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Conversations in Japan

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Most native people in Japan fit the descriptions of:
A: Avoid talking to me because I’m a foreigner, therefore we can’t communicate at all.
B: Just talk to me in Japanese like I should be totally fluent. I’m in Japan after all.
C: Speak to me in English or mix English and Japanese. (With varying levels of comprehension on both ends of the conversation.)

My favorite is type B. Especially when they understand they should keep things simple and speak slowly. I like that people don’t feel scared to talk to me this way, as they are often nervous about using English. I think this is the best way for me to learn Japanese in context. It’s common for staff in stores to use Japanese normally with all customers unless there’s an obvious lack of understanding something essential. In contrast to this, in the case of filling out forms, usually staff assumes I have no ability to write in Japanese and offers to help. I’ve even had staff clearly write down kanji for me to copy from when I’m supposed to fill out a form and they aren’t sure if I know how to write it. (While this is helpful sometimes, let’s hope I can at least remember how to write my name and address.)

It’s also much more common for people to speak to me in Japanese when I initiate conversations in Japanese. They can hear that I have an accent and might notice I use elementary school level vocabulary, but will know it’s okay to talk to me in Japanese.

The funny thing is, I sometimes get asked for directions in Japan, by Japanese people. I’m guessing they don’t notice at first that I’m not Japanese, or I’m the first person they see. I haven’t ever known the place I was asked about, so I always have to say, sorry, I don’t know where that is.

Once I got comfortable asking about or explaining around vocabulary I don’t know, conversation in Japanese got a lot easier. There is still nervousness about how to say something new or starting conversations with strangers.

As an English teacher, I often hear that my students feel nervous speaking in English or asking for help when they can’t understand. Letting them know I have the same problems when I speak in Japanese is reassuring and gives them some confidence.

One additional scenario is the awkwardness when I come across someone who isn’t Japanese looking and don’t know if I should use Japanese or English. Using Japanese with someone new who speaks English better can be funny or just plain uncomfortable.

How do you deal with the language barrier in Japan?

Do you avoid talking to anyone? Can you get by in Japanese alright?

Do you feel nervous talking to strangers and making new friends (in any language)?

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5 comments on “Conversations in Japan

  1. Halee Pagel
    January 26, 2017

    How long did you live in Japan, and how many Japanese lessons did you have, before you felt comfortable with basic conversations? It seems to me that picking up listening/speaking would come more quicker than reading/writing.

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    • helloalissa
      January 27, 2017

      I studied just a little before living in Japan, but I’d say it was a good six months before things sort of clicked and I felt fairly comfortable in everyday conversation. While this is likely different for everyone, a good first step is learning how to ask questions like, “how do you say ~ in Japanese?” and some of the filler type phrases like, “what was it called…”

      Good question, and basic conversation level is a good first step, but not sure that I’ll ever feel totally fluent. I have felt stuck in that sort of intermediate stage for a while and there are so many words I still don’t know. Plus I often hear Japanese people asking each other, ‘what’s that word… how do you say ~…?’ so I know it’s actually normal to Not remember infrequently used Japanese vocabulary.

      The best way to learn is to force yourself to go out and speak a lot, make a lot of mistakes, and ask a lot of questions. Reading and writing is… not for everyone, and not as important for living in Japan. I’d at least learn hiragana & katakana, then you’ll pick up a little kanji gradually. It takes Japanese people 12 years of school to learn, so don’t feel bad if it goes slowly. You can always get used to asking people how to read kanji and learn that way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Halee Pagel
        January 27, 2017

        Wow! Thank you so much for your detailed answer. I’ve learned and lived in another language but I had three months of intensive classes and I lived with a host family. When I move to Japan, I won’t have any of that so I’ll need to do a lot of the leg work myself.

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  2. renmi86
    January 26, 2017

    I’ve recently been having people askkng me directions. I don’t look particularly Japanese, thought I am told my name is a bit confusing since it could be either.

    I’m rarely engaged in conversation outside of work, though I do often initiate on behalf of friends and coworkers. Though I am an English teacher, I do use plenty of Japanese with my managers and higher-ups. I’m qsked to interpret a lot at my latest school.

    How did you handle instances where you were with Asian friends that couldn’t speak the language? I find myself in that situation a lot lately.

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  3. helloalissa
    January 27, 2017

    Reminds me of this funny video: https://youtu.be/oLt5qSm9U80
    I don’t think I have any Asian friends in Japan who aren’t Japanese… I hope you don’t have a situation like in that video going on, but I’ve heard it happens.
    It’s funny that we can use Japanese so much while teaching English, which is part of being in a Japanese environment I guess. It’s much faster learning in Japan than back in the states for sure.

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2017 by in Living in Japan and tagged , .

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