Easily mistaken Japanese word: 病院 (byouin)

By | March 23, 2015

As we all know, one of the best ways to learn a foreign language is immerse yourself in an environment where it is beneficial, even necessary to communicate in that language. One of the pitfalls of this type of situation is that there is always the chance of miscommunication, either because you make a mistake when speaking or because you misunderstood what is said.

Even though I live in the US, I am fortunate enough to use Japanese for the greater part of communication within my immediate family, so occasionally I have these such misunderstandings. One memorable example involves the word 病院 (pronounced “byouin”), and I’d like to briefly tell that story here.

I don’t remember the exact details, but in some conversation the phrase “病院にいく?” (Should we go to the ‘byouin’?)  came up. I had learned this word meant ‘hospital’ in one of the first textbooks I studied from, so I interpreted this as meaning “Should we go to the hospital?” I of course reacted to this as I felt appropriate, by becoming concerned about this sickness/condition which was serious enough to go to the hospital.

What followed was a confusing conversation, but by the end I realized I had misunderstood what was being said. I later looked this up in a dictionary and confirmed my mistake: the word 病院 not only meant ‘hospital’, as in a large facility where serious illness are treated, but also a smaller scale ‘clinic’ or ‘doctor’s office’, where things were decidedly less serious. I also learned that 診療所 (‘shinryoujo’) was a word that more specifically described the latter smaller-scale places.

As it turns out, there is actually a second way that the word 病院 can be confused. It’s with the word 美容院, which is pronounced ‘biyouin’, and means something like a beauty parlor or hairdresser. If you are new to Japanese you might get confused on these two words, which at first seem nearly identical. The trick here is to remember that typically each letter is sounded metronomically, with an even beat. Reading the word in romaji (i.e. “biyouin”) makes things even worse since it isn’t always clear where each letter begins. (Yet another reason to learn hiragana as soon as possible!).

If we spell out these two words letter by letter we can see the difference:

  • 病院 (hospital):           BYO – U    – IN
  • 美容院 (hairdresser): BI     – YO  – U   – IN

In ‘hospital’, the ‘byo’ is a single syllable, whereas in ‘hairdresser’ the ‘bi’ and ‘yo’ are separate syllables

With enough time all of these misunderstandings will get worked out naturally, but until then it’s best to try and keep calm and verify what is being said before over-reacting (:



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