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View Poll Results: How should Japanese deal with foreigners ?

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  • They should assume that they can't understand Japanese and use gestures

    4 2.76%
  • They should first ask them whether they can speak Japanese (either in Japanese or in English)

    92 63.45%
  • They should address them in Japanese and only use gestures or speak more slowly if the person doesn't understand

    49 33.79%
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Thread: Should all Japanese directly address foreigners in Japanese ?

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Should all Japanese directly address foreigners in Japanese ?

    In the thread Fluent Foreigners Now Accepted In Japan!, we pointed out that many Japanese assume that a foreign-looking person cannot speak Japanese and therefore use sign language with them (as if foreigners were monkeys) even if addressed in fluent Japanese.

    We discussed whether the Japanese should even ask foreigners whether they can speak Japanese (nihongo wo wakarimasu ka ?) or just assume that they do and address them in Japanese and only resort to using sign language (or English) if the person cannot understand.

    MikeCash has remarked that it would be discriminatory to ask someone whether they can ask Japanese just because they do not "look" Japanese (but could have been naturalised, or born and raised in Japan, or just have stayed there for many years). I tend to agree with that.

    Indeed, in Western countries, people usually don't ask any foreign-looking person if they can speak the local language, and do not start making gesture assuming they don't because they look Asian or African, but just speak to them normally as with anybody else. This is also true in rural areas where there are only Caucasians, not just in cosmopolitan areas (I have tested it with my wife in several countries).

    Foreigners like me may feel that the deeply-rooted attitude of the Japanese to assume that foreigners do not speak Japanese can be quite irritaing, especially when we address them in fluent Japanese, or have been repeated times to the same shop, spoken to them in Japanese, and they still make gestures to us as if it was the first time they saw us.

    My question in this poll is "how should Japanese behave when dealing with an unknown person who 'looks like' a foreigner (in a shop for instance)" ?

    1) They should assume that most foreigners can't understand Japanese and use gestures
    2) They should first make sure that they can speak Japanese by asking them
    3) They should assume that they can speak Japanese and only use gestures if the person really doesn't understand.

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  2. #2
    The Hairy Wookie Mycernius's Avatar
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    Talking Politeness

    I think that it is only polite to ask whether they speak Japanese or not. Normally if I am meeting a person who doesn't speak English that I don't know, whether they do or not. I think it comes down to good manners. Japan being a polite society would naturally assume that any gaijin would not speak japanese because they don't look japanese. To be polite they would make the effort to address them in English. The same does happen to me when I am out delivering around Leicester and Birmingham. There are many companies that employ Indians that do not speak English very well. I feel it is polite to ask whether they do speak English if they have had a problem understanding you. I never had any problems and have always left on good terms, even if we do not share a common language. Good manners maketh the man. Bad manners make you a ****
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  3. #3
    Regular Member quiet sunshine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    MikeCash has remarked that it would be discriminatory to ask someone whether they can ask Japanese just because they do not "look" Japanese (but could have been naturalised, or born and raised in Japan, or just have stayed there for many years). I tend to agree with that.
    Oh, I'm a Chinese, but I might have the same "discriminatory" behavior if I met a foreigner. And I never knew that would be "discriminatory", got a new recognition, thanks.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Indeed, in Western countries, people usually don't ask any foreign-looking person if they can speak the local language, and do not start making gesture assuming they don't because they look Asian or African, but just speak to them normally as with anybody else. This is also true in rural areas where there are only Caucasians, not just in cosmopolitan areas (I have tested it with my wife in several countries).
    May be you westerner are too proud of yourself so you think foreigners went to your place should use your language? Hehe, just kidding! I hope someday everybody would learn Chinese then people here needn't be so crazy about English.

  4. #4
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    We discussed whether the Japanese should even ask foreigners whether they can speak Japanese (nihongo wo wakarimasu ka ?) or......just speak to them normally as with anybody else.

    My question in this poll is "how should Japanese behave when dealing with an unknown person who 'looks like' a foreigner (in a shop for instance)" ?

