You Have 6 Seconds to Prove Yourself in any Conversation
One of the biggest complaints of foreigners living in Japan is:
“I talk to them in Japanese, they respond in English”
You can imagine the frustration of working so hard to study Japanese, and when you finally talk in it, you hear English in return. The result is either:
1) You give up, and switch to English.
2) You continue, and there is an awkward Japanese/English exchange.
3) After saying something basic in English, that person escapes the conversation completely because they don’t want to/can’t speak English well.
The only way to overcome this is to give them a peek into the depth of your Japanese prowess in the first 6 seconds of the conversation. It really must be done that quickly.
You can’t just speak in proper or good Japanese. If you walk up to a random person and ask for directions like 駅はどこですか(where is the train station?), you may have spoken in perfect Japanese, but it doesn’t show that you really know Japanese. Instead you would want to say something like あのすみません、この辺りに駅があるとお聞きしたんですけども、少々迷ってしまいましたが・・・ (Excuse me, I heard there is a train station in this vicinity, but unfortunately I’ve gotten myself a little lost . . . )
Trust me, they will respond to you in Japanese.
A few thoughts on why this works:
1. A Japanese person thinks that you are struggling hard to talk to him in Japanese, and he is doing you a favor by speaking in English and making your life easier.
2. A Japanese person wants the conversation to go at a faster pace, and he assumes speaking in English will be quicker.
3. A Japanese person has studied English or likes English, and would like to try and use some. The embarrassment of speaking in English dissipates because he assumes that your Japanese is worse than his English.
After you’ve proven yourself in the first six seconds, you can then lower your level of speaking slightly, but beware, if you slip to low, you may find the conversation suddenly turn to English again.
Regardless of the solution, don’t like this issue? This is just something you are going to have to accept. The language a conversation will be conducted in will usually fall to what appears to be the stronger of the two languages. Don’t let this discourage you at first. That extra few minutes of Japanese conversation is not going to improve your Japanese. It will be all the speaking studying techniques that you are using. And you now have very high motivation to increase your spoken level.
Note: This advice applies mostly to situations where you are talking to someone you don’t know. Also you occasionally get a really stubborn Japanese person who is in love with English, and will not budge regardless. But for the most part, you will be surprised at how powerful this method is.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Ironically, I never got this in Japan, but I get it very often in Korea. In Japan, even when my Japanese wasn’t that good, everyone almost seemed relieved (like phew, I don’t have to use English!), whereas here, no matter how much Korean I use, everyone responds in English. It’s a shame, as I AM still not that good, but for that very reason I need to keep using it.
I also have this weird problem that everytime someone talks to me in English, I get involuntarily angry and just stop talking or avoid them. Even if they just say “Hello” it makes my stomach churn. I don’t know why, but it’s certainly not conducive for making friends. But the truth is I’d rather be alone than speaking English with them.
I’m sure you’ve already considered this, but depending on where you are, these people might not either see a lot of foreigners, and/or they have very few chances to practice English with a native speaker. Even in places with a lot of foreigners, they might not get opportunities to interact with them. I’ve noticed a pattern of “sticking with your own kind” that makes it hard for people of different cultures to interact, nevermind any language barriers. Many of their English teachers are Japanese, and unfortunately there are many with questionable English skills, so this might be one of the few chances to try speaking to someone who actually knows how to speak English really well. (Though you might not always be in the mood to fill this role, which is understandable!)
In my personal experience, the people that talk to me in English are those that tell me they are studying English and are happy to have an opportunity to use it. Or they need to learn how to use it for business or interacting with foreigners. Even my aunt would often do this to practice her English, which she needs as a tour guide that sometimes works with English-speaking tourists.
I don’t mind talking to them in Japanese, or in English, and having them respond to me in English. I actually get a similar kind of urge when I meet Japanese people in the US (and especially when I traveled to Germany! I barely could speak German). Other than those people, most of the people I spoke to didn’t want to talk to me in English because it’s hard, they aren’t confident of their abilities, they don’t want to make a mistake and look stupid or accidently be rude, or they just don’t care about English (which I think is okay!).
You are entitled to your feelings (^^), but I just wanted to share that in my experience, they often don’t mean harm by it or think it’s because your Japanese isn’t any good (which I’m sure it is!).
I agree with Megan. I’ve heard about this happening, but I’ve never seen it myself in Japan. People are relieved when you can speak Japanese (even as poorly as I do).
The only time I do find this to be true is with my husband (who’s Japanese, but we speak mostly in English) and my Japanese ESL students (which I suppose is a good thing). But even my mother-in-law, who is decent at English, speaks and writes in Japanese with me because it is easier for her.
Haha, I feel your frustration, but this thread makes me feel bad for Japanese people. The “stubborn ones” who love English have probably studied for years, and are excited to have a rare chance to test their hard-earned knowledge on an unknown native speaker, in a “real world situation”. They get shot down, and they’re thinking, “You have the whole country to practice with… please let me use English ;;” … かわいそう~
Maybe you should just pretend to be a French person or something, who doesn’t understand English, so as not to disappoint them XD
You also have to feel a little bad for the people who flew to the other side of the world to learn Japanese, and yet don’t get a chance to use it.
