A discussion on problems students face with the common Japanese verbs もらう、くれる, and あげる (translated from a textbook)

By | March 29, 2016

Recently I posted a review of the book “Teaching methods based on student native language, English edition” by Kazuko Nakagawa, which provided some important insights on mistakes English-speakers typically make when learning Japanese. I wanted to translate at least a short portion of this book to give a feel what the content is like, and also to help round out my experience translating various styles of Japanese.

I chose pages 39-40 of the book, which is part of the chapter “日本語と英語の違いからの問題” (Problems stemming from differences between Japanese and English). This short section starts off with an example of incorrect Japanese spoken by a student, and proceeds to discuss about how to correct it, and what this type of mistake indicates about how best to teach the common Japanese words “あげる”、”もらう”、and “くれる”. I can really empathize with this since I had difficulty understanding these words myself when I first learned of them.

In this section I left most of the examples in Japanese in their original untranslated form, since converting them to English wouldn’t make sense. Words in Katakana (i.e. アゲマシタ) are used for emphasis (similar to italics in English), and I have left these as they were in the original text.



Section 13: [お金をおとしました。友達はお金をアゲマシタ] 

Both “あげる”  and “くれる”  are expressed in English using “to give”.


Judging from the above passage, it is not possible to determine who has dropped the money and who has received it. What is known is that the speaker or someone else has dropped money, and a friend has given money to someone other than the speaker. Trying to force a certain interpretation does not yield anything concrete. But what if the final verb was changed from “アゲマシタ” to “クレマシタ”? By swapping this single word, it becomes very clear what the student was trying to express.

While both “あげます” and “くれます” refer to the same fundamental action or act, the direction of that differs (whether it is towards the speaker or away from the speaker). In English, there is emphasis on the action itself, and “to give” can be used regardless of who is on the receiving side of the act. Even though students whose native language is English may have a logical, academic understanding of the differences between these two Japanese verbs, in practice they frequently mistakes such as the one seen above.

Furthermore, when the verb “もらう” is introduced with a first-person subject, students can become even more confused because of the similarity between “もらう” and “くれる” . This can be seen by the fact that “田中さんは(私に)本をくれた”and  “(私は)田中さんに本をもらった“ technically express the same action. However, “くれる” has the nuance that the action of “田中さん” was done actively and with good intentions, irrespective of the will of “私”, whereas conversely “もらう” has the passive nuance that “田中さん” is responding favorably to the will of “私”. It appears that foreigners, especially European students, have an affinity to “くれる” because it is easier than “もらう” for them to use. It seems that to them, sentences of the form “Someone performed an action” more clearly specify the situation as compared to sentences of the form “An action was done for someone as a result of another person”, and as a result they prefer to use the former type of construction. This preference is also related to a way of thinking inherent to English speakers.

As we have seen, the relationship between the words “あげる”, “くれる”, and “もらう” can be quite complex, so it will most likely take students some time to fully comprehend them if all three are taught at once. One option is for the teacher to break up these words into two opposing groups (“あげる” vs. “くれる” and “あげる” vs.“もらう”) and introduce each of these groups separately, or to initially introduce only “あげる” and “もらう” with a first person subject (“私”). If all three words are introduced at once, a diagram should be shown which clarifies and visualizes the relationship of these words. Placing an emphasis on how the relevant particles (は,を, に, etc.) change with respect to the verb, doer, and receiver of the action, will also help students understand sentences containing these three words.


Translators note

While replacing ”あげました” with “くれました” yields a passage which makes sense (“お金をおとしました。友達はお金をくれました”), it still has the awkward nuance of a beginning Japanese student. A more natural sentence would be as follows:

  • 僕はお金を落としましたが、友達がお金を拾ってくれました。


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