But Wait, I’m Speaking Japanese!

By

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.

speak-english

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?

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  • Yuki says:

    1. 英語を話したがる日本人がウザい
    これ、日本だけじゃないですよ。アメリカに住んでた時に、日本語勉強してるアメリカ人、いつも日本語で話したがってましたよ。みんな英語を勉強しに来てたから、なるべく英語で話したいのに、頑なに日本語で返してくると本当に萎えました。それでもだいたいの日本人はみんな文句言わずに付き合ってあげてましたね。日本人は〜といってる人が大勢いますが、あなた方も母国で全く同じことやってますよ、といいたいです。

  • Mapo says:

    I have Japanese approach me every day trying to use English. Sometimes it’s quite helpful, sometimes it leads to a fun conversation, etc. Whatever the situation may be, though, I always switch back and forth between English and Japanese. I find it’s good practice and most of the people I’ve spoken to have reacted positively to such code switching. It’s also more efficient because if they can’t think of the English word they need, they feel comfortable enough to try throwing the Japanese word at me (and sometimes it even works).

    Do remember I’m in Osaka, though. Osaka-jin are pretty comfortable with themselves no matter what’s going on, it seems to me–especially compared to Tokyo-jin.

  • Peter says:

    Have you ever actually just said, “I would like to speak Japanese. I spent a long time learning Japanese, and I have spent money to come and live in Japan to use it.”

  • Verena Hopp says:

    I guess all non-Asian foreigners do face this. Being a German, I get “sausage and beer”, despite of being vegetarian and not drinking any alcohol any more. What I can suggest to the fellow Japanese learners is the following: Get into a Japanese language school teaching Japanese IN Japanese, with international classes NOT consisting of westerners only! Nobody there throws back English at you, but forces you to speak Japanese at all times. I also suggest to stay stubborn and go on talking in Japanese to Japanese people. Their English is often so limited that they WILL go on in Japanese if they want to go on talking with you. The last time I got angry about this very thing was last Sunday at Church – but I got angry (bad in itself) at the wrong person. Thought she was Japanese, but been a fellow gaijin. Sure she spoke back in English to me… (Oooops…)

  • Xigo says:

    When I was in Japan some years ago, I was surprised that nearly everyone in Tokyo assumed I would speak and understand Japanese just fine. Sometimes I only asked for directions and got 2 or 3 different ways as alternatives, all spoken in fast Japanese.
    While in Kyoto most people tried to speak English with me. Especially shop staff or chain restaurant staff. So at one time, my “atsui ko-hi-” was even misunderstood as “ice coffee”, which was kind of annoying, But honestly I think it’s a very daring way to show hospitality and a feeling of welcome.
    Although I would clarify your wish to speak Japanese with people you see very often, like friends or people at work.
    And don’t be offended, only because they can’t recognize your nationality. Westeners look quite the same for Japanese, just as most western people won’t differentiate accurate between Asians or Africans.
    Just tell them, if you feel it’s important for you. I always got mistaken as an American, but I don’t feel offended only because I’m German instead.

  • 小林 says:

    It is annoying though because it says only 100% Japanese can speak the language. ><

    Like some people here, I am a hafu and I get people asking me if I can teach them Japanese. Imagine the expression when I tell them that I don't speak the language because I was born in the US 😮

  • Nika Inverse says:

    Read or watch Amelie Nothomb’s Fear and trembling

  • Григорий says:

    Great article. But I think people used other language not only from force of habit. For do not forget or for fun. I live in Ukraine and sometimes answered at Japanese. Some people this like.

  • blauereiter says:

    I can definitely relate to some of the experiences you have mentioned in your article. I studied/worked in Tokyo for 6 years and speak Japanese at my workplace, but sometimes when I talk to my Japanese friends and they reply in English, giving me the impression that my Japanese isn’t up quite up to speed and I ought to just speak English.

    It could be that they’re just using the chance to practice their English, but it still doesn’t feel good somehow. 😛

    • Dane Calderon says:

      What I’ve heard about this is that they’re really just wanting to speak English. They take it in school and never get to use/practice it. So you speaking Japanese takes away the one novelty they get out of you. If I had a Japanese co-worker, I’d probably speak all the Japanese I could with him/her. I don’t think that’s meant as an insult. You’re the interesting weird foreign person over there. Probably best to learn to own it.

