Learning Vocabulary – Opposites

Students often ask me what is a good way to learn English vocabulary and it is a difficult question to answer. One suggestion I often make is to learn words in sets. For example for adjectives (形容詞) you can often learn an opposite (反対) word. In this way you can learn double the number of words and adjectives are always very useful for conversation.

Here are some common adjective pairs:

  • big – small
  • long – short
  • clean – dirty
  • hard – soft
  • wet – dry
  • fast – slow

You can sometimes also add the prefix (接頭辞) “un-” to adjectives to make an opposite, for example unintelligent (知力のない). Unintelligent is also softer than a more direct opposite word like stupid (ばかな).

On the other hand (他方では) you sometimes have to be a little careful when translating adjectives, as there are some differences between Japanese and English. For example the opposite pair of high and low in English is usually translated in Japanese as「高い」 and 「低い」. However, when we are talking about people’s height (背の高さ) , we translate 「背が高い」as tall and 「背が低い」as short.

Sometimes there are also cultural (文化的な) differences about what people think the best opposite for a word is. For example for Japanese people the opposite of 「甘い」is usually 「辛い」and so students sometimes think that in English the opposite of sweet is spicy. However in English we usually think the opposite for sweet is sour or bitter (but we might sometimes say salty too「塩辛い」).


Hinamatsuri is usually called Girls’ Day or the Doll Festival in English. It is celebrated each year by families to pray for the health (健康) and happiness (幸福) of young girls.

Hina-ningyo can be translated as ornamental dolls. They represent (象徴する) the imperial court from the Heian period (平安時代の宮廷).

We can introduce some of the traditional Hinamatsuri foods and drinks like this:

  • hina-arare – multi-coloured rice crackers
  • chirashizushi – raw fish and vegetables on rice
  • hishi mochi – multi-coloured, diamond-shaped rice cakes
  • amazake – sweet (non-alcoholic) sake

Snacks like arare and senbei are usually called rice crackers in English and sweets like mochi are called rice cakes.

As I mentioned in a previous post, it is OK to use the Japanese names for things like foods and traditional Japanese items. You can then try to explain what it is in a simple way. By doing this you can teach people the Japanese name and practice English at the same time.

Dates in English

Dates in English can be a little complicated (複雑). We write and say dates in different ways and there are also differences between British and American English.

In the UK we usually say the day first and then the month. In America they usually say month then day.

If we take today’s date as an example we can say:

  • (The) twenty-first of February
  • February twenty-first

When we write the date we can write:

  • 21st February or 21 February
  • February 21st or February 21

However when we say these dates aloud (声を出して) we still say “twenty-first“.

Months are always written with a capital letter (大文字):
February not february

When we abbreviate (省略) dates in writing we often add the last two letters of the full word to the number, for example:

  • first = 1st
  • second = 2nd
  • third = 3rd
  • fourth = 4th

A common mistake that students make is to write 2th, 21th etc., so be careful.

When we use dates in phrases we use “in” with months and “on” with dates.
For example:

  • My birthday is in November.
  • My birthday is on the third of November.

We can also write dates with just numbers, but the order (順番) is again different in British and American English so you must be careful. For example today’s date would be:

  • 21/2/2020 in British English
  • 2/21/2020 in American English
  • (and 2020/2/21 in Japan!)

We usually say the year as two numbers, for example we say 2020 as “twenty twenty“.

Explaining Your Culture

At the end of my last post I mentioned some phrases that you can use to introduce Japanese things when you don’t know the right word or can’t find a perfect translation in English.

I always tell my students that it is OK to use the Japanese word or name for things that you don’t know the name of in English (especially things like foods or things connected with Japanese culture). You can then try to explain what it is in a simple way.

You can start your explanation by saying something like:

  • It’s hard/difficult to explain, but… (説明しにくいですが…)
  • I don’t know what you would say in English, but… (英語で何と言うかわかりませんが…)

Here is a list of some more phrases you can use to help you in this situation:

  • …is a kind of… (…は…の一種です)
  • …is like/looks like… (…は…のようなもの/…のように見える)
  • …is a Japanese… (…は日本の…)
  • …is a traditional…(…は伝統的な…)
  • …is the Japanese equivalent of… (…は…の日本版/…に当たる日本語)

For example if someone asked you, “What is a zabuton?”, you could say, “I don’t know what you would say in English, but a zabuton looks like a flat cushion.”

Ogres, Demons and Devils

2 very different images of a Western ogre

In my last post I said that oni is often translated in English as an ogre, demon or devil. Personally I think that the closest translation is an ogre.

An ogre is a monster that appears in Western legends (伝説) and fairy tales (おとぎ話). It is like a giant, ugly man that likes to eat humans, especially children. Ogres in Western stories are almost always bad, but one exception is the popular character Shrek (though many people in the film think he is bad…).

If we call a person an ogre it means that they are cruel (残虐) or frightening (恐ろしい), like saying「鬼のような人」in Japanese (though we sometimes say it as a joke).

Though an ogre is probably the best word for an oni in a story, the words demon and devil are useful too and can sometimes have the same meaning as oni in other situations.

A demon is usually more like an evil spirit (悪霊、悪魔) and is often connected with religion (宗教) or magic (魔術). The word can also be used for people and sometimes even has a positive meaning, for example “He is a demon cook” (「彼は料理の鬼」).

A devil is also a kind of evil spirit or creature (悪魔、魔王)and is often connected with Christianity (クリスト教) and other religions. The word devil almost always has a negative meaning and is also sometimes used like the word oni in Japanese, for example “work like the devil” (鬼のように働く).

If you can’t find a perfect phrase in English for a Japanese word you can say something like, “It’s like a …” (「…の様なものです」) or “It’s a kind of …” (「…の一種です」). For example if someone asked you, “What is an oni?”, you could say, “It’s like an ogre” or “It’s a kind of monster”.


Setsubun can be explained in English as the day before the beginning of Spring in Japan or as a kind of New’s Year’s Eve for the old Lunar New Year (旧正月).

It is also sometimes described in English as the “Bean-Throwing (豆撒き) Festival” or “Bean-Throwing Ceremony”. The beans used for Setsubun are roasted soy beans (炒り豆).

An oni is a uniquely Japanese monster but is often translated in English as an ogre, demon or devil. The phrase「鬼は外! 福は内!」could be translated as, “Out with the demons! In with good fortune!”

You can see something a little similar to bean-throwing at a Western wedding when people sometimes throw rice over the newly married couple. However the meaning is very different, as in ancient times rice symbolized fertility (多産) and wealth (裕福).

Hopes and Goals

In my last blog post I talked about New Year’s resolutions (新年の抱負).
Recently I have been teaching my students some useful phrases for talking about future hopes and goals (希望と目標):

↓ I hope to…/I would like to…
↓ I want to…
↓ I am going to…/I plan to…
↓ I will…

Here are some example sentences:

  • I would like to go shopping this morning.
  • I hope to take a vacation this month.
  • I really want to finish my project today.
  • I am going to watch a movie this weekend.
  • I am planning to go to Osaka next week.
  • I will study hard this year.

For New Year’s resolutions the negative phrase (否定文) “I won’t…” (will not) is also useful. For example, “This year I won’t eat so much junk food”.

Happy New Year from Hankins English

I would like to wish everyone a belated (遅ればせながら) Happy New Year from Hankins English and welcome you to my new blog.

New Year in the UK

New Year’s Eve is not a public holiday (祝日) in the UK but many people have parties with their families at home in the evening or go drinking with their friends. Just before midnight people often sing the famous Scottish song “Auld Lang Syne” (「蛍の光」in Japan) . They also hug and kiss and wish each other a Happy New Year. Sometimes people set off fireworks as the New Year begins.

New Year’s Day is a public holiday and businesses and shops are usually closed. Most people stay at home and relax with their families.

New Year in the UK is not as big an event as it is in Japan but one thing that is the same is that people often make New Year’s resolutions (新年の抱負).

One of my resolutions was to start this blog. Here I will be introducing various topics including news about our school events, British and Japanese culture and also English learning advice.