An important part of learning any language is building your vocabulary, and Japanese is no exception.
There are many strategies for vocabulary building, ranging from rote memorization to attempts at learning new words “naturally” by listening to whole sentences.
All have their proponents and a balanced learning plan incorporates elements of multiple strategies.
It’s also a good idea to think about how often you’ll use a given word and how useful it will be as you move toward your personal language-learning goals.
One such useful word is 英語 (えいご), the English language.
What does 英語 (えいご) mean?
The word 英語 (えいご) is a noun that means “the English language.” The first character in this word, 英, means English or England, while the second, 語, means “language.” Put them together and you’ve got 英語, the English language. If you’re trying to pronounce this word in Japanese, it is romanized as “eigo,” which sounds like the ay in “away” followed by the English word “go.”
The parts of 英語
Like most Japanese words, 英語 is made up of multiple kanji, which are sort of like word-pictures derived from Chinese writing and adapted for Japanese words. Each kanji provides some meaning to the word as a whole as well as affecting how it is pronounced.
In this case, we have two kanji:
- 英 – “English”
- 語 – “language”
It’s worth noting that kanji often have multiple meanings depending on the word they are used within. 英, for example, is also used in words like “hero” and “outstanding.” Likewise, while 語 can be used to mean “word” and “speech,” in this particular context it definitely means “language.”
Taken together, then, 英語 simply means “the English language.”
How to write 英語 (えいご)
Words in Japanese can be written in numerous ways, and 英語 is no exception. The form used throughout this article, 英語, is described above, but it’s not the only option.
As you may already be aware, Japanese has three traditional writing systems. In addition to kanji, there are two distinct phonetic syllabaries or systems of writing where each character represents a specific sound.
Additionally, any Japanese word can be represented in the Roman alphabet we use when writing English.
Hiragana (ひらがな) is the syllabary used for Japanese words. There are normally specific reasons you will be using hiragana instead of kanji, but if you want to write 英語 in this syllabary it looks like this: えいご.
Katakana (カタカナ) is hiragana’s blocky cousin. Although it is normally reserved for foreign words and emphasis, you can write any word in it. 英語 is written out as エイゴ when using katakana.
The Japanese word for the Roman alphabet is romaji (ローマ字). Although romaji sometimes has spellings that can look plain wrong in English, and although there are some idiosyncrasies in its use that differ from place to place, 英語 is fortunately not one of these cases.
Written in romaji, the word is spelled as “eigo.”
Although each of the ways above is valid, it’s unlikely that you’ll see 英語 written as anything other than kanji unless you’re reading a children’s book or in some other special circumstance.
How to pronounce 英語 (えいご)
As any student of Japanese will tell you, pronunciation is a source of frustration while also being straightforward.
Japanese words are easy to pronounce because each combination of syllabary characters always makes the same sound.
This means you don’t need to worry as much as in English, where words like “rough” and “dough” are pronounced completely differently despite being spelled the same.
On the other hand, kanji usually have multiple pronunciations depending on whether they are used separately or in combination with other kanji.
Occasionally, the same kanji can have a different pronunciation in different words as well.
Ultimately, the best tip for pronouncing Japanese words is to learn how to write each new word in hiragana. For 英語, as we’ve already covered, this is えいご.
Each of these characters makes a distinct sound, technically called a “mora.”
- え - “eh,” as in the English word “elbow”
- い – “ee,” as in the English word “key”
- ご – “go,” just like the same word in English
Put these sounds together and you get eh-ee-go. Because vowel sounds in Japanese run into one another, the first two sounds combine to sound something like the “ay” in “away” or the “ey” in “hey.”
The short version is this word sounds a bit like “ey-go.”
Using 英語 (えいご) in a sentence
While it’s interesting to know the inner workings of a word, it’s also important to understand how to use 英語 in a sentence.
英語 is a noun, and will probably be the object of a verb unless you are describing some characteristic of the language itself or comparing it to other languages. Japanese is a subject-object-verb language, so 英語 will typically be solidly in the middle of a sentence or clause.
「私は英語が話しません。」 (わたし は えいご が はなしません)
This sentence is fairly straightforward. 私は is the subject (“I”) followed by the topic marker. Next up we have our featured word, 英語, followed by the particle が to show its relation to the subject.
Finally we have the negative form of the verb for “to speak,” 話しません.
Put it all together and we have a sentence that says, “I cannot speak English.”
「すみません、英語ができますか？」 (すみません えいご が できます か)
The first word in this sentence, すみません, means something like “excuse me,” and is a great way to politely get someone’s attention. Next up is the word 英語 followed by が again. As above, this means 英語 is the object. So where’s the subject?
In spoken Japanese, subjects are often implied and must be figured out by context. Since the verb at the end of the sentence できます, means “be able to do” and is followed by the question marker of か, we can guess that the implied subject is probably “you.”
That makes “Excuse me, can you speak English?” a good translation for this sentence. (Although できます means the literal translation is “Are you able to ‘do’ English?”, that sounds unnatural in English and the word is best understood as standing in for some more specific verb.)
「英語が大嫌い！」 (えいご が だいきらい)
This is another sentence with an implied subject and the phrase “英語が.” Since the last word, 大嫌い (だいきらい) means “hate,” we can imagine a frustrated elementary school student shouting “I hate English!”
Using 英語 while traveling in Japan
It’s no secret that many Japanese people are anxious about their ability to speak English.
If you can speak to them politely in Japanese first, however, many are willing to try. If you’re travelling and not sure how to ask for help in Japanese, try using the example sentence 「すみません、英語ができますか？」 as a way of breaking the ice.
Bonus: words for other languages
Because 語 is always used for languages, you can figure out language names if you know the name of a country in Japanese.
フランス語 – フランス means France, so フランス語 is the word for the French language.
日本語 – 日本 (にほん) is Japan, making 日本語 the word for the Japanese language.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.