  • BenCh says:

    Great article and interesting to know about the other side of the coin. Being Chinese (and therefore Asian-looking), locals start conversations with me in Japanese and often, after trying to process what they just said, I default to the “sorry I’m a beginner, can we speak in English?”

    I can also say after finding out that I speak English very well, unlike your experiences, the locals don’t seem to be interested in practising their English with me.

  • hackerhaus says:

    I know what JR is doing and why they’re doing it.

  • Magda(マグダ)Lytvynenko says:

    It’s hilarious but at some times I just say i don’t understand English, because it can get really terrible, especially if you’re asking for directions. And then it’s boom the Japanese are having a bit of cognitive dissonance because I’m a Caucasian girl and supposedly don’t understand English (which obviously I do ;)). But I guess since I’m Ukrainian, they just brush it off. That helps a lot at times, however it is rather sad that I should be deceiving people that are trying to help. But there are critical moments, especially when I’m trying my best and using my honorifics to speak to an ojisan on the street and he struggles to reply to me in broken English. I just have no choice but to do that :((

  • hackerhaus says:

    What really broke my heart on my latest trip to Tokyo was that all the messages on the Yamanote line are now in English as well as Japanese. Part of what really helped me to learn Japanese was just constantly being exposed to it with no L1 (English, in my case) available to fall back on.

    • And we were lovers.. says:

      The train companies are ajusting to the tourists, and they must do it. Maybe you know some japanese, but just think about all the foreign tourists who don’t and get lost because of the lack of english in japanese cities.

  • Andrew Smith says:

    Interesting article.

    I grew up in Japan, and have spent most of my life here, and quite frankly have heard and seen it all- from the “obachan” (old ladies) wanting to hold the foreigner kid, the kids that would run up to you and say “This is a pen”(from a popular TV advert in the 70’s) to an old man who walked up to us while waiting in line to eat and asked if he could recite the Gettysburg Address that he was memorizing. I’ve had people who insist on returning my Japanese (which is native level) with broken English, and feel insulted when I respond in Japanese.

    So, yes it does happen, and even for a person who’s lived here most of his life, it can bother you if you’re in a bad mood.

    The situation get worse, when you aren’t even a foreigner (like a half Japanese, with only a Japanese citizenship, and Japanese relatives remaining). There is a young man on TV, who’s father was Brazilian and his mother was Japanese, who father left his family as a young child. His mother later married a Japanese man, leaving him with two “Japanese” parents, but looking like “Mario” from Mario Bros. (his words, not mine). He is constantly faced with Japanese and foreigners trying to speak to him in English (He says that he did terribly in English, when he was a student). Things get even more complicated when other Brazilians try to talk to him in Portuguese!

    So, why does this happen?
    I feel that this is due to 2 important frames of mind.

    1. As the article and several people have stated in their posts, most people aren’t trying to be malicious to you, and aren’t trying to keep you from learning Japanese, but are trying to accommodate you, and help you feel at home (Omotenashi). Japanese sometimes go to far, when trying not to be impolite, and end up making the person feel uncomfortable.

    2. The Western world(mostly the English Speaking countries), have constantly told Japan, that it should be able to speak English- “many Chinese speak English, so why doesn’t Japan?” “English is the international business language” “Japan is closed to the west, because many of its public doesn’t speak English” and on and on…. After WWII, Japan felt a strong need to learn English, to help build itself up from the ashes, and to pull itself out of the “third world nation” status. Many people try to show foreigners that they aren’t the “third world country” and are “equals”, by showing an interest in not only the language but the culture of foreigners.

    Though I am an American citizen, I was often met with comments in the US like “Konnichi wa” or “Do you often see Geishas/Ninjyas/Godzilla/Pokemon where you live?”, and received similar comments in the UK (as well as being asked if I was a cowboy lol).

    So it is not something that is unique to Japan. It easy to blow it off, and unless someone is obviously trying to be malicious, take it with a smile, and realize that when you are practicing your Japanese on them, they too are trying to practice their English on you ;).

  • Guest says:

    The author is actually in that video 😛

  • leorising says:

    I have to admit that this is the reason I don’t dedicate more of my old brain cells to learning Japanese, though I love the language and culture. It is also the reason I will probably never travel to Japan. I don’t think I could stand being the inferior gaijin 24 hours a day — and being told about it in no uncertain terms. My self-esteem is bad enough as it is! 😉

    • Laly Gonzalez says:

      Leorising, this doesn’t mean you cannot travel to Japan. I’ve visited Japan twice as a tourist and I don’t speak Japanese, but they are very nice and respectful people. One of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been. And they really appreciated the few words I spoke in their language!