    1) They should assume that most foreigners can't understand Japanese and use gestures
    2) They should first make sure that they can speak Japanese by asking them
    3) They should assume that they can speak Japanese and only use gestures if the person really doesn't understand.
    I was a little baffled with the choices and couldn't vote because I was expecting, from reading the other related posts, that there would be an option

    4) They should assume that they can speak Japanese; however if the foreigner seems to speak a little but not fluent Japanese, they should try to speak slower and with enunciation .

    Reading Mycernius' post, I am also reminded of yet another possibility. For example,

    5) They should assume that they can speak Japanese; however if in doubt, should address the foreigner in both English and Japanese asking "Do you speak Japanese," and decide upon a common language before moving on to converse in anything.

    Another point that is tricky is that of being asked the same question three, four times in a row which can be very frustrating for the foreigner in a host country. A little bit of personal history. I had a kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Walters. We had an art class. One day, some of the kids including me did a spray painting with the brush. Obviously she was not happy. But she let everyone else go with an easy excuse. Although my answer was no different from the others' I was questioned 6-7 times the same thing, methodically; Did you draw a ball or a bird? That was traumatic experience for me.

    There should be an internationally acceptable protocol for such situations. Being doubted multiple times can seriously undermine one's sense of wholeness. I just hope the poll can address some of these nerve racking issues, too.
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  5. #5
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    I have adapted a bit the options to suit Lexico's ideas.

    I didn't mention whether they should ask "Do you speak Japanese" in Japanese or English, but it doesn't really matter in term of concept. What's more, some Japanese (especially older people) might not even ask that simple question in English.

    I have added "or speak more slowly" in addition to gestures, in case the person doesn't understand. The idea is that they first speak in normal Japanese, assuming that the foreigner can understand.

  6. #6
    Okama XD Kama's Avatar
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    I haven't been in Japan, but it's more common I suppose that foreigners don't speak Japanese. Maybe when somebody looks like foreigner they don't want to trouble him with asking in a language he doesn't know. Ands I suppose it's a stereotype that foreigner = english speaking person.

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  7. #7
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kama
    Ands I suppose it's a stereotype that foreigner = english speaking person.
    Yes, that's also why I thought that it didn't make much difference whether the Japanese asked "nihongo wo wakarimasu ka" or "do you speak English?". Over half of the Westerners do not speak English as their mother-tongue, and maybe 1/3 of this half cannot speak English at all.

  8. #8
    Danshaku Elizabeth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Yes, that's also why I thought that it didn't make much difference whether the Japanese asked "nihongo wo wakarimasu ka" or "do you speak English?". Over half of the Westerners do not speak English as their mother-tongue, and maybe 1/3 of this half cannot speak English at all.
    Although I think most Japanese would use 'ga' instead of 'wo,' I've never had a shopkeeper ask if I speak English, either out of a lack of confidence in their ability to carry a conversation or because it really isn't necessary for the business at hand.

    To smooth the encounter along, I usually take it on myself to make a point of speaking Japanese first which is generally sufficient for making the transaction work and finding what I came for. There has never really been an issue of not being remembered or of the clerk/owner insisting on practicing their English.

  9. #9
    Five times to Japan. ArmandV's Avatar
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    In shops and department stores, I have never had a problem in communicating with the clerks. I just generally point to what I want (I find out first if the clerk or someone else there can understand English) and the prices are generally plainly marked.

    In other places, I usually have no problem finding an English-speaking Japanese person. A lot of Japanese that I've encountered have a decent, rudimentary command of English. Generally, I have not found the communication problem that a few are sensitive about.

    I look at it this way, when I am in Japan, I am a guest in their country. I find it a little odd that foreigners who know Japanese, who are also guests, should get upset if they are asked if they speak Japanese. Since I don't know Japanese, maybe I am not a good person to ask.

  10. #10
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArmandV
    In other places, I usually have no problem finding an English-speaking Japanese person. A lot of Japanese that I've encountered have a decent, rudimentary command of English. Generally, I have not found the communication problem that a few are sensitive about.

