Stop speaking Japanese (etc)

… or How to React to Random English in Your Everyday Life Abroad.

This was supposed to be in Tokyo’s freebie listings magazine Metropolis, but it was so badly mangled by the editor that I decided to publish the original version for free here rather than the butchered version for free there. Given the topic, should be relevant to many people working in countries other than Japan too:

Even people with rubbish Japanese or who have only been here a short time have probably experienced someone with even worse English addressing them in that language, most probably a shop assistant or a man who’s looking for some free English conversation to liven his retirement up.

There are five possible reactions to this situation, all of which I’ve used at one time or another:

1) Reply in your (slightly or much) better Japanese, perhaps with your body language, tone of voice or unnecessarily advanced language showing how unhappy you were to be addressed in crappy English just because you look foreign

2) Reply in Japanese, but with a smile showing you appreciate their efforts

3) Interact silently while smiling to politely reject having to speak in English just because you don’t “look Japanese” but without rubbing their nose in it

4) Reply in English with natural speed and pronunciation, knowing that it will be met with incomprehension and so you can instantly switch to the Japanese that you’d be happier with

5) Try replying in simple English, being ready to switch to Japanese whenever it seems they might prefer that

The best response can depend on factors like how much the person addressing you in English is sweating and/ or shaking and your position in Japanese society. However, for the vast majority of people and occasions, the response should be the one I’ve resolved to use from now on, number 5. Reasons include:

  • It is the only option that takes the attempt to address you in English in the spirit in which it is usually intended, which is to help you and/ or make you feel welcome in Japan
  • The Japanese are often criticised for being shy about speaking English, so it hardly seems fair to disapprove of them doing so, whatever the circumstances
  • They might assume you’ve not understood their English or be embarrassed by your reaction, and so almost certainly not try to speak English outside the classroom again
  • Many people are impressed by the helpfulness and welcoming nature of Japanese who help or chat to visitors in English (as my gran was when she visited in the 70s), and there is no way that the person speaking to you could know that you were going to take it another way
  • It might not even be their choice to speak English, but rather something pushed on them by their employer or English teacher.
  • The Japanese government (and so presumably population) agrees to giving us visas with the stated ambition of “internationalising” Japan, and I’d imagine they would want us to “gambarimasu” with that even in our free time, especially with the Olympics already on everyone’s minds. That duty includes many people who are not actual language teachers but have nonetheless been employed at least partly with the idea of getting the Japanese people around them used to dealing with gaikokujin.

Some people think the automatic switching to English when someone doesn’t “look Japanese” is a kind of racism, and I imagine it is true that it is the colour of your skin, hair and/ or eyes that is the prompt in the majority of cases. However, this is simply an easy shortcut in the same way as Tunisian market traders seem to spot my French-Tunisian friend’s clothes and/ or body language and so know instantly that she’s a potential target – and in Japan it is usually without the aim of hard sell. I therefore can’t get myself worked up about the race part of the equation in this kind of case.

Perhaps the strongest objection to replying in English to English used randomly with strangers is a milder version of the same argument – that the Japanese need to get used to people with different backgrounds being part of Japanese society and being treated the same as other citizens of this country. I absolutely accept this point – for the few incomers who really are trying to become part of Japanese society. Personally, I’m not willing to accept the social pressure etc that truly “becoming Japanese” would entail and embrace my role as an outsider who acts and is treated differently.

Therefore, though it’s often inconvenient, uncomfortable and even annoying, I really can’t justify anything other than responding to all attempts at my native tongue in convenience stores, trains and stations with a smile and as polite and simple an English reply as I can manage. I even usually succeed in suppressing the thought “You owe me several hundred yen for those few minutes of free Eikaiwa, mate”. In fact, a bit like smiling even when you are depressed actually making you happy, responding in the nicest way seems to be making me appreciate people’s efforts in using English with me more, however little I need it. As it is almost certainly making them feel better too, I urge most of you to join me in the struggle.

This entry was posted in Teaching English Abroad, Teaching English in Japan. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Stop speaking Japanese (etc)

  1. I experience this pretty often even here in Italy. And since I teach EFL for a living yes, I do sometimes feel like I should charge people for the practice. I never know how to feel about it; sometimes I wonder if I’m being cheated. I think when Italians try speaking English with me it’s either to get some English practice or to try to help me feel more comfortable as a foreigner. Either way, I don’t think the intentions are malicious, so you’re right. It’s probably best to just smile and go with it.

  2. alexcase says:

    In Italy as in Japan one thing that sometimes catches me out is when they are just using English with me in a joking way as they do with each other rather than anything to do with me being an English speaker. One of many things that the two countries have in common:

    Haven’t quite come across the same thing in the same way elsewhere – in Spain it seemed to be switching to cod Andalucian accents among my friends for some reason.

  3. FY says:

    If I’m not working, I’m usually a Number 2 kind of guy (respond in Japanese with a smile for their efforts) because it shows the other person right away that I intend to speak Japanese with them, no matter what their intentions are. If they continue to speak broken English after that, I will quickly be ending the conversation and walking away. That said, if they’re English is good and they aren’t speaking in a “well I can speak English” tone, I speak English too.
    Also you forgot option 6.

    6) Respond in French.
    I have seriously used this a few times. Its good for laughs, and for them to start using Japanese with you!

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