    • Gakuranman says:

      It’s not quite that bad! While it can be annoying, it’s easily avoided once you get better at the language and it certainly isn’t because Japanese people think foreigners inferior to themselves. It has a tendency to feel that way before you know better, that’s all :).

      • leorising says:

        I appreciate your reply, thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts. I’m glad to hear it’s not as bad as I think.

  • hackerhaus says:

    I lived in Japan for 10 years, and even after I had gotten to the point where I could talk about zero-gravity experiments on the space station (with a slightly Tohoku-twinged accent), they’d still answer me with puzzled, broken English.

    • bitneek says:

      The Tohoku-twinged accent thing is funny. I have never lived in Japan but I have visited frequently over the last 10 years. I speak Japanese on a fairly rudimentary level so I was very surprised, when one time while in Osaka, someone asked me why I had a Nagoya accent. My wife is from around there so I guess I must have picked it up despite being no where near fluent and never having lived in Nagoya.

    • Gakuranman says:

      “With a slightly Tohoku-twinged accent” 😉

      • hackerhaus says:

        I thought I had managed to get rid of it, but on a recent business trip to Tokyo, I was gently informed that it still comes out a little when I get “excited.” (Whatever that means.)

  • Samuel says:

    Well it is not that annoying, and I don’t bother too much about it, but what says Michael about it is really relevant imo. And I do think it’s a bit more annoying when you’re not even a native english speaker as in my case.

    When 2 persons with different non-English native languages try to communicate, they can speak in one of the 2 languages, or in the case both are better in English than in the interlocutor’s language, they can choose to speak in English for better communication. But if one is better in the interlocutor’s language, there is no reason to use English, except maybe to please the other one who really wants to use English. This is common sense to me.

  • Jeff Jensen says:

    *at a bar. Must go back to a normal cell phone.

  • Jeff Jensen says:

    Some of it is enthusiasm to speak English, a lot of it is ありがた迷惑, a lot of it is racial profiling and being shocked you speak Japanese better than their English. With some I think it’s performance. The eye doctor wants you to feel he can understand you as he tells you to look up or left when means down or right. Or someone abarat wants to show off in front of you and others. And then there are the stingy ones who won’t pay for eikaiwa. You could lie and say you’re from some obscure French village–just in case he’s been to Paris. And that you hate English and never bother to learn. Japanese are experts when to avoid telling the truth. When in Rome…

  • Gerard van Schip says:

    Lucky you. Here in rural Japan in hard pressed to find anyone that speaks English or when they can want to.

    • hackerhaus says:

      I was lucky that my first 5 years in Japan were in a rural area. It allowed me to really dig into the language and use it. Unfortunately, it left me with a bit of a weird accent, but I consider that part of my charm.

  • And we were lovers.. says:

    Honestly, I don’t get what’s the big deal about that. I’ve lived in Japan for 6 months, and I haven’t experienced that kind of situation very often, since most japanese I’ve met couldn’t speak english. The only students who would keep answering me in english were just trying to practice their english. But I don’t get what’s that annoying about it.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Come back to this article in 6 years. After you have spent considerable time and money to seriously study Japanese. You might feel differently then.

      • Coollead says:

        Lived in Japan for 6 years. Am a professional interpreter.

        Nothing has happened less than what is described in this post.

      • And we were lovers.. says:

        Excuse me but I’ve been studying japanese for 6 years -_-“

  • Samuel Cossais says:

    I pretty much went through the exact same experience as Michael, the last step being when using English becomes the exception.

    But my case is worse because English is not my mother tongue. Not only I got the same bad feelings when someone replied to me in English while I was speaking Japanese, but in my case it also meant that they misjudged my nationality because as you said, the Japanese would sometimes sounds as if he wants to show me his knowledge of my culture, although he does not know my country. I even envy native English speakers in Japan for this reason. At least you are talked to in your mother tongue.

    As it is pretty uncommon that someone talks to me in my mother tongue (French), I am always happy to reply in French. But even though my English is decent it is really not pleasant. Especially now that my Japanese is better than my English.