    I look at it this way, when I am in Japan, I am a guest in their country. I find it a little odd that foreigners who know Japanese, who are also guests, should get upset if they are asked if they speak Japanese.
    Good points you make here, which I'm sure have crossed the minds of anyone in an ambiguous situation involving this language/foreign-looks/is-that-person discriminating,-patronizing,-or-making-fun-of-me sort of problem.

    It can go either way, if it happens only rarely or someone is justing passing thru. But if you're there for more than a brief stay, or decided to live there as a permenent resident, you'd definitely want to be fully integrated to the host country's social setting. For example in the US, there's a label following around a second generation Asian termed 'banana.'

    Depending on the individual 'banana,' he can feel deprived of an equal opportunity in US society. Although he may have been fully 'white-washed' like the inside of the yellow fruit, his 'yellow' skin may become a cause of inequal treatment. Now whether that is generally true or only so in isolated cases is hard to determine. He may have become fully Americanized inside, but has he really? Socially?
    Last edited by lexico; Feb 20, 2005 at 02:09.

  11. #11
    Hi Keiichi's Avatar
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    I think it's justified for the Japanese to think whatever, but I think they should mostly speak to them in Japanese at first, assuming they may know at least a little be, because that is the country's language. Just like how foreigners come to the US, many people assume everyone knows some English. It's more of the responsibility of the person that entered the country not knowing the country's language to let others know they don't know the language, and residents that do know the language should assume who they're talking to knows at least some of the language.

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  12. #12
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keiichi
    1) It's more of the responsibility of the person that entered the country not knowing the country's language to let others know they don't know the language, and

    2) residents that do know the language should assume who they're talking to knows at least some of the language.
    You have put two complicated ideas in very clear language, in one sentence!

    I took the liberty to delineate the two ideas, just so that it looks like a legal document.
    Nice job, Keiichi!

  13. #13
    As the Rush Comes Duo's Avatar
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    Wink

    From what I can make of these threads, I think the question should be changed into should the japanese stop assuming that foreigners are stupid ? ;)

  14. #14
    Danshaku Elizabeth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    You have put two complicated ideas in very clear language, in one sentence!

    I took the liberty to delineate the two ideas, just so that it looks like a legal document.
    Nice job, Keiichi!
    Although in reality the number of short-term visitors/tourists entering Japan with have a better command of Japanese than the typical residents do of English is extremely small, so I agree it is up to the foreigner to learn a few basic phrases (I can't speak Japanese etc) but neither party should assume any business can be conducted entirely in Japanese nor should the English speaker begin with "I don't speak Japanese" or "Do you speak English?" in English. For purposes of shopping/tourist destinations/airports, there's usually at least one person on standby who is more fluent and can mediate most situations. It really isn't really necessary for one side to 'inform' the other in my view....the foreigner just begins speaking in either language and understanding is either there or not.

    Most likely an conversation will be end up being an unholy combination of the two.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keiichi
    I think it's justified for the Japanese to think whatever, but I think they should mostly speak to them in Japanese at first, assuming they may know at least a little be, because that is the country's language. Just like how foreigners come to the US, many people assume everyone knows some English. It's more of the responsibility of the person that entered the country not knowing the country's language to let others know they don't know the language, and residents that do know the language should assume who they're talking to knows at least some of the language.
    I completely agree.

    Quote Originally Posted by Duo
    From what I can make of these threads, I think the question should be changed into should the japanese stop assuming that foreigners are stupid ? ;)
    I think you're right. I, too, was thinking about that. One thing that drives me crazy is when Japanese people say that their language is hard. Maybe it's just me, but it's all a matter of familiarity. Once you get used to the syntax you're ready to go. There are so many things about Japanese that are so much simpler than English, Spanish, or French that it was quite a refreshing change to learn Japanese. I mean, the language only has two truly irregular verbs! How difficult is that?!

