Four of my Japanese teachers are, as you would expect, Japanese, and they all speak English fluently. But now and then, there will of course be slip ups: I often see small grammatical errors in one sensei's handouts. They don't affect the quality of the communication, but is it appropriate to point out these errors to the sensei?

I know that if I were in Japan, I would always want for native speakers to correct me if I made a mistake; more so in the written form. However, this particular sensei has been at my uni for something like 20 years, and her English is perfect in all other regards; I wonder if it wouldn't be a little insulting to point out otherwise negligible written/spoken errors. Nonetheless, I'd like to know what some teachers think.

EDIT: When I say my sensei's English is perfect, I mean that she is able to communicate effectively, not that her speech or writing are free from grammatical errors. Like any non-native speaker who hasn't learned from a very young age, she will sometimes say or write things that sound jarring in English grammar.

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    Funny that, in asking a question about correcting written English, I made a typo and forgot a question mark.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 13:26
  • You can ask the professor through a hypothetical scenario, possibly. Ask them if it is appropriate for you to correct John's English if he writes something wrong. In Chinese culture, criticism is okay as long as its in private (i.e. saving face so as not to embarrass the person in front of a group).
    – Compass
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 15:51
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    Mind your subjunctive mood: "I know that if I were in Japan...." (Nobody's perfect.)
    – Keen
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:07
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    There's only one rule: ask! I've been in many countries and speaking many languages, and I haven't really noticed any cultural or national trends. Individuals differ wildly. Some highly appreciate being corrected (I'm one of them), some take great offense. I always ask people before I correct them. If they seem genuinely appreciative about it, I keep correcting them. If I sense differently, I don't do it again.
    – Sverre
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 18:10
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    I guess, like others have said, it depends on the person. As a foreign language learner, I want to be corrected when speaking in the language I'm learning. Ditto Japanese students I've talked to who are learning English. But I'm also a noob in my first year, not someone who's spoken the language fluently for a couple decades. So I can appreciate that a sensei is not a person to correct lightly.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 23:08

10 Answers 10


It depends on how much interest she has expressed in being corrected or trying to improve and how close your relationship with her is. Any corrections should be generally mentioned to her respectfully and in some form of one-on-one conversation.

If she has asked in class for mistakes to be pointed out, then I would not hesitate to offer the occasional correction. Frequent corrections are probably not welcome.

If she has not expressed interest in being corrected, I would only mention corrections if the mistake could potentially lead to misunderstandings either in message tone or content.

A gray area might be if the mistake is in formal communication (e.g. grant applications) and you work closely with her. In that case, use your own judgement.


In Japan, correcting a teacher's mistake is pretty unwelcome and humiliating. Several visiting professors from Japan are complaining that American students are very impolite: they ask questions. Serious. Even asking a teacher a question is an insult (they feel like they are being tested or mocked). Since your teachers are not visiting ones, but people who have lived for years in the country, I assume they are far less sensitive to American ways of teaching and communication and more open to being corrected. However it is hard to guess, and potentially it can hurt an otherwise good relationship.

So if your teacher has indicated that he/she wants to improve his/her English, feel free to help. Otherwise I would let it go. If you really think it is necessary, try to do it as indirectly as possible like during a short chat when you ask him/her how he/she learned such good English. Some praise always helps. If the answer is that people helped by correcting and teaching, then you can spin the topic into the direction if he/she needs any help in proofreading. Good luck.


You say that her English is perfect in all other regards. There may be grammatical errors in the handouts because they are written in a tight schedule and she has different priorities (e.g. writing papers, grant proposals, etc.)

The point for me is: do you think those errors are due to some lack of knowledge about English or just lack of time? Do you think she could spot those errors by herself if she cared and could find the time for that? For how many years are the handouts going to be re-used?

That makes the difference, IMHO.

On the one hand, if this is all due to lack of knowledge about English, then providing this knowledge would be welcome.

On the other hand, if this is because she doesn't care and/or doesn't have the time for that then pointing at it and forcing (or suggesting) her to spend time and take care of that is going to be perceived negatively.

