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Downplaying Your Foreign Language Ability

When they stop telling you your Japanese is good, then you know it's good.

By 1 min read 7

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.

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  • primalxconvoy says:

    That shouldn’t really matter, as the first thing any teacher should do is a diagnostic lesson (or diagnostic activities/reflection) when teaching (or inheriting) a new class. It’s always a good idea to keep notes on learners and find ways to test their production and reception skills, as the level of the class is not always the level of the learners.

    This is especially true in Japan, where age or length of time attending an Eikaiwa usually dictates the level of the class. A school cannot realistically have enough textbooks or course materials to keep the average bored Japanese housewife at foundation level for 5 years, now, can they?

  • Pick Up says:

    The idea is that Japanese people are not arrogant.
    You won’t find a Japanese person saying that he is able to do anything.
    The best you can get is “I will try” and the famous “Ganbarimasu”.

    I think it is a good idea to use this as a tip for your own behavior as well.

  • Brett Gildersleeve says:

    So, here’s my experience, for anybody who is curious. When I moved to Japan, I had already passed levels 4, 3, and 2 of the JLPT. The only remaining test was level 1. I ended up finally passing the N1 in 2010, but at the time I entered Japan, I was still level 2. I was working in an office in Tokyo of about 200 people, with only 3 foreigners, all of whom were completely fluent in Japanese. All meetings were in Japanese, all emails were in Japanese, all phone calls were in Japanese. I was expected to keep up. It was a fairly common occurrence that I wouldn’t understand part of a conversation or email, but I tried my best. My main fear was that I would slow everybody else down, so I tried to take these moments in stride. I typically needed to remind people that my Japanese wasn’t perfect so that they would speak a bit slower or use less complicated vocabulary. It was very much a “sink or swim” situation. My experience is that if you tell somebody you are level 2 or level 1, they will just expect that they can throw any expression to you at native speed and you’ll simply be able to understand it… so I learned over time to downplay my ability in order to have people “dumb down” their speech a bit on my behalf. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  • Sik says:

    I guess I’m like them since I still downplay my English skills πŸ˜› (my first language is Spanish) OK at this point I chat on-line in English nearly fluently, but I still don’t know the name of some seemingly basic things like some vegetables or kitchen utensils, and also my English “dialect” is influenced a lot by how things are said in Spanish (e.g. I have a tendency to omit the subject).

    I also tell Japanese people that my Japanese is horrible (take the dictionary away from me and I’m screwed)… but maybe it’d help if I remember to say it before having talked to them for a long while >.>;

  • Mine is that I speak a little Japanese and knows over a hundred or more words.

  • james says:

    This is definitely true. I think it’s more of a not wanting to talk themselves up too much kind of thing, but who knows. If I believed all of my students self assessments when I first meet them we would be starting with the ABCs most of the time lol.

  • JohnPaul says:

    All very true!
    One more thing though: as a foreigner in Japan, a bit of “reverse-reverse” psychology is in order, as people will not expect you to be humble about your language ability. So if you downplay your Japanese ability they will often just take your word for it.
    If you don’t want to seem arrogant, the trick is to be humble, but use complicated enough japanese to tip them off.



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