Downplaying Your Foreign Language Ability
By Grace Buchele Mineta
On March 25, 2015
My first couple months in Japan were blissful, comfortable, and full of small mistakes. I have very fond memories of those days. It wasn’t the convenient public transportation or gorgeous fashion that stuck out to me the most, though, it was the people. It seemed like everyone I met told me my Japanese was “amazing” and, as someone who had been studying the language for about a year and a half in college, that was a huge boost to my ego.
I didn’t figure out until much later that, for the most part, people were just being polite.
Back in America, after my first semester of studying Japanese, most of my classmates (myself included) added Japanese to the “Languages I speak” section on Facebook. I went around telling people I spoke Japanese, thinking that made me a more “global” and “interesting” person. It seemed like all of my friends exaggerated their language abilities, regardless of whether it was Japanese, French, or Arabic. Lucky for me, no one in America ever called my bluff.
These days, when someone compliments my Japanese, my knee-jerk reaction is to respond with the socially acceptable response: “No, it’s really not that good…”
I can’t tell if people downplay their language ability in Japan because they are humble or because they are worried about being embarrassed if someone asks them a question they don’t understand in English (and therefore don’t live up to their claimed level).
Either way, back when I taught English, I ran into a couple sticky situations when new students modestly belittled their own English ability before a “trial lesson.”
This is something to keep in mind if you’re teaching English in Japan. Some Japanese students will drastically downplay their own English level at the beginning of a lesson.