Tuesday, June 18, 2013
By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English
Back to Basics Blog for Teachers
I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:
“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”
I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of them—wa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.
Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.
Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) With twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him.
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