  • 1
    +1 for the reuse aspect. If it's a script or handout which is going to be used again (if you don't know, just ask or compare with a student from last years class), it's worth making a list of the typos and giving it to her at the end of term. Then she can decide whether she wants to spend time on it when she prepares for the next round, which I presume will be during a less busier time than in the middle of classes. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 18:03
  • She's the head of department, so she's busy. I was hyperbolising with 'perfect', but she's fluent such that mistakes have never caused a serious problem or miscommunication. AFAIK the handouts aren't reused, but I'll check.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 0:27

The teacher has been there twenty years now, which is plenty of time to learn a language. She is a teacher at a university, communicating in English. Her English "is perfect in all other regards", and these are "otherwise negligible written/spoken errors".

At this point, I think you should forget that she is Japanese, forget that she had to learn English as a foreign language. She's way past that point. It's insulting to consider her as someone who is learning English. Native speakers aren't perfect either.

So the question becomes -- would you correct a teacher if "now and then, there will of course be slip ups", if they were a native speaker?

I feel you wouldn't, based on how you describe the mistakes.

  • This should be the correct answer. 2 decades is a long time; this person is likely just using the English they are comfortable with. Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 12:59

It sounds like no, and this has nothing to do with Japanese culture.

Why would you correct someone's grammar?

  1. You both want the communication to be formally correct. This would apply if your teacher wrote an honor code you needed to sign, and it frequently applies between grammar nerds who get some enjoyment out of using "less" and "fewer" correctly.
  2. You fear the communication may be misunderstood. From your question, it sounds like you're not talking about this case.
  3. You think they want you to correct them so they can learn. For a 20 years' experience teacher, this fails the "common sense" test. He or she is communicating fine (and very successfully) with small "mistakes", everyone knows what they mean, no one cares. Yes, I do think it is rude to decide for your teacher that they are "working on" English. That's not how learning language really works; at some point you have your accent and your mistakes and that's how you talk and essentially your dialect. You don't correct a French speakers' pronunciation do you? No, it's their accent.

So... no, don't do it, generally.


I would say it is more polite to ask first if your teacher is fine with being corrected. After all, we do not know who is gonna be offended by this seemingly "unoffendable" thing.

I have met a native English speaker, who asked me if I am okay if she corrects my English so as to make my English more natural. Frankly, though I do not care that, I appreciate her asking before acting.

To me, it is a general etiquette to ask before act. Indeed, you can only win the recipient's respect if asking first.


Different cultures look at such corrections in different ways. I won't pretend to understand all of them, and I know I'm misunderstanding some, but tread carefully.

In some cultures (though not Japanese culture, I think) corrections in public can be considered humiliating. Say what you want in the privacy of an office, one on one, but not in a group of people. In some cultures, what an elder has to say carries much weight, and correction from a younger person must be handled delicately.

In other cultures, politeness is key, and some things can just be considered rude that an American would never imagine to be so. It took me some time interacting with students before I realized that the answer to yes/no questions is yes, because no is rude, and I think that putting someone in a situation where they have to say no might be rude too. I find that avoiding yes/no questions in situations like this helps. For example, the answer to "can you do this?" is "yes", but the answer to "How well will this come out if you do this?" might be "it might not work at all"!!

I imagine that a sensei who has been teaching language for decades is used to just about every interaction there is. If you're interested in Japanese, though, I'd approach this as an opportunity to learn about cultural sensitivities. Approach your teacher with this, explain that you understand that there are different sensitivities with respect professional interaction, lay out the issue, and ask how this would be handled in Japanese Culture.

Japanese experience is TREMENDOUSLY VALUABLE in the worlds of business and technology. The more you learn, the more valuable you become.

  • I've talked to several Japanese students, and by and large their attitude has been 'Please correct me at any point'. But a sensei is a different kettle of fish. So the transparent approach is a good idea.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 18:26

No, it is not appropriate and additionally not a good use of class time.

  • If you could not understand what your instructor said, ask for clarification.

  • If you can offer the instructor a correction, then you probably understood what they said, and therefore, you do not need to waste your class time and the time of your classmates on corrections.

