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COMMUNICATING WITH THE JAPANESE

By Joyce Millet  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reprint Permission


"What we have here is a failure to communicate"
From the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke


Communication problems are part of life.  Parents fail to communicate with their children; the boss does not communicate with his/her staff; men and women cannot seem to communicate with each other. These difficulties are universal--people everywhere have trouble communicating even in their own language. What happens when we add different cultures and languages to the mix?

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages in the world, and the Japanese seem to delight in the fact that only a few foreigners have mastered the language. This gives credence to the popular myth that Japan is unique and therefore only the Japanese can speak Japanese.

In the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier reported to Rome that the Japanese language had been devised by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan. Many who have attempted to learn Japanese might agree with St. Francis!

But, is it really necessary to learn Japanese in order to  successfully conduct business in Japan?  After all, there are hundreds of good interpreters, and, English is the accepted international language for business, right?

For those of you who decide to forego learning Japanese and just stick to English, here is another popular myth--most Japanese speak English. When you do find those who have a good command of the language, you will begin to realize that there are three types of English spoken in Japan.

First - Standard English

This is the English that is supposed to be what native speakers use.  But, do not be surprised to find some debate as to what this actually means.  Many early post-war students of English learned British English, while much of the English taught today is supposed to be American English.  Remember the words of George Bernard Shaw... "the United States and Britain are separated by a common language." 

Check out some interesting American and British expressions...

It is important to remember that even though someone speaks a language quite fluently, chances are they will not understand the colloquial language, which is full of slang, idioms, clichés and other expressions.

Japanese students are required to learn English in school beginning with Jr. High (some begin in elementary school). This means that most Japanese study English for at least six years. Many go on to complete another two or four years at colleges or universities. Japanese Education System However, many Japanese will quickly point out that even though they studied English for ten years, they have difficulty with basic conversation and verbal comprehension.  People visiting Japan for the first time always find this paradox difficult to understand.  There is, however, is a logical explanation.

One problem is the fact that many Japanese teachers of English cannot speak English themselves.  Emphasis is placed on reading, writing, grammar, and rote memorization.   Add to this the fact that during these six to ten years of study most students have limited opportunities to hear correct, or “native” English spoken, and certainly do not have many opportunities to engage in conversation with native speakers on a regular basis..

Another difficulty is that although there are probably thousands of "native speakers" teaching in Japan, many are not properly trained.  For years it has been known that teaching English in Japan can be very lucrative.  Just flip through the English yellow pages, or the classified ads, to see the incredible number of English language schools and ads for English teachers.   

Second - English that has become Japanese

Actual words and expressions have been adapted and are usually used in colloquial, less formal Japanese. A word of caution--just because you recognize the word or phrase does not mean you will understand the meaning as the Japanese use it.

Third - Original Japanese English

This is the English created by the Japanese that does not exist anywhere else in the world. Sometimes even the Japanese do not fully understand these expressions, but will use them anyway because it is fashionable and looks or sounds good.

Now that you have decided not to spend your time and money learning Japanese, you should take a little time to learn the essentials of Japanese pronunciation. Otherwise you may not understand Japanese-English. Most  foreign words and phrases are written in a syllabic script called "katakana", and are pronounced as they are written. This explains why so many Japanese have trouble hearing and understanding correct English pronunciation.   

For example, coffee becomes "koohii," hotel becomes "hoteru." A simple sentence such as "this is my business card" becomes "disu izu mai bijinesu caado." Many words and expressions are borrowed from many global languages. Some examples...

Nearly all Japanese words end in a vowel, and almost always the last syllable is pronounced. There are, however, exceptions. One very important word, "san", is used when addressing someone, e.g. Yamada-san. San is never used to refer to oneself. Examples of words ending in a vowel that are often not pronounced include:: "masu" and "desu" - prounced as "mas" and "des".

Note: In general, Japanese does not use heavy accents on different syllables of words.  For example, think of how many non-Japanese pronounce the following words - bold indicates the typical placement of accent:

Hiroshima = Hi ro shi ma
Nagano = Na ga no

The correct pronunciation is without stress on a particular syllable:

Hiroshima = Hi ro shi ma
Nagano = Na ga no

 

The Japanese often mix up the "L" & "R", which reminds me of a funny story...

There was a Japanese man living in the US who went to visit his eye doctor.  The doctor told him that he had a cataract.  The patient was confused, thought for a few minutes, and then finally told the doctor that he did not have a cataract.

The doctor repeated his diagnosis, but the Japanese man became insistent.  Finally the patient asked the doctor to step to the window and pointed to the parking lot.  "See, I don't have a cadaracku (Cadillac), I have a rincon konchinentaru (Lincoln Continental)."     

Everyone knows it is like the "L" in Rome, and the "R" in London!!


 

The Japanese Language

In the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier reported to Rome that the Japanese language had been devised by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan. Many who have attempted to crack the Japanese market and learn Japanese might agree with St. Francis! Japanese, known to native speakers as Nihongo, is spoken by about 127 million people. It is the 9th most commonly spoken language in the world.

Japanese is…

A language with a style used by men only
A language with a style used by women only
A humble language when speaking of oneself
An honorific language when speaking to superiors 
A polite language which covers most situations
A plain language used when speaking with one’s peers or inferiors
A language with many dialects, often not understand by the Japanese themselves
An unspoken language using “haragei”, which means intuition and gut feeling

More information on the Japanese Language

 

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