How these English-speaking teachers are transforming Japan’s vocabulary

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

“There’s one word I can’t use,” said Marcelo Ashihara , 47, a British tutor from Manchester. “The one word not used in Japan is hyperbole.”

This was a problem Ashihara had known for some time. “I didn’t have enough of it, and it showed,” he said. “It was sort of fading away.”

The issue, he and his friend Vincent Khabra, 48, discovered, was how to translate “hyperbole.” The term is used to describe an exaggeration — an overstatement of a point or story — and is used in English as a legitimate tool to make a point to someone who might not understand it in their language.

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“It allows me to explain to people I think, ‘You need to hear this,’ ” said Ashihara.

Other frequently used phrases used in English to describe hyperbole include — “isn’t it beautiful?” “is this it?” and “looks like.”

In Japan, like in many countries around the world, hyperbole isn’t interpreted as a compliment, making it difficult to translate into Japanese.

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“To many Japanese people, hyperbole is not a viable language. They actually find hyperbole strange,” said Ashihara.

His parents live in Japan, but he preferred to keep his language skills in the family. So he had to make some adjustments as a result. “I thought I’d learn some to translate a few of the words that I’d heard a lot of but couldn’t really explain,” he said.

That was something he struggled with with Khabra, too. And then there were the “hyperbole” posts that they would write on their own. “In Japan, if you feel a little like this person you’re very polite and don’t tell them to be arrogant, don’t insult them. That’s the appropriate way to be,” Ashihara said.

The pair eventually came up with a tagline: “Hyperbole Isn’t Surreal.” But the full version of the tagline — which is why it’s now on currency in Japan — is a variation of the original: “Forget Your Imagination. Let Your Imagination Do The Work.”

They are among the less than 10,000 English language teachers in Japan, a country with 180 million people. One in five are foreigners, according to a recent government report, which estimates that 11.5 million Japanese are bilingual.

While Ashihara and Khabra do not expect their English tutor business to be lucrative, they are treating it as an investment in the language and a way to help themselves learn the Japanese language.

“I’ve been learning Japanese for 19 years and have only really grasped two phrases of what people in Japan say,” said Khabra.

But he has plans to make English speak like Japanese. “In the future, I would love to become fluent in as many of these words as possible because it’s just kind of boring to learn 100 things,” he said.

Ashihara recently returned from his Japanese lesson. In the end, he was able to get all the words right, but he still had to stop sometimes, picking up hand sanitizer when he got carried away. “I’d rather not learn the words,” he said.

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