But Wait, I’m Speaking Japanese!
By Michael Gakuran
On June 23, 2014
Have you ever found yourself trying to speak a foreign language? I should imagine that most of you reading have. As tourists we naturally pick up a few choice words and expressions to help us get by when travelling. But what about the experience of living for a longer period of time in a country with a different native language to your own? Have you spent time studying in an attempt to learn a language to a greater depth?
As a foreign national who has taken to living and working in Japan for some time now, using Japanese has become just a part of my everyday life. But it wasn’t so long ago that I was immersed in books at university experiencing frustration, euphoria, intrigue and a variety of other emotions at the task ahead of me – to master the Japanese language and communicate in Japanese.
During my learning I had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan, enjoy an extended home-stay or two and deepen my understanding of the culture and its people. I vividly remember my eagerness at the prospect of testing my newfound language skills on unsuspecting Japanese citizens.
I’d made do with Japanese international students back at university, biding my time until I could unleash my amazing abilities onto Japan. And that time was now! I was there, dizzy with confidence in Japan, and able to speak Japanese, more or less.
But my excitement quickly vanished. To my disappointment, despite my efforts to communicate in the local language, many of the Japanese people I met were speaking back to me in English! It wasn’t just other students either. Children and adults from all walks of life seemed to gain great pleasure at greeting me in my native language and simultaneously reducing my culture to its most trite aspects.
“You’re from the U.K? Ah! David Beckham. The Beatles. Fish and Chips. Tea and Scones. Margaret Thatcher!”
“I bet you put malt vinegar on everything, right?”
I could brush off crude stereotypes. ‘At least they were showing an interest in my culture and making an attempt at conversation’, I thought. ‘But why would they torment me by denying me the honour of using my newfound language skills..?’
I decided it must be my elementary level of Japanese and swore to put everything I had into pushing my language ability as close to native level as possible. To the point I knew it couldn’t be my poor language skills leading the Japanese people I met to think I couldn’t speak the language.
Fast forward to graduation and my move to live and work in Japan. Now, with having passed the highest level of Japanese and gaining a degree, there will be no reason for people to speak to me in English! Or so I thought.
Upon entering the nearest Japanese-style pub, I strike up a conversation with a slightly drunk gentlemen next to me about the bad economy and poor state of politics. Eyeing me widely with surprise at first, a huge grin slides across his face and he booms:
“Hello! My name is K.”
“K for King! Haha!”
“Where are you from?”
“The U.K” I reply, in Japanese. “I’ve been studying Japanese for quite some time now and I’ve just started working out here.”
“Sugoi!” (Wow!) “Nihongo ga jyozu desu ne!” (Your Japanese is great!) he replies.
“I’m a big fan of the Beatles. John Lennon. Yeah!”
And we’re back to English… And the Beatles… I silently lament while sipping my beer.
Encounters like the one above are not infrequent. Despite so much hard work and effort made to speak the local language, sometimes all I get in return is broken English and a stubborn refusal to engage me on a higher level of conversation. Sometimes it almost feels as though they are mocking me by ignoring my attempts to steer the conversation in Japanese.
It can be for several reasons. The one illustrated in the example here is of a friendly (but perhaps misguided) gesture to welcome me to Japan by showing knowledge of my own country’s customs and culture. Sometimes it’s just because the speaker wishes to practice his or her English. Other times because it’s exotic to talk with a foreigner. Sometimes just due to a blind adherence that non Japanese must only be able to speak English. And so forth.
Whatever the reason though, it’s rarely malicious – just rather annoying. It made me grind me teeth a lot in my earlier days when I mistakenly took it to be an insult. Now and again I’ll regress (particularly when I’m trying to enjoy a relaxing soak in an onsen, only to have a chatty old man sidle up next to me), but for the most part I’ve learnt to accept it as a part of life here in Japan and actually found it to be quite positive.
This propensity to throw in some English words when speaking to foreigners here can actually be quite beneficial. For foreigners in Japan who don’t speak any Japanese or those are just not competent enough in dealing with the task at hand, the forthcoming attitude and willingness of some Japanese people to try and use English (often despite them being at a low level) is representative of Japanese hospitality and actually very helpful.
I’ve been in situations abroad in other countries where I really couldn’t speak more than a few words of the language and, despite my efforts to do so, the locals would not slow their speech down or throw in any English words to help me. It was torture for me just to do something as simple as buy a ticket, and left a bad impression during my stay.
So it can work both ways. Quite often, once the cultural ice breakers are out the way and it becomes obvious that the speaker’s level of English cannot really advance beyond one-liners, the conversation will default to Japanese. But I’ve also found myself a little more chilled out than my passionate language-hungry selfish younger days.
Now using English is the exception, and it can be quite refreshing to have a talk using my mother tongue with a random stranger. I’ve also become more aware of the needs of those around me in some ways. A little patience and effort on my part can make some little old lady’s day with just a few words of English.
If it’s a mention of tea and scones with a British ‘Cheerie-ho!’ that does it, then well, why not?