised me.
English sentence 3: James ate his carrots without complaining, which surprised me, and even asked for more.
Note that the second “James” isn’t needed because the subject has not changed between two sentences of the same level of information.
Now, let’s try and model a Japanese sentence. For this exercise, we’ll use the first sentence of “The Teal System, concepts for overturning general management theories” (translation, ours) by Frederic Laloux, Kenshu Kamura and Tatsuya Suzuki.
It goes: “古代ギリシャの偉大な哲学者で科学者でもあったアリストテレスは、紀元前三五◯年に執筆した論文で、女性の歯は男性よりも少ないと主張した。”
(Translation: “The great philosopher and scientist from Ancient Greece Aristotle wrote an essay in 350 BC in which he claimed women have fewer teeth than men.”)
Here is our proposed model for this Japanese sentence: