Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Playing around

I noticed that Dumb Otaku wrote up a post today about the use of the Japanese word 遊ぶ (asobu). He writes:

The word for “play” in Japanese does not necessarily have the same context in Japanese as it does in English.
In English when we think play we think, in general, we think games or sports. From tennis and golf to video games or mind games.
The word 遊ぶ (あそぶ) can mean up to three main things.
  • to play
  • to spend time pleasantly
  • to pay a social visit

I'm not going to rehash what he's written - if you're interested in examples for his three categorizations, you can pop over to his site and have a look. What I did want t add, though, is something that has become one of my language education-related pet peeves.

Whenever I ask my students about their winter/summer/spring vacation or what they did over a long weekend, I inevitably get: "I played with my friend." This is where I try in vain to teach them to use the expression "hang out." "I hung out with my friend," I tell them. They rarely remember. But you can hardly blame them - the textbooks always translate 遊ぶ as "play." I'm sure there are people who will tell you that "hang out" is not proper English, but do you know of any teenagers or adults that get together to "play?" Whenever I have the opportunity, I try to explain that "play" is used mostly just for children in this context and "hang out" is for anyone who's not a child.

But alas, just as sure as the automatic Japanese reply to "How are you?" will always be "Fine, thank you. And you?" I don't see this play/hang out confusion getting better any time soon.


  1. I like this post is a good compliment to mine.

    I think you hit one part that I didn't expand upon very much.

  2. Thanks for having a look. It's certainly an interesting topic (to those of us studying Japanese, anyway).

  3. I think (I am not a Japanese speaker) that we run into this in the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzuyima anime/book. In the anime they say "meet [aliens] and play with them", In the book, it's 'hang out'.

  4. Ah, good pick-up. Yeah, that seems to happen with anime translations sometimes - there are certain phrases that tend to get translated the same way regardless of whether or not it sounds goods.

  5. I've made a point to teach "hang out" to every class I teach. As far as proper English goes, I'd probably say "spend time with" is a good translation.