    I will grant them that their writing system is probably the most complicated in the world, but that's a separate issue from knowing how to speak.

    It seems that on the whole Japanese people think that they have the hardest language in the world, and there's no way anyone non-Japanese could possibly learn it. I would guess, though, that this way of thinking is probably on the way out with the high numbers of foreigners in Japan who speak Japanese. But it does point at a trend of Japanese pride and a belief that no one can understand them and that they are uniquely unique.

  16. #16
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Duo
    From what I can make of these threads, I think the question should be changed into should the japanese stop assuming that foreigners are stupid ? ;)
    Well, you obviously hit it on the nail for the accuser, so to speak. But at the same time it sounds a little unfair for the accused somehow.

    What makes me say this is the importance I put on member Hiroyuki Nagashima's vote for the first poll option. From his many posts that I have read with keen interest, I find nothing but respect for any foreigner on this forum; actually even more than that. This to me is a cultural characteristic of Japan: to go out of one's way by using jestures for the sole purpose of preventing any embarassment on the foreigner's part.

    Using gestures can be very self-humiliating for the Japanese (is it true? this also needs to be verified) ; but they do it anyway for the benefit of the foreigner who is the guest, who deserves, in the mind of each individual Japanese person, the greatest respect.

    How gestures are interpreted in general, and what each gesture means in each particular context can vary widely across different cultures. I don't know the details of it; perhaps someone can fill in, but I feel that this difference should be addressed before making a sweeping judgement from a Eurocentric point of view.
    Last edited by lexico; Feb 20, 2005 at 06:46.

  17. #17
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elizabeth
    Although in reality the number of short-term visitors/tourists entering Japan with have a better command of Japanese than the typical residents do of English is extremely small, so I agree it is up to the foreigner to learn a few basic phrases (I can't speak Japanese etc) but neither party should assume any business can be conducted entirely in Japanese nor should the English speaker begin with "I don't speak Japanese" or "Do you speak English?" in English. For purposes of shopping/tourist destinations/airports, there's usually at least one person on standby who is more fluent and can mediate most situations. It really isn't really necessary for one side to 'inform' the other in my view....the foreigner just begins speaking in either language and understanding is either there or not.

    Most likely an conversation will be end up being an unholy combination of the two.
    I think what you say is closer to the real situation than not. So the solution to the tension that has been addressed in thisthread (and others) could use some formulation of a universal rule (is that is possilbe) that will minimize miscommunication and personal resentment such as Maciamo has described so eloquently. Any thoughts in that line? Obviously the natural good-will, good-wll chemistry seems to have failed in this case....

    And why do you say unholy ? It must be just an expression of the difficulty in defining a clear cut solution it seems....as when one reads Godzilla and Vanna White would make strange bedfellows....Can we make it holy in any way?

  18. #18
    Danshaku Elizabeth's Avatar
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    This to me is a cultural characteristic of Japan: to go out of one's way by using jestures for the sole purpose of preventing any embarassment on the foreigner's part.

    Using jestures can be very self-humiliating for the Japanese (is it true? this also needs to be verified) ; but they do it anyway for the benefit of the foreigner who is the guest, who deserves, in the minds of each individual Japanese person, the greatest respect.
    I had never stopped to think about the implication of gestures like this because I've never had to use them as a substitute for the language. But it is an interesting idea. The second most embarrassing scenario (or offensive/ exasperating, for those Japanese that resent any attempts to learn their language, particuarly when it becomes too good) is for foreigners to struggle with their grammar and vocabulary in front of Japanese speakers more familiar with English (pronunciation is not such an issue if things can be written down or repeated). Which is why you rarely hear it initiated on their side -- most will wait to see how much the other person can understand, if anything, first.

    There isn't any controvery about English or other speakers working on a few emergency words and phrases for the sake of modesty and goodwill, but at least in the beginning they will likely be stopped very quickly and asked for the English version. Even those few truly interested in practicing, unfortunately....and even very close Japanese friends can still be embarrassed at having to say 'I don't understand.'