While I may have mentioned them as being stubborn, I have nothing against people who love studying English.
I was in Japan for the first time (visiting) this past November, and while my spoken Japanese is not very strong, I was able to ask certain things with proper grammar (for example, one thing I asked was: 『すみません、品川駅のスターバはどこですか？』)… and most of the time I was met with an English response. In response to my example question, the girl at McDonalds looked VERY excited and proceeded to answer me in English as best she could. She was so excited and smiling the whole time, I went along with her in English instead. :)
At Starbucks and in the hotels, they spoke to me in English only as well, but in that case I think it might be a general rule for them or something? They were all very fluent at those places (which makes sense for the hotels). lol
Oh oh… and another one; a middle aged (but hip looking) shop keeper in Harajuku was extremely enthusiastic about talking to my husband about Los Angeles (where we live). He was also fluent, and also seemed thrilled to use English.
Using foreign language is quite exciting for us, because most people in Japan have fewer chances to be spoken to by a foreigner than in other Asian countries like the Phlillipines or in Singapore, so they must be very thrilled to be able to communicate in English with people outside Japan. I think you are contributing to enhancing our motivation to learn a foreign language. However, if you feel our English is worse than your Japanese, you can say to us, ” あの、日本語はなせるんですけど….”
You have the right to let us know we must prove ourselves,too.
Haha, when I was living in Japan I would often run into the types who were just as excited to be speaking in English as I was in Japanese. Most conversations were them speaking in English only, and me in Japanese only. Neither seemed to mind and I think both sides have had fun.
Would this also apply for Americans who are currently living in America and have a chance to meet Japanese people coming here? Similarly, we also don’t get much of a chance to speak Japanese to a Japanese person so does that make it okay for us to speak Japanese with them? Will the 6 second rule apply? When we meet them introduce ourselves and try to prove ourselves in Japanese even though they’re in America?
This question has been bugging me for the longest because I know a lot of study exchange students and I try my hardest to speak to them in English to help them, but I also see them speaking to other Americans in Japanese (they studied in Japan so the most comfortable language for communication was probably already set between them). The reason I am doing that is because I expect to be spoken to in Japanese when I go to Japan, but I’m sure they’ll think it’s still okay to speak to me in English just like in America. I really don’t care how uncomfortable it is, but I’ll continue to speak Japanese. That’s why I’m studying the language every single day because I want to be better than their English even though I’ve never even been to Japan.
There are a few Japanese students coming in about two weeks or so to my University where I’m going to be the “leader” and bring them to various places around the city. Will this be a good opportunity to try that? I want to establish the language with them to be Japanese because I’ll be going to Japan very soon.
It’s a little more difficult when dealing with Japanese in America or any foreign country.
It becomes a bit of an internal struggle of choosing either to:
1. Be polite and generous, and help Japanese who come from Japan get better at English by speaking to them in English.
2. Be a bit selfish, and focus on your own Japanese.
Most people choose a balance of the two. And really, #2 isn’t as bad as it sounds, because people get tired, and it can be nice for them to be able to speak Japanese as well sometimes.
You kind of have to 空気を読む (read the situation). If you start off in Japanese, and they have no problem and enjoy it, then go with the flow.
I agree with Adshap. It may seem selfish, but at the same time a lot of people feel comforted by having someone to speak their native language with them, and I’ve encountered this so many times.
There’s different roles. There will be that English speaker who will push that Japanese person to speak in English for their sake. My mother-in-law plays that role in my life for Japanese. While my husband plays the comforter role and speaks with me in English, which keeps me from getting burned out or too homesick.
You don’t have to force yourself to be the latter. There are tons of people in America who don’t care to learn a language that’ll speak English with that person. Do what you feel led to do. My mother-in-law, despite knowing English, feels led to force me to use Japanese. Do you have the passion for that?
Couldn’t you just pretend you’re from Russia or something?
Haha I still think they may assume that you can speak English.
But what if you fluently speak that other language, or your trilingual (speaking English, Japanese and a third language) but they don’t know. They might realize you don’t speak English, but something else… or you could speak in basic English and pretend you aren’t native or something…! Just ideas! ^.^
I confess that my answer to being spoken to in English in Japan is to look nonplussed and answer very haltingly until they conclude that my English is not really up to much and the conversation will be easier in Japanese.
Is that wrong of me? All I can say is that I absolutely understand Megan-san when she says: “I also have this weird problem that everytime someone talks to me in English, I get involuntarily angry and just stop talking or avoid them. Even if they just say “Hello” it makes my stomach churn.” I would feel the same and so I think my method of preventing the English interaction from occurring is better for everyone.
Also I feel very much that it is ONLY English-speakers who suffer this. If one speaks German or Spanish or any other language one does not encounter this constant attempt to lock one into one’s native (or near-native) language.
If one wasn’t an English-speaker people couldn’t do that, so just let them assume that one isn’t is my feeling.
It does work well for talking to strangers and I definitely recommend people try it!
Solution: Burn your boats on the shore. “Sumimasen. Doitsujin desu. Eigo ga wakarimasen.” (And if they want to speak German, we’ll speak German!)
You’ll be fine once you answer the followup “Are you sure you don’t speak English?” and “Are you really really sure?”