  • Be aware that error correction is not as simple as you may think. It is unlikely that the teacher would benefit from having a student correcting them in such a setting. If your goal is to improve the class sessions, you are not going to notice a significant improvement in your instructor's overall English ability, as a result of your corrections, unless they are only using a very tiny range of language during your lessons.


Directly confronting a teacher infront of others can be seen as an attack.
I would advise against this especially towards people with a Japanese background because in Japanese culture showing conflicting opinions is generally regarded as rude and is so implied in a very polite way instead. Also, respect is important so correcting a teacher might be seen as attacking the authority of the teacher.

Confronting the teacher in private might be a better alternative as long as the teacher is open to this, it is done so in a polite way and is not done too often to annoy the teacher.

Indirectly correcting the teacher by bringing up the correct way to say the thing the teacher made a mistake with is also possible.
If doing so, I would advise to not bring up the mistakes, instead only the corrections, and not too often as it could be seen as condescending.
However, this can be a better way when cultural differences mean that being conflicting is taboo.

In any case, it is best to be polite and careful about what you say.
As a side note, the Japanese and English languages are very different(much more than just vocabulary) and I can say from experience that going from one to the other is a big hurdle. Even if you do succeed in getting the point accross they might still make the same mistake because it is awkward to them and hard to get used to. Pointing out a mistake that can be easily corrected generally won't be taken negatively because it is of benefit, but pointing out a mistake that won't might just cause annoyance and so should be proceeded carefully.

  • Unrelated, but I would pronounce 'ball' in Japanese as booru (ボイル). But yeah, this situation is never going to pan out. When we talk in lessons, we talk about what we're told to talk about, and it's not as if the senseis join as at the pub every evening or eat at the next table in the tea shop. Would be a nice idea in a school environment.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 0:53
  • @LeoKing actually, it is ボール.
    – ddiez
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 0:58
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    Genuinely what I meant to type. Writing kata on my phone is a pain ._.
    – Lou
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 1:00
  • @LeoKing no worries. Also, the poster probably mean "baleh" as "volley" or バレー (volleyball is written バレーボール).
    – ddiez
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 1:04
  • As stated by ddiez I am talking about the translation of volley ball in Japanese which is pretty much the same as ballet. This word is not of Japanese origin and words not of Japanese or Chinese origin are often regarded as English so is a typical example of where confusion may and does occur. Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 1:36

In your class, will you lose points on an assignment for grammatical and spelling errors? If so, then you are not being rude by pointing out these mistakes. My advice is to mention these errors one-on-one – absolutely not in front of another student, and show as much respect and humility as possible. You don't want to embarrass your teacher.

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    You lose points because they are grading you. This doesn't give you the same right to mark points on them.
    – user18072
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 16:39
  • First of all, the down votes are ridiculous. I was an academic advisor at a university. In my years working there, I never once heard a professor say that they were upset because someone corrected mistakes on a handout, presentation, or exam. It's all about professionalism. The professors I worked with, were true professionals. Some were not native English speakers. Nevertheless, they did not allow their native culture to interfere with their classes. They knew they were here in the U.S. and ajusted accordingly. I had several ask me cultural questions, so I know this first-hand.
    – gdeck
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:46
  • @djechlin. I respectfully disagree. Education is a two way process. Of course, students are there to learn from professors. However, professors are not infallible. They too learn from their students, as learning is a lifelong endeavor.
    – gdeck
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 15:23
  • The downvotes are because your logic is wrong, first and foremost. If I have a candy bar and buy another candy bar, and take it from the vendor, the vendor does not get to take my candy bar. That is the thrust of your argument.
    – user18072
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 15:30
  • Secondly we're talking about a Japanese teacher with 20 years seniority. Do you want the student to just keep a weekly tally of mistakes and have a 1/1 to discuss them? Nobody learns a foreign language perfectly as an adult. It's nonsense to say that the fact that you are trying to learn a foreign language entitles you to correct anyone else's imperfect English.
    – user18072
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 15:31

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