Common Grammatical Errors made by Foreign Learners of English

Japanese English ClassCommon grammatical errors that foreigners make

If you’re an English teacher in Japan, you probably expect to have hardworking, diligent Japanese students paying rapt attention to your lessons. However, even with all of your hard work, there are some aspects of English grammar that your students will inevitably get wrong.

Here are just a few grammar mistakes that, in general, you’ll see in your English classroom in Japan.

1. Much vs. Many

One aspect of English that the Japanese do not have is the idea of uncountable vs. countable, especially with descriptors. In Japanese, the word “たくさん” (pronounced takusan) is commonly used for – much and many. Put into an English sentence, it would look like “Wow! That’s takusan rain!” or “Wow! that’s takusan apples!”

While in English, we use “much” to describe uncountable items, and “many” to describe countable ones. Probably, your Japanese student will want to say “Wow! That’s many rain!” or “that’s much apples!” Make sure to nip this one in the bud to get them heading in the right direction.

2. Idioms

It’s raining cats and dogs

Read that last sentence again; now imagine explaining that to a Japanese speaker. Even with Japanese having some idioms, they will rarely be translated and used the same way. It is said that there are over 25,000 idioms in the English language, with a large number of them being used daily either in conversation, news, movies, music, or television.

Your students will want to use the ones they’ve learned, in order to sound more like a native speaker, but when they talk about how its “raining dogs and cats” you’ll start to see how difficult it is to get them to remember the correct order (cats and dogs).

3. -Ed vs. –Ing

The first few times you hear your student say, “I am exciting!” or “That movie was very bored,” you might think its kind of cute, in a funny sort of way. But after getting these –ed and ing endings wrong time after time, you start to see their need to understand the difference.

Simply put, -ed is typically used for people and animals, while –ing is used for objects and situations. Once your student can say, “I am excited!” and “That movie was very boring,” you know that you’ve done your job well.

4. Prepositions

Why do we get in the car but on the bus? Why are we born in January but on Friday?

While prepositions are difficult for any non-native English learner, the Japanese will have particular trouble with them as they don’t have prepositions in their language at all. At least Spanish and French have and use them in a generally similar way; but in Japanese, there are particles instead.

So, while your Japanese student may never fully grasp the use of prepositions, taking a lot of time to correct and teach this is very important. You don’t want your student to tell people that they’re “on” Starbucks. Be sure they know saying incorrect phrases like this would make others question their sanity.

5. Expecting to sound like a native speaker

As great as this sounds, the truth of the matter is that a very small percentage of non-native speakers will end up sounding like a native English speaker. This seems to be the goal of all Japanese English learners, and unfortunately, their expectations are often set too high. This could be for a number of reasons, such as keeping the flat-lined Japanese rhythm when speaking rather than the flowing, lyrical sounds of English.

Or, they could be so focused on making their grammar flawless that they forget that native speakers rarely speak perfect English. One of the most common errors in listening is not realizing the concept of connected speech.

On paper, the sentence may read, “I am going to go the store to get a melon flavored drink.” In reality, though, it may sound like “I’m gonna go ta the store togeta melon flavoredrink.” when spoken. Native speakers like to connect consonants and link words such as changing “going to” to “gonna.” This concept makes no sense to someone whose native language is based on syllables, like Japanese.

Even though Japanese ESL students may never learn to get rid of their strong accent or remember if it’s “much” or “many” they should choose, helping them through their mistakes as a teacher is more rewarding than you can imagine. If you take time to realize and correct these common mistakes, your students will always thank you.

Grammar resources for teachers and students

Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar: A comprehensive grammar book is invaluable to learning for English second language students.  It is not enough to learn vocabulary and phrases; it is crucial to be able to put words into the correct order for sentences.  The topics covered in this book will help with understanding word order and grammar.  As well as a self-study guide, this book can also be used in a classroom situation. understanding English Grammar
Grammarly: takes the guesswork out of great writing. Check your emails, documents, essays, and more. Eliminate grammar errors. Easily improve any text. Services: Advanced Grammar Rules, Contextual Spell Checker, Vocabulary Enhancement, Plagiarism Checker, Corrects Writing Mistakes. Grammarly logo
English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy: is like the bible of grammar for students who already have an extensive vocabulary and want to improve grammar.  This book can be a self-study guide or for use in the classroom. English Grammar in Use
The Blue book of Grammar and punctuation: provides an easy to use guide with clear rules, real-world examples, and reproducible quizzes. thebluebookofgrammar


Lan Luu


  1. Hi there
    I love learning something new, I knew how difficult it was to learn the English language (I think it’s ranked as one of the hardest), but I was unaware of WHY it was hard, now I know WHY it’s so hard for Japanese. Amazing.
    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge
    Kind Wishes

    • Thanks Daisy

      Please keep on checking the site. I am continually updating the content.

  2. Hi, I’m so glad I read this post. It was interesting to read, because I am a teacher in a bilingual junior high school in Mexico and I deal with the same grammatical errors. Although most of our students have a high English level, they also confuse much and many. In Spanish they say mucho in singular and muchos in plural, but they still have a hard time differentiating between much and many. Prepositions are difficult too. Sometimes, when a student is late for class, I ask my students, “hey, where is Pepe?” (just inventing a name here) and someone tells me “he’s in the lockers.” Then I act all surprised and ask “In the locker? Oh my God! How does he fit in there? Do you think he needs help to get out?” I always get laughter in response and then they correct themselves. It is funny, and cute in a way 😉
    So, I get it. I’m afraid this is a problem for many non-native speakers.

    • Thank you for your insightful comments Christine. I am learning Spanish, I can understand the problems with pluralization.

  3. Wow! Awesome article! I learned a lot! How long does it usually take a student to become fluent in English? Is it the same amount of time that English students learn another language?

    Your article was awesome and captivating. Thank you!

  4. These are great tips to help pinpoint common problems for those native Japanese speakers that have 95% proficiency with the language, but need that last little bit of help to sound like a native English speaker. The list is direct and actionable and very helpful. Thanks for putting together this list of common mistakes to help out!!

  5. This is a great resource, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

    My wife and father-in-law are both linguists, and both teach English to non-native speakers for a living. My wife, in particular, works with a company called VIPKid teaching young Chinese students. Do you know if many of these grammatical errors are also commonly challenging for Chinese students?

    I’m especially interested in the books that you recommend. Where is the best place to buy some of these? Thanks! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *