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No English Please, We’re Foreigners

Not All Foreigners Speak English

By 1 min read 48

I have a friend and for the sake of this story, let’s say she’s from Russia. She has blonde hair and blue eyes… and doesn’t speak a word of English (aside from the typical “Hello, My name is…”, “Thank you”, and “How much?”). In fact, the only English sentence she knows is “I’m sorry, I am Russian. I don’t speak English.”

My Russian friend speaks Japanese (close to) fluently. She works part-time at a Japanese company, has lived in Japan for a while, and studies Japanese every day.
We make quite a pair when we go out together. Sitting at a cafe, strolling through Yoyogi Park, or shopping in Shimokitazawa – it’s like we’re carrying a big, plastic sign with the words “Talk to us in English” scrawled across. I’m exaggerating, of course.


But, in the six months I’ve known her, this has happened twice. Someone will talk to us in English, she will reply in Japanese, and they will keep pressing English on her, assuming she is lying (after all, she’s white. All white people speak English, right?)

The second time it happened to us, I asked “What do you do when people don’t believe that you don’t speak English?”

She just shrugged and said “I walk away. It’s frustrating, but once someone’s mind is made up, you can’t change it.”

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  • Yvonne says:

    Yes, this is an issue I face regularly. Living in the countryside, people were shockingly more accepting and less likely to try this, but in Tokyo this happens a lot. We’re in Japan so greet in Japanese first, then if the person doesn’t understand, sure, go ahead and try English.

  • フェド says:

    I’m Japanese and an English man came up to me to practice Russian with me! How twisted is that!?

    • Xaviersp says:

      I’m a white guy, and I speak Japanese. Here’s the weirdest language thing that happened to me: and I was alone in Bangkok, looking at a neighborhood map on a street corner. This old Japanese guy approaches me and asks me in Japanese “Do you know where I can find the neighborhood temple?”, as if it was perfectly normal to ask something in Japanese to a white guy outside of Japan!! I explained to him in Japanese where the temple was and he went on his way. How the hell did that happen? I was alone, there was no way that guy could know that I speak Japanese…

  • Andrea says:

    I am Taiwanese (aka Asian looking) and I was constantly asked for directions by both Japanese and gaijins who speak Japanese (or at least “try to”) when I was living in Tokyo (how strange!) I remember once I was being asked for directions by a white man who spoke fluent Japanese, and my immediate reaction was to switch to English as my Japanese was not really good. He insisted upon asking me in Japanese, and I suppose he must be screaming inside:”I am speaking Japanese now why are you replying in English!! I am French/Italian/Russian/German/[insert country names in which English is not the official language] and I don’t speak English!!”

  • Pami Seo says:

    Uhmm well you guys are still 100% foreigners not Japanese, so who would know from plain sight you guys are able to speak Japanese, but that’s not the point, if people approach to you guys like that is because they are interested in you guys as foreigners not you guys as trying to be japanese. We want to know more about you as a non-Japanese because we can already do the Japanese with other Japanese. So I don’t understand what is the issue, and why it matters to you so much to be seen as a fluent Japanese speaker or a Japanese. For many Japanese foreigners are already interesting and cool not being all that, but I don’t understand why foreigners who can communicate in Japanese get mad for not being seen as another Japanese based on their language skills. It is strange. About your friend there is nothing wrong to try to communicate in English with her at the beginning like duh English is kind of an international language, so wheter you are in Japan or in any other non-English speaking country, people are going to try to talk to you in English first. It is even used in Japan to talk to non-Japanese Asian people, not just whites.

    • Nick Meister (nickmeister) says:

      Who in the world said anything about being “seen as Japanese”? People just don’t like being seen as free English teachers/tutors. It’s common courtesy to speak the same language as the person you’re addressing. If the people are speaking Japanese, then you first address them in Japanese. Politely ask if they are “American” and if they want to speak English. If they say they can’t speak English, then just take their word for it. Don’t assume they are lying and keep pressing on in English.

    • Wonron Kukumbachi says:

      I think its the same think when white people tell Asians in America how good their English is and Asians get mad, I wanted to compliment once an black lady on how good her Serbian was but I didn’t do it later she became my friend and I found out her mother is Serbian and she was raised in Serbia. Its probably feeling of not being accepted, though I wouldn’t mind at all if Japanese insisted to talk in English because I love English, but if you don’t speak the language its a different story.

  • Mapo says:

    Since arriving in Japan I’ve been toying with the idea of using Spanish and pretending to be from Spain if someone is pressing English and I don’t want to talk to them. Also, I just want to see the look on their faces; however, after reading this article, it seems that it wouldn’t do me much good as either a laugh or a dismissal 😛

  • GeneralObvious says:

    Considering you live in a county where 99% of the foreigners are English teachers, you and your friend had probably get used to it rather quickly.

  • maulinator says:

    The largest percentage of white foreigners in Japan right now are from the US, Canada and the UK so it makes sense that the first language they would communicate to you in after Japanese would be English. Also most of the Europeans I know are well versed in English and I know a decent cross seciton of the foriegn population in Japan, so I don’t think I am doing anybiased or stratified sampling. Therefore you can’t really blame them for assuming that English would be de facto language.
    Now if you do not speak it and they continue to press on they are being rude and being idiots.
    Much like when I am in the US and the white folks assume that I cannot speak English well because of the color of my skin. They speak slowly at first until they realize that my diction is far superior to theirs. It takes them a while but they get it.
    As one should not suffer fools, smiling and walking away is the best thing to do. Waste of time to deal with these types of people and you shouldn’t let it ruin your day.
    As for people who are blatantly practicing English. I have yet to meet someone that rude, at least as first contact. Maybe they want to get to know you better but cannot think of any other way of talking to you. You appear approachable?
    Something similar happened to me in the US a few times. Someone asking me to practice some Asian langauge with them. For these people I tell them I will speak to them in the language they want, it is only $75 an hour payable up front. It gets them to walk away pretty quickly.

    • Nick Meister (nickmeister) says:

      Really? In the United States of America, people just ASSUMED you couldn’t speak English? As an American, I feel like this scenario is quite rare. Most people just assume everyone they run across has at least some skill in English. Unlike Asia, where no one expects foreigners to speak the language.

      Also, what do you mean by your “diction being far superior to theirs”? Are you shaming the American dialect? There’s nothing wrong with the way my people speak the English language.

      • あほか says:


      • maulinator says:

        I am not shaming the American dialect, I am an American. But I do run into plenty of people in the US who do not understand basic grammar and have terrible pronunciation and enunciation. My grammar is not 100% but I can form complete sentences and can identifty most grammatical errors. I run into Americans who seem to drool out words and don’t seem to care about the excessive use of hyperbole or verb tense. I would say that it these people lack any eloquence when speaking but it is far worse than that. Louis CK does a bit about this in oneof his shows and he does the topic more justice than I ever can. It is funny and incisive. IF you have a chance you should check it out, but it explains my point pretty well.

  • Ĝan Ŭesli Starling says:

    While studying in a 3-week immersion course for the language Esperanto at San Francisco State University in 1987 I was chatting with some fellow course mates while waiting for the light at a major street crossing. The fellow I had just replied to suddenly broke up into laughter wholly inappropriate to my reply. Turns out, some turists just out of sight behind me were on the verge of posing a question about the map they were trying to figure out…heard my reply in Esperanto…then turned away, telling the others, “They don’t speak English.” My two friends were Japanese and Bahamanian, while I’m from Michigan in the USA.

  • Jupiter Bright says:

    yeah, the owner of that account made many funny videos and the comments show that people are taking it literally… boring

  • Grace Buchele says:

    Thanks. That was the point I was trying to make.

  • J.T says:

    This is made for JOKE!! LOL. I am sure, this kind of stupid Japanese lady is NOT now.

  • J.T says:

    Well, this is happened when Japanese English speakers want to speak English. Now in Japan, about 2 % of Japanese population is foreigners. (2013) If we don’t work with foreigners in a same place or same company, it is difficult for general Japanese to find out English native speakers in our neighbor life. So, if some of Japanese English speakers find out a foreigner, they think they have a chance to speak English. Surely, in most of countries’ educational systems, students have to learn English as a second language. So, we should master English at least for “world-standard language”, I think. I know many foreigners in Japan can’t speak English well, so when I start to talk with them, I say “Konnichiwa” (hello) at first and “Chotto yoroshii deshoka?” at the second. Then, if the person says “No, I cannot speak Japanese”, I change my word in English.

  • King Rat says:

    This kind of thing happens around the world and if you move to a country where you are on the other side of it you have a choice of A) dealing with it B) making more friends, or C) going back to your home country.
    I suppose this Russian friend is “dealing with it” but not without grumbling. There is an assumed suggestion that “if only we could change Japanese people living in Japan to think like Russians think, the whole world would be a better, less frustrating place.”
    It takes many Japanese a lot of courage to A) talk to strangers and B) attempt something at which somebody with more experience did not praise their superiority over their peers. To be honest, the grumbling attitude your friend has toward native Japanese in Japan acting as Japanese have done for thousands of years to be prejudiced and closed-minded. Did I mention stuck up and imperialistic?

    I was helping two Japanese partners do business with a group from South America. The South Americans spoke privately in Spanish and while we spoke privately in Japanese. The South Americans knew the partners were Japanese from Japan but kept saying “xiexie”. The Japanese thought the language mix up was rather comical. No grumbling took place. That is how a Japanese would handle such a situation. With grace.

    • Grace Buchele says:

      But at the same time, I have people come up to me all the time, to “practice English.” Most are really upfront about it, sitting next to me at a cafe or on the train – or stopping me while I’m on the way to work, saying they want to “practice English” with me.
      Some of the time, I am 100% ok humoring them. But when I’m rushing (late to work) or trying to relax and read a book in between jobs, I simply don’t have time.

      I can’t even imagine how frustrating it is for my friend, who doesn’t even speak English, but where people automatically assume she is “lying” because she “looks” like she should speak English.

  • Grace Buchele says:

    Yeah, that tends to work 🙂

  • Teddy Nee says:

    Yeah, although not everyone speaks English well, but English is an international language. That is why people have this kind of stereotype, especially towards non-oriental looking person. As for me, wherever I go in Taiwan, the locals always speak Mandarin with me because they assume I speak Mandarin well. In fact, Mandarin is my SECOND foreign language (first one is English) But fortunately, this kind of situation forced me to improve my Mandarin. Now, I can switch among English, Mandarin, and 2 of my native languages easily. So it is not bad at all 😀

    • Grace Buchele says:

      Good for you for being able to learn another language so quickly. English really is an international language, but I guess there are exceptions to every rule.
      I had a sort of awkward dinner with a Chinese American friend who was visiting last month… we went to a restaurant and they asked her to order (instead of me). I had to explain that she didn’t speak Japanese (she was Chinese-American) and that I was the only one who spoke Japanese… but the waitress was still skeptical. It happens, I guess?

      • Teddy Nee says:

        That is really strange. What happened here was the waiter talked to me first, but when they knew that my foreign friends also speak Mandarin, they spoke Mandarin with them and started to praise and asked questions.

  • DudeJericho says:

    Pressing on with English assuming that she is lying? That is rude, in any country.

  • Veradej Wisetjarkhun says:

    I will just reply in my own native language. Just speak German, French, Italian, Spanish or whatever to the people who insist on speaking English.

    • Grace Buchele says:

      She says that’s her “plan two” (I’m translating these comments for her and asking her response, since this article is written in English and she can’t really read it). She just kind of talks loudly and angrily in Russian until the person gets the picture.

