話せなくならない... means "I can't speak"?

So a quick explanation. I came across this grammar usage in the sentence この和英辞典がないと、英語が話せなくならなかったでしょう。and I was a little confused. I can understand that the second clause would translate to I would never have been able to speak English, but since the negative conditional form is being negated… I am confused.

The phrase 話さなくなる… would mean stop speaking, or to fall silent.
The phrase 話せなくなる… would mean to become unable to speak.

Hence my confusion here. I ran this sentence through a bunch of translation algorithms to check, and they all came back that the double negative still had a negative meaning.
この和英辞典がないと、英語が話せなくならなかったでしょう。and この和英辞典がないと、英語が話せなくなったでしょう。seem to come up with the exact same translation.

Is there an inherent flaw in the translation algorithms that is causing this? (I really tried a ton of variation and they are all coming up this way)
Or am I missing something fundamental?

Can someone please help me?


So, my wife (who is Japanese) finally got home, and gave me a really good answer for this.

The problem is that it is basically improper Japanese to begin with. She said even Japanese people would stop and think “wait… can you or can’t you”.

It would be pretty much the same as someone saying “I can’t do nothing” in English. You would stop and think “Can you not do anything, or do you have to do something?”

Sorry if my question caused anyone else to start scratching their heads.


I’ll admit I was quite confused when I read the sentence. “Am I insane or am I bad at Japanese?” :slight_smile:

Isn’t “I can’t do nothing” perfectly fine English though? You’re saying that you have to do something, doing nothing would be impossible (such as the feeling that you HAVE to help someone, you have no choice in the matter so you can’t sit by and do nothing).


Where’d you get that sentence from?

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My elementary school English teacher would have a fit about those double negatives.

Yeah, I’d say it’s the equivalent of:

I can’t not speak English.

You get the gist but it’s a bit of a head scratcher. :wink:


What about “I ain’t done nothing” and “I could care less”? :wink:


That last one is a common misconception. It should be, “I couldn’t care less.” :wink:


Oh, I know, I just meant if it would drive them insane as well. :smiley:


It was from readthekanji.com. I use it for some quick sentence based kanji reading exercises, been using it forever, and I have a “special” account because I helped during beta testing. It was a confounding example sentence I was given. The kanji was easy enough, but the sentence grammar was just driving me nuts.

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If you said “I could care less” out of context, I would certainly treat you as saying that you really could care less than you do.

However, “I ain’t done nothing” is more dialectal - where one should actually treat it as if you hadn’t done anything (single negative)

When someone says, “I can’t do nothing,” they are really saying, “I can’t do anything,” so the meaning is different than its literal construction. It’s a colloquialism.

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Did she have an interpretation for what it might mean in the end? Because while I could be wrong, the double negative aside, I felt like there was something with using 〜がないと like that with the past tense, and that made it even more impossible for me to parse. Perhaps I’m just not used to it, but I was definitely wondering why ~がなかったら wasn’t there instead.

EDIT: OK, no, there’s also the sequential event structure with 〜と that expresses what happened right after another event, like ‘when I was doing A, B happened’, so perhaps it’s not wrong to have the past tense afterwards. Unless… IDK, maybe I was looking for a conditional structure? Because the sentence felt like it was supposed to mean ‘if I didn’t have this English-Japanese dictionary, I would probably have become unable to speak English’, and I don’t think hypothetical situations involving what could have happened in the past, but didn’t actually happen (which we handle in English with ‘if + past tense/subjunctive’ like ‘if I were’ or ‘if I had seen’) can be expressed with the 〜と conditional structure.

“without an e-j dict, you wouldn’t have lost your ability to speak.”

yeah, it’s bullshit, but it’s an example sentence on a kanji site, right? maybe whoever wrote it was distracted.

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I think “I could care less” is really supposed to be “I couldn’t care less”, but over time people have gotten lazy with diction?

“I can’t do nothing” sounds terrible to an educated English speaker, its something a small child might say. Native English speaking adults who say this just sound uneducated. Double negatives in English always sound bad, unless they are used in jest (would be known from context): “We don’t need no education” - Pink Floyd

Nice cherry pick. I stand by my opinion that when people say “I can’t do nothing”
when they mean they “I can’t do anything,” just sounds bad, and that applies to most double negatives.

Also, ain’t ain’t a word, said this pucker faced grammarian. :slight_smile:

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Hey Jonapedia,

~すると/~ないと (and other permutations of this grammar) can indeed be used for sequential events, but also in ways that we use the conditional. Japanese does not make such a strict separation of conditional and sequential forms.したら/しなかったら can also be used for the meaning of a sequential event (similar to “when” in English). Think of ~と as being more of a statement that something naturally or obviously will follow from the action. 寝坊すると、仕事に遅れる。(If you oversleep, you will (naturally) be late for work.)

I’ve been learning to speak Japanese for over 10 years because I live in Japan, but I have spent that whole time neglecting my kanji, lol. I am fluent in daily conversation, but functionally illiterate. That’s why I started wanikani. It’s the first kanji study system I could actually stick to.

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Yup, this lines up with what I’ve read so far. I was just musing about saying stuff like ‘it would have been good if he hadn’t been there’, which I think would be 「彼がいなかったらよかった」, since it seemed the sentence was meant to mean ‘if this dictionary didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to speak English’.

Is it possible to get by without knowing many kanji in Japan? Hahaha. I’m pretty amazed. You’ve been there for over 10 years? Wow!

Do you mind if I ask how you ended up living in Japan? I can’t imagine living somewhere without being at least functionally fluent in the local language before arrival. I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it. (I’m making assumptions here, of course. Perhaps you had already started learning Japanese at the time.) I’m considering studying and maybe even working in Japan at some point, but I have no idea what it’s like to live there.

Hey Jonapedia,

I came over here to work as an English teacher. It’s actually pretty common to come over for that job without speaking Japanese. You don’t need Japanese for the job, and the companies that recruit overseas kind of take care of all the essentials for you, apartment contract, visa paperwork, etc. If you end up in a small town it can be a little tough at first, as there won’t be many people who can speak English, but there should be at least a couple at the school you can lean on at first. If it’s a big city, there are close knit foreigner communities and English is the lingua franca in them. Gaijin bars, gaijin restaurants, clubs, etc. Some of the people in the big cities never even bother learning anything beyond survival Japanese, though I do not recommend that. Seems a waste to come over here and not be able to fully immerse.

As far as daily life, most of Japan is fully modern, and you can adjust to the small differences pretty well. Tons of tiny things will temporarily confound you at first, but most people can adjust quickly. Homesickness and alienation can be a problem for some. And going from being a local to an outsider can also be a shock. But considering you already have an interest, and are already learning the language, I think you should be ahead of the curve for new arrivals if you choose to come.

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Mhm. I quite agree. Besides, without speaking the local language, you’ll never fully discover the culture, both in terms of the richness and complexity it has to offer, and in terms of what you like and dislike. (This goes for any country, not just Japan.)

I’m currently living and studying in France as a foreign student, so it won’t be my first time living overseas if I decide to head to Japan. I also think I know what you mean about being an outsider: even though I was fluent in French before I arrived, and I currently have quite a few French friends, there were quite a number of things that I didn’t expect that shocked me initially. I’ve had to get used to how French people do things. Moving to Japan will probably just mean that I’ll have to go through the same process, albeit with different cultural norms. I’m from Singapore though, so hopefully the cultural similarities between different Asian countries, however few in number, will help.

In any case, thanks a lot for the advice. Much appreciated. :slight_smile:

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