Studying Japanese: Should you do it?

I’ve been in Japan for more than 6 years, and while my Japanese isn’t conversational, I can get by doing some essential things.  However, I cannot describe symptoms to a doctor, nor can I understand the financial terms used in banks.  Amanda at “Whoa…I’m in Japan?” made a post recently about being discouraged from studying Japanese.  What’s the reason?  Because it’s impossible for foreigners to learn Japanese.  What makes Japanese impossible to learn?  Well, in reality, nothing.  It is entirely possible to learn Japanese well.  I’ve heard that what’s impossible to learn is keigo, which is the skill of communicating in different formal situations.  I wouldn’t say that’s impossible, either, just difficult.  And I’m sure many Japanese people don’t even have a good grasp on keigo.

My reasons for studying Japanese are personal.  It’s not for business (although it will be useful in the future for me), it’s for being able to communicate with those around me.  My fiancee is Japanese, and we’re expecting a baby in January.  Our baby will grow up to be bilingual.  I will speak English, my fiancee will speak Japanese, and when we speak with each other, it’ll mainly be in English.  However, even though I’ll be able to speak to my child in English, I can’t do the same with my fiancee’s family.  Her parents, sister, grandparents, most of her cousins, aunts and uncles can’t speak English.  Most of her friends can’t speak English, either.  I need to be able to speak with them in Japanese if I’m ever going to communicate with them.  I can’t rely on my fiancee to translate everything.  It’s important for me to learn Japanese.

There’s another situation that many Japanese speaking foreigners encounter.  When ordering food at a restaurant, the foreigner orders in Japanese, and the waiter/waitress looks at the Japanese people with the foreigner to confirm that he/she is actually ordering that.  When I eat out with my fiancee, I get the same thing.  I say my order, and the server doesn’t say anything.  My fiancee repeats what I said and the server confirms with her, as if he/she was completely ignoring what I said.  When I order food alone when I’m by myself, I have no problems, though.  It’s when I order food while I’m with Japanese people that they always confirm with the Japanese people that I really ordered what I said.  It’s quite annoying.  I ordered in correct Japanese, yet they behave like I was speaking English.

Have you had annoying encounters with people while speaking Japanese?


Filed under Daily Life, Japanese

12 responses to “Studying Japanese: Should you do it?

  1. I have an almost identical experience with my wife, with speaking Mandarin. I learn so that I can communicate with my inlaws and her friends, as well as have some transactional ability when we’re in China.

    I’ve been told that to get the attention of staff in a Chinese restaurant (foreigner and local alike) often requires some amount of yelling and emphatic gestures. I have a hunch that may not work as well for you 🙂

  2. It makes me sad that people think learning Japanese is impossible!! Keigo really isn’t that bad, either, once you get the gist of it (you demote your actions and exalt the actions of another person by conjugating verbs differently)! Even kanji isn’t so bad. You get out what you put in.

    Maybe once I get to Japan I’ll have the lovely wool ripped from my eyelids, but really do believe that if you show an interest in learning then you can do it! It’s definitely not easy, though. I took four semesters in college and still don’t have a great grasp on it, which I can definitely see as being frustrating to others who may take a Western language and be almost fluent. But I also didn’t study nor practice half as much as I should of.

    The restaurant thing would be annoying – but they want to make sure they get what you are ordering correct, I’m sure. Though you’d think since you’re sitting there with a Japanese person that they would of made sure you said the right thing. Hahaha

    • Regional dialects are another thing that can be difficult, I think. You’re going to Yamaguchi? I wonder what their Japanese is like. I’m used to hearing Tokyo’s standard Japanese, as well as Osaka-ben on TV.

      I’m pretty sure some people see my white face and can’t believe that I’m speaking Japanese. But to be honest, when I’m by myself, they have no problems with my rather poor Japanese.

      • Yes, I’m going to Yamaguchi. I am hoping that by the time my time is up in Japan (however many years from now) I’d of lived all over so I get a feel for everything. Western Japan (where I’ll be next month), central Japan, eastern Japan, and northern Japan. I’ve heard that Tokyo considers Osaka to be kinda like the “South” in America dialect wise. Not sure how true that is. Haha

        • I’m not so sure if Osaka-ben is like southern American. Osaka’s a big city, and the south has an image of countryside and small towns. For a more proper comparison, maybe places like Akita, which has a strong dialect and is a rural prefecture, is better. Osaka has a rougher, more direct sounding language, so maybe Brooklyn or Bronx is better. I don’t think Tokyo has a fair comparison with any American city. Yes, it’s bigger than New York, and is the financial centre of Japan, but the attitude is completely different. However, it is considered sophisticated, like Manhattan. It’s the capital of Japan, but Washington is totally different.

          Yamaguchi is quite rural from what I’ve heard. I had a student from there, actually.

  3. I get the last thing completely. I can speak pretty well, maybe not with perfect grammar but I can speak. It drives me nuts when I get ignored by the staff, who just deal with the Japanese person I’m with. Grrr. It happened when I was sorting out my health insurance and I ended up going back another time, by myself and forcing the staff to deal with me, not my friend. Ok, rant over!
    Learning Japanese is not impossible. I struggle with the reading, but if I applied myself a bit more, I’d manage better. Find a fun way to study, forget about tests unless you need them for something, and enjoy!

    • I find that listening and reading are the easiest things for me. It’s the speaking I have trouble with. As for tests, I actually enjoy them. I’ve done JLPT twice before the changes, failed the first time, passed the second time. I liked seeing if I could do it.

  4. I went to a conbini today and the guy insisted on speaking English to me. Normally I’d be annoyed but he was so cute about it though, like he’d been top of the class at Lawson’s college in the “dealing with foreigners” bit and then never had a chance to use it before today. I even got a “please come back to our store soon.”

    • I don’t mind that. I got tonkatsu one day and the staff spoke fluent English with an American accent. Turns out that she lived in California for a few years. No wonder she sounded like a native. But if the person can’t really speak enough English to be understood, then it’s really unnecessary for them to speak English to me.

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