  • Keiko Naomi Sotomayor says:

    But that’s the problem, we as foreigners must know how to speak in English cuz that’s the language that the world speaks. In other words, it’s a worldwide language. I know that’s not a duty but it’s a recommendation. I can speak in Japanese too, not so good, but I can understand something. And to avoid awkward moments, I learned how to speak in English. You all know, I think it’s better.

    • Grace Buchele says:

      Yeah, but she’s not in “the world.” She’s in Japan. She’s only ever lived in Russia and in Japan – and started learning Japanese years before she ever set foot in this country.
      I get that English is the language that the world speaks… but this is Japan. If she was Asian, this wouldn’t really be a problem (and people would EXPECT she speaks Japanese/get frustrated if she didn’t – a problem some of my Chinese American friends are going through right now). This really only happens to her because she has blonde hair and blue eyes.

    • Geff says:

      go in France, nobody speak english. it’s sometimes difficult for foreigners, specially because France is the first “tourist country” in the world, but we don’t care, in France, we speak french. So when you say that’s “english is the country that the world speaks” i say no …

      • Grace Buchele says:

        I actually remember that when I was in France. I had taken a year and a half of the language in high school – and could barely speak a word. I was with my parents and everyone kept expecting me to translate.
        I agree, there are PLENTY of places in the world where people don’t speak English.

    • Jameika says:

      But she’s not in “the world”; she’s in one place and we speak Japanese in this place.

      • JA_JP says:

        Really? I was in Japan for four years and everyone wanted to practice their English. Nobody spoke Japanese to me unless their English was like this Russian girl’s. I would have been good friends with her if I had known her while I was there. I made a lot of friends with the Chinese and Koreans because they weren’t in Japan to learn English.

        Too bad I didn’t make any friends with Japanese people.

      • Grace Buchele says:

        Thank you. Exactly.

  • Jupiter Bright says:

    I haven’t thought of this at all. I too assumed that people with western kind of appearance all speak English or at least comfortable in having English conversation. I’ll see from their point of view and won’t force English on non English speaker next time

  • Rodrigo Juri says:

    You asked “What do you do when people don’t believe that you don’t speak English?” to a non english speaker? 😉

    • Grace Buchele says:

      We had this whole conversation in Japanese (and later, I translated it to English). But I didn’t want to write this article in Japanese because, you know, GaijinPot is an English blog.

      • Martin says:

        Japanese people are so intense about foreign languages and only think about their needs. The don’t think about the foreigner integrating into their society, they just bang on with what they want.

    • DudeJericho says:

      Why are you assuming she asked in English?

  • I think the best thing would be to reply right away in Japanese saying that she doesn’t speak English. Although it makes me think of ‘but.. but..’ comics – http://rs1img.memecdn.com/but-i_o_710900.jpg just put their conversation here and I can see that Japanese hottie looking so upset 😀 I love your comics Grace, as always 🙂

    • Grace Buchele says:

      Hah. This is perfect. Thanks 🙂

    • Yiuel says:

      Actually, she does say she doesn’t speak English, and she is not believed. So it doesn’t work.

      I’m half into it (as I am not from the Anglosphere) but half out of it (as I do speak English). I am annoyed if people just speak in English to me, here in Japan; it makes me feel like I am worthless if I do not speak English. I can converse with those people (who do that), but I cannot be friends with them, not as much as those who speak to me in Japanese.

      (Fun fact : I don’t care whether they even know about where I come from or not. They may not be able to speak even one word of my mother tongue, and I don’t care at all.)

      • Grace Buchele says:

        I have a similar frustration (and so do a lot of my foreign friends in Tokyo). In general, I dislike it when people come up to me to “practice English-” like all they are looking for is “free conversation.”
        It’s made me not trust people who get close to me too quickly here. I don’t like the feeling of being used.

        When your only worth is whether or not you can speak English to them (and for free!), it’s not a fun feeling.



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