People often ask if I spoke any English when I came here. I spoke some. But very little American idioms or slang. People in Japan begin studying English at 7th grade. If you go to a private school like I did, you start at 1st grade. My mother teaches English. My father used to conduct business in English so they are both fluent. My mother in particular was really interested in us learning to speak English so my parents have arranged to have American college students living with us as we were growing up. So I suspect that my ears were more trained than the average Japanese kid. But as far as learning the language--I really didn't have the command.
English in Japan is taught very academically. There are actually very little conversation in classes. Just lectures on how to apply the grammar and construct sentences. I once got an incorrect on a quiz because I answered, "this is a pen" to a question "what is this?" The correct answer in this case was "it is a pen" because that is what the text book said. My mom, who believes in teaching through conversations, actually went and said something to the teacher on this one.
Because of this method, people in Japan can't really speak English, but can comprehend it if it's written. And Japanese people really like things written in English because it looks cool. I am certain that many of you are now familiar with Engrish.com. I think this site started as just posting things from Japan, but now it has branched out to things from other countries. One of my husband's hobbies when we go to Japan is to grab things or take photos of funny signs in English. Here are some of our favorites:
But then this is a flip side I get to enjoy. The random Japanese words people in this country wear on their shirts and, in many cases, skin. I knew a guy who had a Japanese character on his arm. The character looked like this: 実, which means "meat of a fruit." I asked why he had that on his arm, or more importantly, what he thought he meant, he looked horrified and said, "truth..?" Now the word "truth" looks like this:真実. You see, his tatoo artist omitted a character. I would seriously like to be a proof reader for tattoo parlors. And I found this delightful site.
Roughly translated, here is the order of what the shirts say--and it gets progressively worse:
1. I am Japanese
2. Pay up, you jerk
3. Big Dick (yes, that is what it says)
5. I am a freak
6. Low self-esteem
Then shirts are repeated.
I suppose it's just universal.