Notes on the gestures discussion lesson

Hey everyone!  As promised, here are a couple of things that came up during the discussion that I’d like to address:

1. Differences in English

  • Pointing at vs. Pointing out

Point is a fairly easy verb to understand. However, like many intransitive verbs, you can use several different prepositions with it, and choosing the correct one can be difficult!

During the discussion lesson we talked about pointing, and students sometimes used “point out” when they should have used “point at”.

So what’s the difference?  It’s actually fairly simple: point out only means to call attention to, usually by saying something about something else. Point at only means to use your finger to direct or show direction.

So you might point out a mistake or point out a problem or an issue or point out a famous landmark, or point out that there’s only five minutes left to do something or… well, a lot of other things!  You can generally only point out abstract objects, though.

But you can’t point at a problem or a mistake because they are not concrete objects!  You can only point at a person or an animal or a thing or, sometimes, a place.

Some examples:

1. “It is rude to point out someone in Japan.” X This doesn’t make sense.

“It is rude to point at someone in Japan.” O

2. “I showed the teacher my homework and he pointed out my mistakes.” O In other words, my teacher showed me or told me my mistakes.

“I showed the teacher my homework and he pointed at my mistakes.” X This would seem strange. Why would a teacher just direct his finger at a mistake and nothing else?

3. “The tour guide pointed out all the famous tourist spots.” O This is a tour guide’s job!

“The tour guide pointed at all the famous tourist spots.” X This tour guide would be fired! As a tour guide, you need to do more than just direct your finger at famous tourist spots!

4. “They seemed very mad: they were pointing their fingers out to each other.” X This means they were explaining something about their fingers to each other. That doesn’t sound angry.

“They seemed very mad: they were pointing their fingers at each other.” O This makes sense: I can imagine two people directing fingers at each other when they’re angry.

2. Sentence Structure

  • Verb order
  • Negative sentences with two or more verbs

I’ve noticed a lot of Japanese people use the verb “think” a little strangely sometimes. One of the most common errors I hear is Japanese people putting “I think” at the end of a sentence instead of at the beginning. For example:

“He’s coming, I think.” X

“I did well on the test, I think.” X

In English, “think” is the main verb of those sentences and so it ought to be put in the beginning, like this:

I think he’s coming.” O

I think I did well on the test.” O

For example, in Japanese, you would end a sentence with “I said” or “I think”. In Japanese it’s fine to say:

1. それが難しいと思います


2. 行きたくないと言いました。

But in English, we’d say:

1. I think that’s hard.


2. He said he doesn’t want to go.


The other more common and slightly more confusing error is this: making the second verb – or the verb towards the end of the sentence – negative, instead of making the first verb – or the verb towards the beginning of the sentence – negative. Here are a couple of examples:

I think he’s not coming.” X

I think I didn’t do well on the test.” X

In the second case, it’s important to make the first verb in a sentence negative so that a native English speaker knows the sentence is negative as soon as possible. Otherwise, it’s a little confusing. In Japanese, on the other hand, the main verb comes at the end of the sentence, so you make that one negative:

1. 僕がよく頑張ったのを認めてもらわなかった

2. 二人がよくデートしてるからと言ってもカップルになるとは限らない

In English, however, we tend to make the first verb negative:

1. They didn’t acknowledge how hard I worked.

2. Just because they go out a lot that doesn’t mean they’re going to become a couple.

So let’s correct the previous examples:

“I think he’s not coming.” X

“I don’t think he’s coming.” O

“I think I didn’t do well on the test.” X

“I don’t think I did well on the test.” O

It’s pretty hard to get used to, but with a little practice, you’ll sound a little more like a native speaker!

In both cases, what you say is probably still comprehensible to native English speakers, but it’s more difficult to comprehend than the natural sentence structure and it may be confusing. In English, we expect the main verb to come at the beginning of the sentence. We also expect a negative sentence to start with a negative verb, not end with one.

So why does this happen?

Both are examples of a common problem among all language learners called negative language transfer. Negative language transfer is when a person uses the rules of his or her native language to speak a second language and this results in a mistake.

Many language rules transfer correctly to other languages. For example, all languages have verbs, nouns and adjectives. All languages have subjects, verbs and objects (but not all languages always use all of them!). However, as your English gets better, you’ll see more and more that you can’t always transfer every rule from Japanese to English. Most of the time, you’ll just make weird or confusing expressions, but sometimes you’ll say something completely wrong or even offensive! It’s always important to think “how would a native speaker say this?” instead of “how do I translate this Japanese into English?”

Hope that helps!  See you again next time!





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