  19. #19
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArmandV
    I look at it this way, when I am in Japan, I am a guest in their country. I find it a little odd that foreigners who know Japanese, who are also guests, should get upset if they are asked if they speak Japanese. Since I don't know Japanese, maybe I am not a good person to ask.
    Have you ever considered that the people who have it happen to them often enough and over a long enough period of time for it to begin to irritate them aren't short-term tourists here?

  20. #20
    As the Rush Comes Duo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    Have you ever considered that the people who have it happen to them often enough and over a long enough period of time for it to begin to irritate them aren't short-term tourists here?
    I'd further like to note that, here in belgium, the people don't ask foreginner lookin people whether they speak or not, for example the lady at the supermarket treats everyone the same, you dont see belgians going up to asians and asking them if they speak the language or not, and brussels is a city of 30% foreingers and bilingual. I always get people coming up to me asking me stuff in flemish, a launguage that I don't know, and even here that lanuage is such an undecided factor i haven't noticed people asking me if i spoke french or flemish before talkin to me. They assume I do. So I thi nk in Japan it should be the same.

  21. #21
    Regular Member sgt. Pepper's Avatar
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    Well, Sweden has a lot of foreigners so i assume that foreign-looking people i see speak Swedish, because most of them do. The same should go for Japan i think...i don't know how many foreigners they've got...but still.

  22. #22
    Regular Member quiet sunshine's Avatar
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    What's foreigner's proportion in Japan? And what's foreigner's proportion in western countries? Among those foreigners, how much is the proportion of people who can fluently speak the language of the coutry he stays?
    May be westerners have the impression that all foreigners can speak their language but Japanese have the impression that most foreigners can't speak Japanese so they usually assume they can't?
    You suppose Japanese' psychology in your thinking way through your experience, how do Jananese think about this issue on earth? Hm, there should be some real Japanese to participate into discussion.
    Anyway, even if it would be "discriminatory" as you thought, I think it would be "friendly discriminatory".
    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    Have you ever considered that the people who have it happen to them often enough and over a long enough period of time for it to begin to irritate them aren't short-term tourists here?
    To those who first know you, they may contact with you according to their general impression about foreigners. You contact many Japanese everyday, but to many Japanese you contacted, although they might contact foreigners before, it's their first time to contact with "you".
    Last edited by quiet sunshine; Feb 20, 2005 at 12:50.

  23. #23
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArmandV
    In other places, I usually have no problem finding an English-speaking Japanese person. A lot of Japanese that I've encountered have a decent, rudimentary command of English. Generally, I have not found the communication problem that a few are sensitive about.
    The problem is not for the foreigner to be understood (that's pretty easy), but the attitude of many Japanese to refuse to talk Japanese with a foreign who address them in fluent Japanese.

    What's more if you only went to the touristical areas and your ony concern for communication is to buy something from a shop, how could you have encountered any problem ? But most Japanese outside the big cities, and most people over 40 or 50 do not speak a word of English. Even in central Tokyo, when going to my local dry cleaner or bento-ya, the women there (over 50) always use sign languages with me, eventough I have been going there regularily for over 3 years. When I come in, they act as if they had never seen me before and look all confused. At the bento-ya I might say with a confident air "honjitsu no makunouchi bento kudasai" (making it longer than what the Japanese usually say on purpose). My pronuciation cannot be bad, as they never ask me to repeat (except if they are visibly too nervous to notice that I'd said something). But when asked to pay, they show either write teh price down on a piece of paper or show it on the cashier's stand - rather than even saying it once before in Japanese. Everytime I say "ahh yon hyaku kyuju en desu ka ? shosho omachi kudasai (check in my wallet), hai, yon hyaku kyuju en desu." to show them that I prefer being told in Japanese. No matter if I go there 4 times in a month, sometimes with my wife with whom I speak Japanese expressedly to show them I am fluent, but these dumb women keep writing the price down on a piece of paper and showing it to me with their finger without a word. This happens even more frequently once we go to the countryside. Now I try to avoid these "blacklisted" shops, even if I have to go more far away to find another where that doesn't happen.

