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The Japanese particle "wa"


Takashi Hashimoto, Chuo University Yokohama Junior & Senior High School teacher
Areas of study: Lexical semantics, second-language acquisition, grammatical history

I was once asked to correct several hundred high school English compositions. The students were all discussing their dreams for the future in the way you would expect them to at that age, so the papers were a fun read—but I repeatedly saw them make this telling error:

Do volunteer like very much.
America absolute will go.

The two English sentences above are most likely attempts to grammatically replicate the Japanese sentences boranteia wo suru no ga suki da ([I] like to volunteer) and Amerika wa zettai ni iku ([I will] definitely go to America). Since English sentences basically start with the who or what, followed by a description of that subject or what it will do, the students probably thought their sentences were fine. At the school where I worked previously, I had a junior high student (not my own), ask me why the English sentence I want to drink water ended up with two subjects when we translated it into the Japanese watashi wa mizu ga nomitai—since both wa and ga are subject markers in our language. If the English just had one subject, the student said, shouldn’t we use the object marker wo and translate it as watashi wa mizu wo nomitai instead?

As these examples suggest, more than a few students end up hanging their hopes on the idea that if wa or ga marks a subject, then they can somehow get by in English by starting out their sentences with whatever precedes those particles. This strategy does sometimes produce a proper English sentence, but following it blindly also produces errors like the ones in the high school student essays cited above. People tend to use what they are already familiar with or have already mastered in order to grasp what they don’t yet know—and repeated experiences of being successful with something makes that tendency even stronger. Japanese and English are fairly different languages in many respects, including word order. Native Japanese speakers obviously realize this, but they still tend to unconsciously graft knowledge of their own language and its distinctive qualities onto their study of English. This pattern is not limited to Japanese speakers studying foreign languages; characteristic mistakes have been reported for native Spanish or French speakers learning English as well. They even seem to pop up even at remarkably high levels of study. I once read of a situation where a Japanese university professor of English literature responded to a question about his specialty by saying, “I’m Shakespeare.” In this case we can assume that the professor realized his mistake immediately, but the error is much harder to catch on your own when you’re a high school student going along confidently writing strange sentences like the ones we saw above. One term we use to describe phenomena like these is native language interference. Although it’s something that’s bound to happen, it doesn’t hurt to make some effort to keep it in check. There are all kinds of examples of common errors that Japanese people make in English, but could we do something about the wrong choice of subject we pointed out at the beginning? There is no question that just putting together a correct subject and predicate verb can make our English vastly more intelligible to others.

This tendency to formalistically equate subjects marked by wa or ga with non-subjects marked by wa or ga, and to simply apply that to English is, unfortunately, rooted in the way grammar is taught in Japanese schools. Students begin learning grammar in elementary school. As first graders, they are given the general constructions nani ga dō suru ([subject] ga [verb]) and nani wa donna da ([subject] wa [description]) along with examples. When they get to be second graders, they learn to call the words marked by wa and ga “shugo (subjects)” and the part of the sentence the follows the “predicate.” At this stage, a vast majority of kids are probably using the mnemonic “ga/wa ga shugo, shugo ga ga/wa” to remember the information. In junior high, they start learning that the what and who clauses of a sentence represent the subject, while the verbs/descriptive clauses are predicates along with clauses ending in the constructions daaruiru, and nai. They also learn again the relationships between these two types of clauses as those between subjects and predicates. And right then is the moment when they begin to study English seriously. They are told that English sentences start with whatever is markedwa in the Japanese sentence, followed by the verb or description. At this point, the idea that “the wa subject is the same in both Japanese and English” becomes essentially carved in stone in their minds. In fact, if you ask junior high school students to identify the subject of a sentence, almost every one of them will tell you it’s the word or phrase marked with the particle wa or ga. And when they translate English sentences into Japanese, they’ll tend to stick a wa on the subject while avoiding it on anything that isn’t the subject of the English sentence.

To reduce the number of errors that result from this simplistic overgeneralization, the obvious first step is figuring out ways to present our learning materials in a certain order or with a certain teaching method that lets students know that ga and wa clauses do not always represent the subject in English. We could also stand to improve the school grammar framework and descriptive methods on which we base our Japanese language textbooks. The systems of academic grammar used today remain largely unchanged from the ones presented in the junior high school texts Secondary Grammar: Spoken Language [Chūtō Bunpō Kōgo] and Secondary Grammar: Written Language [Chūtō Bunpō Bungo] published in 1947. Modern textbooks have the same way of describing things, one that typically starts by presenting examples, and then draws from them formal prescriptions or definitions. In the case of subjects, they list several sentences (such as inu ga hashiru (the dog runs) or sora wa aoi (the sky is blue)), marking the what or who (followed by wa orga) as the subject and the verb or description as the predicate. This process of formalizing example sentences as a way to present the material seems to make the information easier to learn, but it also invites erroneous generalizations. In an effort to prevent these kinds of mistakes, every textbook shows a sentence like mizu ga nomitai (I want to drink water) with a footnote saying that in this case, the word marked by ga (water) is not the subject, but unfortunately does not take up the issue of what this mizu actually represents grammatically if it is not the subject. Another major problem with the grammatical framework we use is that in school grammar, students are taught that ga is a nominative case particle and wa is an adverbial particle, and that the way the grammar works changes if the type of the particle changes; however, this leads to a contradiction in that the dog is still the subject in both inu ga kawaii and inu wa kawaii (the dog is cute).

Our academic grammar system was solidified during the 1930s and 1940s. In the years since, while there has certainly been no convergence on a single established theory of Japanese linguistics, scholars have been continuing to accumulate fresh insights and new advances in the study of the wa and gaparticles. In the field of teaching Japanese to non-native speakers as well, the construction of a grammar reflecting comparisons with foreign languages and educational practices has been underway. Incorporating insights and perspectives like these into our school grammar will allow students to see Japanese in relative terms, deepening their understanding of their native language and fostering greater discernment. It may reduce the number of students who equate the Japanese wa with English subjects. And my hope is that the high school students who wrote the sentences cited at the beginning will master correct subject identification and achieve their future dreams.

Takashi Hashimoto
Chuo University Yokohama Junior & Senior High School teacher
Areas of study: Lexical semantics, second-language acquisition, grammatical history
Takashi Hashimoto was born in Hokkaido in 1963. He taught at a private junior and senior high school in Tokyo before joining the faculty at Chuo University Yokohama Junior & Senior High School in 2010.
He has co-authored Comprehensive English One [Sōgō Eigo One] (ALC 2014) among other works.