One of the strangest situations that you face when you start a Japanese conversation is greeting someone with one word to then be showered with the praise of jouzu (you’re so skilled)! Surprise, confusion, and frustration are common feelings. In the past, I provided various clever ways to respond (here, here and here) in order to calm your inner rant before it starts.
However, I wanted to take a different approach this time on the subject, and one that might actually make more sense than you think.
How fast can you judge someone’s Japanese ability?
I used to be under the impression that to really tell if someone is good at Japanese you’d need a conversation that went into some kind of depth. Everyone uses the same greetings and standard pleasantries so often that they become second nature. It’s easy to be fluent in talking about the weather.
Making a judgment based on one word, possibly followed by a “my name is…”? Insanity!
Or is it…?
Konnichiwa is the first word that you learn in Japanese. But that doesn’t mean it is the easiest. Beginners mispronounce it with the improper intonation extremely often, by adding too much emphasis on the second syllable. Many of the foreigners that native Japanese interact with are beginners. Perfect pronunciation of just this one word makes you stand out.
To add to pronunciation problems, there is also a pacing issue. Konnichiwa comes out of many learner mouths with hesitation followed by unnecessary speed (caused by the excitement of an actual Japanese conversation). Even if you nail the pronunciation, having a hurried, non-relaxed tone can ruin it.
That feeling of Jouzu
Both native Japanese people and foreigners really good at the language can tell you the same thing. You get a certain immediate feeling for someone’s Japanese and how good it is, based on their pronunciation of the first few words. It intuitively sounds good or slightly off, even if you can’t explain why.
This doesn’t mean that feeling of jouzu is always correct. There are plenty of people with good pronunciation and bad Japanese. I’ve started many conversations with someone where I think they will be much better than they actually are. It might take a little more depth into the conversation before I make that realization. And at that point you realized you were wrong, you wouldn’t then undo your initial jouzu with a heta (you suck!)
If I’m personally going to say jouzu to someone, I wait. But that’s because I have experience talking to thousands of Japanese learners and understand the entire dark cloud around this situation. Most native Japanese people in Japan don’t have exchanges with foreigners whose initial Japanese sounds awesome. I believe this might be a contributing factor to the involuntary response to that feeling of jouzu.
Of course if a jouzu is followed by a horribly pronounced koneeeecheewa, that’s an entirely different story of nervous/polite flattery.
One word judgment?
What do you think? Can you give a general judge of ability from a few spoken words? Have you experience a feeling of jouzu?