    I look at it this way, when I am in Japan, I am a guest in their country. I find it a little odd that foreigners who know Japanese, who are also guests, should get upset if they are asked if they speak Japanese.
    There is a big difference between a short-term visitor and someone living in Japan and fluent in Japanese. But as Japan is not such a touristical country, quite a few of the Westerners there are there at least for a year and so should at least understand the numbers (that can be learnt in an hour) and basic greetings. I also don't buy the typically American idea of "guest country". Once you live and work there and pay taxes, you are no more a guest than the locals. Anyway the very concept of "guest country" and "home country" (and "patriotism") don't make sense to me, but maybe it is because I grew up in so many different countries.

    Anyway, thinking that someone is a tourist might excuse them for the occasional time, but not when one goes to their shop regularly for 3 years.

  24. #24
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Duo
    From what I can make of these threads, I think the question should be changed into should the japanese stop assuming that foreigners are stupid ? ;)
    Exactly ! I mean who can't learn some basic greetings and numbers, even as toursits ? When I went to places like Thailand or Indonesia (for about 2 weeks), I learnt what I could because it's not always easy to be understood in English there. In one day I had reached the same level in Thai as most Thai tuck-tuck drivers in English. If I didn't know, I checked in my phrasebook, because I hate using sign language.

    I think that most Japanese assume that foreigners cannot learn their language because its "ooh so difficult". In fact it may be one of the easiest language in the world except for the particles (which even the Japanese have problem with) and the kanji (not difficult, just a matter of time and practice). The pronuciation and many aspects of the grammar (no gender, number, declination, conjugation, few tenses...) are easier than in about any European languages. I'd say that the main difficulty of Japanese is that it is too simple and therefore confusing (homonyms, lack of grammatical nuances..).

  25. #25
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Glenn
    Once you get used to the syntax you're ready to go. There are so many things about Japanese that are so much simpler than English, Spanish, or French that it was quite a refreshing change to learn Japanese. I mean, the language only has two truly irregular verbs! How difficult is that?!

    I will grant them that their writing system is probably the most complicated in the world, but that's a separate issue from knowing how to speak.
    Completely agree with you !

    It seems that on the whole Japanese people think that they have the hardest language in the world, and there's no way anyone non-Japanese could possibly learn it. I would guess, though, that this way of thinking is probably on the way out with the high numbers of foreigners in Japan who speak Japanese. But it does point at a trend of Japanese pride and a belief that no one can understand them and that they are uniquely unique.
    I couldn't have said it better. In my opinion and experiene, French is one of the most difficult languages in the world (pronuciation, twisted grammar, very irregular spelling, inflexibility, tendecy of the French to prefer technical words even in informal situations, etc.) but the French take the opposite attitude of the Japanese. Although they know that theur language is ver difficult (esp. for beginners, who can't even hope having an easy sentence right), they expect foreigners in France to at least try to learn it.

    It usually goes so far that even when they can speak English or another language in which they are addressed, they often pretend not to undestand or just answer in French. In fact, the French usually do more efforts to learn the basics of the local language (and culture) of the country they are visiting (especially in places where the locals aren't supposed to know French) than many other people, and they expect people visiting France to do the same, wherever they come from, and no matter how long they stay. That's why they will address any foreigner in French. If the foreigner cannot understand most Frencg will prefer speaking more slowly, or using simpler words, rather than switching to another language that they can speak.

    The reason hidden in a typical French mind is that they should encourage foreigners to learn their language, rather than the opposite. However, the Japanese seem to do all they can to discourage foreigners to speak their language, even refusing to answer them in Japanese when addressed in Japanese.

    Another interesting Japanese reaction is to laugh when they see that a foreigner can understand what they are saying between them or replies in Japanese to a question asked in (broken) English. They laugh because they feel uncomfortable with the idea of a foreigner being able to speak their language, especially if the foreigner speaks better Japanese than they can speak English.

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