You are deep in a conversation with a Japanese person. You are told something you don’t understand. Enter language-panic-mode. Why didn’t you understand it? Did you not know the word? Was it too fast? Were you not able to process it? Was his speaking style different than what you were used to? While trying to figure out what went wrong, and how you can fix the situation, there is one thing you may not have considered.
The Japanese that you just heard isn’t real Japanese.
Most Japanese people will try to be polite and sympathetic to foreigners when they are struggling speaking Japanese. They have their own bitter experiences learning English, and most of the encounters with foreigners they have in Japan are probably of the non-fluent variety.
They want to help you and make your life easier. You may get the dreaded “they speak English in response to your Japanese.” But you didn’t this time. You’re safe. Or so you think. Until you get something just as bad as English…
Your life has just become harder. In trying to help you, they:
1. Talk super slow
When you can’t seem to understand what someone says, expect a “slowed down” version of it. Slower is better, giving you more time to parse information, right?
You study Japanese by listening to real Japanese (hopefully). You are getting yourself used to the natural flow and speed of the language. What happens when you are given a super-slow version of this, which you’ve never practiced.
Yoooouuuuuuu cccaaaannnn’ttttt unnnndderrrsstttaandd ittt.
It feels completely different, and even if it involves words or sentences you would have understood, now they are lost to you. You get stuck in a vicious loop: you don’t understand it -> they talk slower -> you understand less -> they talk slower -> you understand less…
2. Use strange pronunciation
You didn’t understand something. Maybe it was because of the pronunciation? Why not just try a different pronunciation, and maybe you’ll get it then. Hmm… what kind of pronunciation would help? A foreign sounding one!
Now you’re listening to a Japanese person trying to imitate a foreign accent version of a Japanese word.
While it’s true that your spoken Japanese as a beginner may be mispronounced, this isn’t what you intentionally practice or notice. If you heard your own pronunciation played back to you, you may have trouble understanding it. However, the real issue is that foreigners make pronunciation mistakes based on both their native language and their own learning environment. This is why some people don’t like practicing Japanese with other foreigners.
The Japanese speaker is mimicking an artificial pronunciation that sounds like what a foreigner would say, but most likely wouldn’t be what you would say, even if your pronunciation is wrong.
3. Use awkward Japanese
Textbook language is easy. Real language is hard. Speak like a textbook, and you’ll understand.
While this probably won’t cause a problem with understanding, since you are familiar with textbook phrases, it makes you develop bad habits. You start to think that this is how Japanese people talk, since you’ve now experienced it many times in person.
The worst example:
Many Japanese improperly assume that the global standard for introductions abroad is “My name is…” So when speaking with a foreigner, it’s better to use this introduction in Japanese, as it will be understood. “私の名前” isn’t wrong. It’s just not common. Like when a Japanese person comes up to me and says “how do you do?” and I think I’ve met a time traveler.
Foreigners will copy the Japanese that is used in a conversation with them. Copying Japanese that isn’t used in a conversation among Japanese people is not helpful.
4. Use fake foreign words
The Japanese language has a never-ending supply of words borrowed from other languages, and transformed into Japanese. This is real Japanese which you need to learn and use. Being a foreigner gives you an advantage in learning these words.
Japanese people are aware of this advantage you have. They then misuse it to try to help you. You don’t understand a Japanese word. The Japanese person happens to know that word in English. So he takes the English word (which doesn’t actually exist in Japanese) and adds Japanese pronunciation to it. You now have a made up Japanese-sounding word. You think it is Japanese, and start using it with other Japanese people.
The strange Japanese experience
When your Japanese ability isn’t quite up to par, you need to tread carefully when engaging in conversations. Some of it may not be real.
Do you have any experience of “strange Japanese” coming out of conversations with Japanese people?