    • Gakuranman says:

      It’s interesting hearing from someone on the flipside, whose mother tongue isn’t English and has trouble using the language. I think the key here to smooth relationships would be to explain in (broken) English that you’re native language is French and apologise. That way you can avoid embarrassing the other person and hopefully switch to Japanese. The main thing to watch would be to avoid coming across as defensive or angry (although it’s easy to feel so!)

  • ZeaL says:

    My friends and I lament this, and continue to stubbornly speak Japanese to the people regardless of their efforts. However, after a full year of putting up with this, it’s become a passive-aggressive pleasure to watch them struggle with English when I’m speaking adequate Japanese to them. I mean, I’m ordering coffee or food, sometimes I’m asking for directions, but I’m rarely (in these encounters) looking for full conversations. My friends and I also note the general and genuine relief of Starbucks employees when we order, because at least we are saying the katakana words correctly… kudos!!

    • Gakuranman says:

      Haha. That’s a great observation! Sometimes speaking Japanese puts such a look of relief on the other person’s face I find myself struggling not to smile!

  • John says:

    Well, quite interesting and a bit compelling…
    If I were in your place I would be exaclty as you felt, but as I realized there are two ”worlds” trying to understand each other… So, it’s normal have such moments like you passed.

  • Mustafa Uğur Bilici says:

    I know how troubling it is to speak japanese especially when their english is also good.
    good level english (compared to majortiy) and the insist level are paralelly corrolated most of the times. struggling during those times is just futile. I generally give in, and speak in english. because generally its highly possible that he can not express himself in english. this is the time to turn in to japanese. so that you dont find yourself in a non-sense struggle to choose the language in communication or killing his unbearable will of speaking english.
    on the other hand, if you are not in a close relation with a japanese they will probably evade correcting you even if you want to try new skills and make mistakes. they will be recklessly focused in understanding you. so I can say, as we are foreigners there is no need to speak japanese with every japanese. (I am refering to the japanese people who desperately speak every single thing he knows about our country to start a conversation. )
    we can create opportunities to speak japanese, rather then speaking randomly about anything, by doing and learning cultural elements ( martial arts, sado, go etc… ) the language skills gained by cultural filters I mentioned, will bring you to a japanese-like speaking level sooner and make you understand japanese way of thinking. using the language merely with grammar sounds more like a better level of google translate to me. speaking japanese with its way thinking is the refinment of the language.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Great point about people avoiding correcting your language skills. As a language student myself, I often want people to correct me (where socially appropriate) in order to improve!

  • Gaijinn says:

    Yes sir!
    I asked “where the yokohama station is” in Japanese and i got “Its over there” WTF
    I am Asian. I thought i looked like Japanese 🙁

  • arsenalfox says:

    I just came back from 2 weeks in Japan and I saw this a lot. Yes I was worried about my skills in using Japanese, only knowing some basics that I thought I would need to get by; Greetings, asking how to find things, buy things, etc., typical tourist phrases. As mentioned in this article I found that every time I walked up to a counter, in 7-11, Starbucks, the train stations, hotels and restaurants, I was always greeted in English; they only tried their best to communicate in English. So I found myself only communicating back in English, and to see the Joy on their faces that I understood what they were saying.

    I too saw it as a little depressing that I could not practice, but then I also knew that most English that had been taught in Japan until recently was only grammar and not conversational English; and even though I was not able to practice I was allowing someone else to practice, and being content with just greetings and salutations in Japanese to show I had some mutual respect for their language.

    There appears to be a significant push for the Japanese to learn English, and a genuine want to learn. I don’t know if this is only because of the upcoming 2020 Olympics or some other reason, but I enjoyed having felt that I was able to provide some assistance to someone that seemed to want to practice English.

    After coming back home I have decided to push my learning of Japanese even further, joining Japanese classes at the Japanese Cultural Center in my city. I am really considering trying to get my qualifications to teach English as a second Language. I have teaching skills from teaching Art at College level, and have thought this may be a good opportunity to move there to experience and be part of this change as a possibly stepping stone to also be able to do Art in Japan.

  • Camcrem says:

    I don’t know where you’re meeting those persons because, being in Japan for 2 years, I’ve met 90% of Japanese who couldn’t speak English so I never had this problem…

    • Gakuranman says:

      It doesn’t seem to happen in any one place more than others, but in general, it seems to be older people rather than younger people who want to practice their English.

  • kristina.kay says:

    Read the book “The Roads to Sata.”

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