Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Your Japanese is very good!"... really?

Is this is how Japanese people view foreigners?
We all know that Japanese people are well known for their kind nature, but are your Japanese skills really as good as they make them out to be? The answer to that question is a tricky one and there are a few reasons why this causes so much confusion among learners of the Japanese language.

So I'm a student of the Japanese language coming up to about the three year mark and I like to think that I can hold my own during a conversation or at least when reading a book not related to nuclear physics. Although I recently passed JLPT Level 2, I'm not going to lie and tell you that I'm great at Japanese because it's simply not true. I am working in a Japanese firm at the moment and it's rare for a linguistic problem to come up, but I still wouldn't say that I'm a fabulous Japanese speaker, reader or writer. I think I can say that I'm at the advanced level in terms of speaking but I wouldn't go as far as classifying myself as "jouzu" or "skilled".

Japanese people, however, like to tell me otherwise. You might be asking what I'm complaining about, but you'll see shortly!

This is how an old man looked at me for the first time!

The problem is that Japanese people seem to have a habit of over-complimenting foreigners on their Japanese skills. If you are in (or have ever been to) Japan, I'm confident that you will have come into contact with at least one of these people:

  • This person has rarely (in some cases never) heard or seen a foreigner speaking their language before.
The issue here is that they are simply surprised to hear a foreigner speak their language and so their threshold for "skilled" has been set very low. Advanced learners and beginners alike are being lumped together, rendering a well-meant compliment meaningless.

  •  This person is the type who compliments everybody in an attempt to seem kind and polite.
While this person may have more of an idea of what constitutes a genuinely skilled Japanese learner, their blanket treatment of all foreigners removes any meaning from their compliments and eventually ends up making them a bit irritating.

  • This person didn't quite catch what you said (let's put it down to strong wind?)
Similar to the person who rarely comes into contact with foreigners, this person acknowledges that you are speaking Japanese and simply wants to compliment you. Unfortunately, not knowing the contents of what you just said means that the conversation may go a little something like this:
"So what do you think about the government's decision to switch off all nuclear power plants during the summer?"

"Wow, your Japanese is great, Seb!'
"Oh... you're doing it again Takeshi.."
"Sorry! What were you saying?"

 If your Japanese is actually as great as they are telling you, it would be lovely to at least get a proper response!

Feels like talking to him!

Considering that Japan is more than 98% ethnic Japanese, I suppose I can cut them some slack if they are genuinely shocked to find foreigners who can (oh heavens no!) speak their language but...

Does this novelty ever wear off for Japanese people?

It seems that the vast majority of Japanese people are still too easily shocked by the sight or sound of a foreigner. I would even go as far as saying that they are only shocked by non-asian people speaking their language as I have plenty of Chinese and Korean friends who don't even get a second glance while speaking Japanese. I wouldn't quite go as far as saying it's racist, it's probably just that Chinese and Koreans can blend into the crowd quite easily but red lobsters (I'm talking about myself here) are not so lucky.

Having said that, I'm currently working in a Japanese company (read more about it here!) and my colleagues and superiors were already expecting a foreigner with decent Japanese, so I can use my Japanese like a regular human-being without experiencing mamby-pamby treatment. Pretty much from the start my colleagues were speaking at full speed and never compensated for the fact that I might not understand. You might think they could've been nicer but I'm actually grateful to receive such treatment because I don't have to feel like they see me as an outsider who can never participate in a regular conversation. They do occasionally tell me that my Japanese is good but only when I submit a detailed report in Japanese containing a wide range of technical vocabulary. I don't mind being complimented when I've genuinely tried my best to use language slightly higher than my true level.

Would it ever happen in the UK?

I don't recall ever complimenting anybody on their English while living in the UK. It's probably a mix of me being a scrooge and British people generally expecting any foreigner who comes here to speak our language. I've lost count of how many times I've seen bus drivers lose their cool and start shouting at foreigners who couldn't quite explain where they wanted to go. Having said that, another factor is the UK becoming such a diverse place that anyone armed native accent could be a British passport holder.

Some people in the UK (I have to say I'm one of them) have an extremely high standard when compared to Japanese people. While some people in the UK won't even contemplate praising someone on their English unless it was at a level beyond that of a common Briton (well doesn't have to be that good then, haha!), their Japanese counterparts seem to have laudation at hand for anybody brave enough to even attempt to speak their mother tongue.

To wrap-up

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't complaining about the ways in which Japanese compliment foreigners on their Japanese skills. The blind desire to be polite and kind ends up making some foreigners feel like they are being patronised or treated like children who have to be constantly praised in order to encourage improvement. However, I wouldn't want them to mimic the behaviour of arrogant British people (myself included at times) who simply expect everybody to know English.

I would also be lying if I said I'm not tired of Japanese people being compelled to compliment foreigners after hearing a simple self-introduction. Unfortunately, this act of kindness can make some people feel like they are being patronised or treated like children. Although I may be mercilessly stingy with my compliment-giving, at least I mean it when I tell somebody how their English is "really good". 

Having said that, my view of foreigners speaking English may be distorted by the fact that my mother tongue is a lingua franca. But that's just life, isn't it!

We know that they mean well, but if Japanese people could tone it down just a little bit and inject a little sincerity into their compliments, we foreigners might actually feel a sense of achievement when we are told:


Have you experienced similar treatment in from Japanese people in Japan or in other countries? Or have you had a different experience?

Whatever the weather, be sure to leave a comment below!

Until next time, 

See you later alligator!

1 comment:

  1. i speak MUCH less japanese than you do sebbu, yet i constantly have some of my japanese friends telling me "omg your japanese is so good!" even though mine is very basic and i can only use basic sentence structures and any japanese i DO use is usually mixed with a load of English.....but they do mean well and i think it's still nice! But yeah I usually take it to be that they're just extremely surprised that someone is learning japanese, a "difficult" language and not a very usual language for a European to learn.

    tbf I get the same compliments when speaking french and/or german, but i think they may be more sincere than the japanese compliments? since i can actually hold a good enough conversation in french and not in nihongo haha!!!


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