Ill Communication
Why it’s hard to speak Japanese...in Japan!
By: William Bradbury | Aug 29, 2013 | Issue: 1014 | 16 Comments | 5,311 views

Christi Rochin

It’s common for me to receive emails from friends saying “Your Japanese must be fluent by now.” I don’t often reply to these comments. How can I put into words that after XXX years I’ve progressed more through reading books than from actual communication with Japanese people?

It’s not because I haven’t tried. It’s difficult to say “Nobody wants to talk to me in Japanese” without sounding like you’re lazy, a loser—or both. Yet my Japanese teacher used to respond with surprise when I completed a single page of homework. She acted as if I’d studied with a Rocky–style training regimen, when I’d actually done about the same amount as my own five-year-old students of English. I’ve been asked multiple times why I even study Japanese.

“It’s too difficult.”

“Don’t waste your time!”

Before this gets too one-sided, I’ve also felt the frustration of conversation with non-natives in my home country. I understand the feeling of not knowing exactly which words to choose or how fast to speak. I can appreciate that—if you don’t have an otaku-style interest in foreign lands—struggling to communicate is a hindrance to humor, insight and other essential things that make conversation interesting.

Yet the dismissal of efforts here is unique to Japan. It’s fair to say a high percentage of friends that expats make in Japan are those with an interest in foreign cultures who are often bilingual. While great for friendship, these people often represent a barrier to learning Japanese. There is nothing more de-motivating than having Japanese questions answered in English—or translated into English then answered. Then there’s the unintentional patronizing, the cheers of success for reading a single word in katakana.

The one thing that people are very keen to say to me in Japanese is that my Japanese is very good. It’s not malicious, but it’s an unintentional backhanded compliment. Though done with such sincerity it’s hard to get angry about it, it’s nevertheless demoralizing for those wanting to integrate themselves into another culture. It relates to a deeper sense of separation from the other—the foreigner. On the surface level we smile, but deep down the frustration builds. Even after 10-20 years we still expected to be flattered rather than given a chance to have an open conversation in another language.

Many of my conversations have taken place in bars, and it often hasn’t worked out. One oft-repeated scene is, conversely, a shocked reaction that I’m not better at Japanese considering the time I’ve spent here.
True as that may be, emphasizing that point and refusing to communicate in Japanese after pointing it out doesn’t do much good for my studies. Sometimes my questions in nihongo are shut down with the retort that the person “doesn’t speak English.” Sometimes there’s a jokey call around the room: “Anybody here speak English?” That’s fine, but I can speak Japanese well enough to have a basic conversation—if the person is willing. And therein lies the problem: few are (in Japanese). In English my entire career is based upon the opposite.

Other practice forums exist than friendly local bars and restaurants, but concepts such as language exchanges or foreigner-friendly meetings may as well just be renamed “free English lessons.”
Those able to impress with their ability can sidestep these issues and converse with ease. So how do we get past that challenging middle step?

Finding someone with the same hobbies and interests as you works to a degree. But it’s limiting—people are who they are, not what they like.

Another option is finding someone who cannot speak English and has no interest in learning it—quite a rarity.

Perhaps the only option is to go underground and return to the books, and surface someday fully charged, like a linguistic Super Saiyan.


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  • Julien Caruso

    Try hanging out with a bunch of Ojiisan in an izakaya in Saitama. They have no interest in learning English, and they might even offer to lubricate your Japanese vocal cords with libation if you Pera-pera well enough

  • leconfidant

    My first spoken Japanese was going to a job interview. They said, “If you can’t find it, we’re beside the kohban”. So the whole way there, I repeated like a mantra, “Kohban wa doko deska, kohban wa doko deska..”. Sure enough, I get there… can’t see them… spot a salariman approaching and, “Sumimasen, kohban wa doko deska?”.

    First he looked like a rabbit in headlights. Real shock. Then he was like a movie star waving off paparazzi. “Gohhhhhmenasai ! Wakaranai !! Wakaranai !!”

  • johnnyf

    “he looked like a rabbit in headlights” or “talking to a Japanese girl in a club is like approached a scared cat”. This is the real problem to communicating in big bad Tokyo; its all the inakamono who have flooded in for work reasons hearing media/peer fueled stories about the naughty strangers/gaijin/outsiders, somewhat missing the irony that they are out siders themselves!Truly great international cities are the ones that offer chances to meet people and network. I fear Tokyo is not one and it will not achieve greatness as an international destination in the coming years.
    If you cant talk to the people, why go? Oh right, for the anime.

  • G

    If you believe your Japanese is good enough but people don’t indulge you, why not ask them explicitly to speak Japanese to you? It would simultaneously give you a talking point. Are you really so ready to give up on finding someone who’ll speak Japanese to you, in Tokyo? Get creative.

  • hurvj

    Really good point. Talk to people that want to talk to you! It’s just like your home country, don’t approach beautiful girls or handsome twenty something guys looking for a conversation, it probably not going to happen, (but always worth trying if you really like the person). Study vocab!

  • Jeffrey

    Yes. Anyone really serious about learning Japanese needs to move out of the city. Under most circumstance, you’ll learn more Japanese in six-months living in a small town (provided you’re not shunned all together – a very real possibility, you scary gaijin) than you will learn in Tokyo (Osaka, Nagoya, etc.) in six years.

  • hana

    “If you cant talk to the people, why go?” To learn to be able to talk to them, of course. Why did I buy a novel in Japanese before I could read Japanese novels? To practise reading Japanese novels, so that I could come to be able to read them.

  • dokool

    The great illustration does a much better job of representing the trouble foreigners learning Japanese face than the article itself.

