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An A-Z of Common English Errors for Japanese Learners

Writer(s): 
Mark Rebuck, Nagoya University
Publisher: 
BTB Press, 2008

 

[David Barker. BTB Press, 2008. pp. 315. 1,700. ISBN: 9784990415112.]

Only a year after he began to write seriously in Japanese, David Barker had published his first Japanese book, Eigo to Nakanaori Dekiru Hon (see Jones, 2003, for a review), which became a bestseller. This achievement, Barker explains in his introduction to An A-Z of Common English Errors for Japanese Learners, owed much to his learning from the corrective feedback of Japanese friends. While his first book was targeted at the popular market, this reference-book-cum-textbook has been written primarily for the language classroom.

The structure of the entries is straightforward, with a key word or phrase followed by an example of a common error, the corrected version, and then an explanation in Japanese. In another book detailing common errors (Webb, 2006), the explanations are narrowly focused on the error in question. In contrast, Barker cleverly segues in related points of linguistic interest and instructive, often humorous anecdotes. Some of the 230 entries are dealt with briskly; others are explored in some detail (articles, for example, cover 11 pages). The explanations are lucid, raising students’ awareness of both their first language (L1) and second language (L2) through frequent discussion of the possible causes of their errors in terms of language transfer.

I assigned the book as a supplementary text in a first-year university communication class and, with the help of a few tests, encouraged students to read it at their leisure. During lessons, I used it to deal with errors as they arose. After briefly providing my own corrective feedback in English, I referred the learner to the appropriate page(s) to read after class although, when time was limited, I occasionally dispensed with my own feedback and left the explaining to the book. As described in the teachers’ guide, written in English and available on the publisher’s home page, basic English grammar and usage can be covered more systematically than this in the book’s extensive workbook section.

Barker recommends that to use this book most effectively teachers should be familiar with its contents, ideally to the extent that they can direct students to the relevant section without having to consult the index. Another benefit from familiarity with this book’s contents was that I found myself becoming more sensitive to students’ errors, particularly those that had, after over a decade in Japan, ceased to sound incongruous. I was reminded on page 108, for example, that “What is your hobby?” “My hobby is sleeping” would be an unlikely exchange between native-speakers.

Between the main entries and the workbook is another section, “How do you say this in English?” covering ganbatte and otsukaresamadesu and 15 other tricky-to-translate phrases. In the introduction to this section, Barker qualifies its title by explaining it is often better to ask, “Do you have an expression like…in English?” (p. 239), rather than assuming an equivalent one exists. Reading this section should help students better understand “that what seems possible to [learners] may not, in fact, be sanctioned in the natural use of L2” (Lewis, 1997, p. 61).

A class questionnaire showed students considered the book very useful, with almost all indicating that they wish they had read the book earlier in their English studies. I, however, thought that a few of the Japanese translations were perhaps too literal; for example, rather than osake ga hitsuyo, the expression osake ga nomitai na would have better conveyed the feeling of “I need a drink” (p. 27). Moreover, and notwithstanding Barker’s comment in the English introduction that a book such as this can only be “a work in progress” (p. 7), I was slightly surprised that some errors I have encountered in class were not in the book. The mistaken use of the word smart to mean slender (an example of Japanese to English transfer of the loanword sumaato) was but one example. Comprehensive as it may be, it cannot, nor should it be expected to, take over completely from the teacher as provider of corrective feedback.

For many TLT readers, the proverbial elephant in this review is that the book is in Japanese. The teachers’ guide and English index do enable the book to be used in the classroom by thosewho cannot read the language, and a general idea of the points being made can also be gleaned from the example sentences. Regardless, however, of whether teachers understand it completely, this is a book from which their students can learn much. At the very least, consider recommending it to your class.

References

Jones, M. (2003). Review of the book Eigo to nakanaori dekiru hon [The book for becoming friends again with English]. The Language Teacher, 27(11). Retrieved June 5, 2009, from < www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/reviews/show_br.php?id=54>

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Webb, J. H. M. (2006). 151 common mistakes of Japanese students of English. Tokyo: The Japan Times.

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