    If your Japanese teacher was surprised that you managed to do your homework, you had a shitty Japanese teacher. End of story.

    If you’re tired of backhanded compliments from Japanese people, pretend you didn’t hear them and keep talking. As long as you’re not limited to discussing the weather or where you’re from, they’ll eventually understand that you actually *do* speak the language and will treat you as an equal. Well, maybe not but they’ll at least stop patronizing your abilities.

    The idea that practicing the language through hobbies/interests is limiting is ridiculous – that experienced formed the core of my Japanese education because it gave me real world lessons. I’d leave language school, go to a concert, try out whatever we’d learned today. Sometimes I fuck up, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I’d be corrected, sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes I’d listen far more than I talked, but that too would be a learning experience.

    And if you can’t find people to speak Japanese with in a city of millions and millions of people, you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

    Additionally the answer to ‘Are you fluent?’ should always be ‘No’. Thinking of yourself as fluent is the quickest way to deceive yourself into believing that you don’t have anything else to learn, and that’s the real danger when it comes to speaking a foreign language. No matter how good you are, you can always be better.

  • Marisa

    Interesting point however seems you were not lucky enough to meet people or find a good way to learn Japanese.
    No offense but I had an impression that you were trying to feel victimized.
    My Japanese has improved so much better because I studied hard and practiced with my friends.
    Some of them have been kind enough to correct my mistakes.
    I also have had language exchange and it worked really well for me. We were both passionate on learning/teaching and giving ourselves a homework. It’s true that I was really motivated from this experience.
    I have met many gaijin never trying to learn so hard because they can get by.
    Maybe you are not one of them but if you try you will find many opportunities.
    There are also many Japanese volunteer classes out there in Tokyo.
    Good luck for your study!

  • Chris

    The easiest way to get good at a language is to never speak your mother tongue. I am from England, I also live in Tokyo, but never speak in English, ever. All my friends are Japanese, none of whom can speak English, at least to my knowledge. I go to work, speak Japanese, go to the gym, speak Japanese, come home, speak Japanese (to myself or my girlfriend). If you fold and take the easy way out by speaking your mother tongue then you will never get past level one. It really is not as hard as all that if you put the effort in.

    Good luck to everyone getting started, it is a long but highly rewarding path.

  • Ramsay

    I got a Japanese boyfriend and moved in with him, my Japanese was superbasic and we could hardly have a conversation at first because I was self-conscious about my Japanese. However, it gave me the motivation I needed cause I was (and still am) crazy about this guy and was so scared to lose him because of not being able to talk. Luckily he’s been patient with me and it’s been two years now and he’s the reason I became as “fluent” as I am today. He doesn’t know more than a few English words here and there and although he wants to learn, he never really bothers because he feels it’s useless in this country. I also started working in an 和風 izakaya which has helped LOADS with my vocabulary and given me many new food experiences I would never have dared to try otherwise! I am currently enrolled in a senmon (specialized training) school with only Japanese students. No one speaks English to me besides the occasional “Am I saying this right? (insert butchered English here followed by other students laughing and making fun of him) I don’t understand how people have such a hard time finding people willing to speak to them in Japanese in the big cities??? I’m in Osaka. Just, don’t stick to your comfortable zone and your foreign friends. Get out there, hang out with Japanese people who speak no English. ASK THEM to not speak English to you because you want to get better. It’s not a hard thing, I’d say you’re just not motivated enough, honestly. I have to agree with dokool, the teachers at my language school never accepted any test result under 90%. If she was surprised you did your homework, you’re in the wrong school. And the Japanese doesn’t compliment you to push you down, it’s a part of their whole everything is すごい-reaction game they do at EVERYTHING. Tell them you’ve played soccer, you’ll get the same reaction. Tell them your brother is 204 cm tall, you’ll get the same reaction. It’s not just your Japanese abilities…

  • urfawk up

    dude get a japanese girlfriend, end of story, your japanese will get better in few weeks trust me that happens to me.

  • Zenkakuji

    My experience when first learning conversational Japanese was that my friends and co-workers would respond to me in English. This was initially frustrating, but I realized that my presence allowed them a rare chance to let their guard down and practice their English language speaking skills with a native speaker about topics that were meaningful to them, not just academic exercises. Eventually, our conversations became more complicated and they reached their limit with their own English speaking skills, and naturally shifted to speak in Japanese or a mix of the two languages. Now, we only speak or email in Japanese, and use English when other foreigners need to be involved in the conversation.

    When people initially comment on my Japanese language skills (or ability to eat using chopsticks), I just smile and say thank you in a Japanese manner. I usually reply that I am not good [using イヤイヤとんでもない (iyaiya tondemonai) as a 'thank you' response] and that usually helps to keep the conversation in Japanese.

    Interestingly, I have the opposite problem now in that it is very hard for me to speak to Japanese people in English. So, I can imagine that my Japanese counterparts see me and have the same tendency wanting to speak in English.

    I had a funny experience with a Japanese co-worker a while ago who had only spoken to me in Japanese since we met. When we had a teleconference with foreign co-workers in English, he commented afterwards that he was surprised that my English was so good. He said that I seemed like a foreigner to him!!! Now, that was an interesting comment, indeed. We both got a good laugh out of that.

  • Jeffrey

    Perhaps. But unless she’s kind of butch, you’ll end up talking like a girl.

  • Perapera

    http://www.tofugu.com/2013/09/24/pera-pera/ Here you are. You’re welcome.

  • Ostap Bender

    If you have time, you can enroll in classes that target the Japanese population, like traditional Japanese culture (tea ceremony, ect.), martial arts, or even sports. I’ve strived to be the only foreigner in the room and have ample opportunities to engage in Japanese conversations.

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