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The Language Barrier

January 22, 2009

I was recently discussing with a friend the sometimes insane complications of very formal spoken Japanese.

It’s a particular difficulty for a low-level learner because it’s encountered every day, whereas the same level of formality is rarely encountered in spoken English.

We imagined a Japanese exchange student popping down to the shops for a Mars bar and a packet of cigarettes.

Taro: (to his neighbour) Good morning!

Neighbour: Mo’n.

(some minutes later)

Taro: (to newsagent) Hello!  Mars, and [indistinguishable, newsagent doesn’t understand], please.

Newsagent: Sorry?  Lucky Strike?

Taro: Yes.

Newsagent: Four ninety-five altogether.

(Taro hands over a tenner)

Newsagent: Five pounds five change.  Do you want a bag for that?

Taro: Sorry?

Newsagent: [holding up a bag] A bag?

Taro: Ah, no.  I have a bag.  Thank you.  Goodbye.

All pretty simple.  Taro’s got what he wants and nobody’s blood pressure got dangerously high.  So here’s the same seemingly simple exchange, but with exchange student Ted in Japan, with the formality fully ramped-up.

Ted: (to neighbour) Good morning!

Neighbour: Ah, good morning, neighbour!  Where are you going?

Ted: (somewhat taken aback) Er… to the 7-11.

Neighbour: Ah, well, safe journey there and back.

Ted: Yes.

(at the 7-11)

Cashier: (shouting) Welcome!

Ted: (pointing at cigarettes) KitKat and [indistinguishable, cashier doesn’t understand], please.

Cashier: Oh, how awkward, I didn’t understand Esteemed Customer!  What shall I do?  What shall I do?  (starts to wave hands in front of reddening face)

Ted:  (doesn’t understand the commotion, so takes box of Lucky Strikes and puts on counter)

Cashier: Ah, ah, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you.   Those two items together come to 450 yen.

Ted: (puts 5000 yen note on counter)

Cashier:  Is it alright to take it from this 5000 yen?

Ted: Er, yes.

Cashier:  Thank you very much. That’s 4550 yen change.  I wonder if Esteemed Customer is in possession of a bag?

Ted: Sorry, what?

Cashier: (reddening again) Oh, what shall I do?  I can’t adequately make myself understood!  This is awful.  Does anyone speak English?  What shall I do?

Ted:  I already have a bag, if that’s what you mean?

Cashier:  Oh thank you. I’m terribly sorry. (packs bag)  Terribly sorry.

And there you see that a cashier nearly died of heart failure because of an inability to use any simpler form of Japanese.

People not just in Japan but the world over are unable to simplify what they are saying to language learners.  For example I once heard a (very) elementary student of English being asked “So what do you make of it so far?  Getting your head round it?” which was of course met with a blank stare.

But Japanese social rules actually serve to make life more difficult for the learner, who, in cases of total non-comprehension, will just be bombarded with more and more complicated and incomprehensible formality.

It’s unfortunate for us learners of the language that in order to learn everyday Japanese, you need to speak it perfectly already.  (Knowing how to read kanji before you’ve ever studied them is also very handy.)  Japanese actually has to be learned backwards.  And that, my friends, is why it takes so long.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Traviss permalink
    January 22, 2009 4:21 pm

    Hello, great post!

    I accidentally wondered across your blog last year and have had it in my RSS feed ever since.

    I am up in Fukuoka and I am a language learner myself (seriously studying, not the “buy a book on learning Japanese through manga” type.) and I always wondered why Japanese’s first reaction is to look for an English speaker instead of simply think logically that “hey, this guy has been speaking some Japanese to me, maybe if I just use simple Japanese this transaction would go more smoothly” but as you stated their social “rules” hinder flexibility.

    Keep up the good post, they are interesting.

    • January 22, 2009 4:28 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Traviss.
      Yeah, I’m sure some people do think of simplifying things, but that doesn’t jive with their whole formal customer service, and they’re unable and perhaps unwilling to step out of character.

  2. Brian Smith permalink
    January 23, 2009 1:06 am

    This cracked me up because I had almost the *exact* same conversation, bag and all.

    Someone I knew who was a nikkeijin who grew up in California had a hard time too – they mostly knew informal and simple japanese from their parents, but even if they asked specifically for the other person to speak informally, they’d have difficulty because it just was not in their nature to “choose” which level of language they wanted to use without fear of offense.

  3. January 23, 2009 10:25 pm

    Hi Brian, thanks for the message.
    I think any non-Japanese living in Japan knows where I’m coming from with that conversation.
    To anyone not living in Japan, it probably sounds exaggerated. But it’s word for word, isn’t it!

  4. RMilner permalink
    January 24, 2009 6:13 am

    I am studying sonkeigo etc right now and it is difficult to wrap one’s head around.

    My teacher asked how politeness works in English and it was difficult to explain because there aren’t strict rules and special words. At least the Japanese system offers a defined target.

    I’ve read that many Japanese have to buy books on politeness because it isn’t generally spoken.

  5. January 24, 2009 7:48 am

    The thing I have to tell Japanese students of English is that politeness and formality aren’t bound together in English like they are in Japanese. Being polite in English needn’t be formal, and more often that not, isn’t.

    Yes, there’s no elaborate separate system of grammar and vocabulary to determine politeness in English, like in Japanese. But English does get more indirect and more tentative the more polite we are being (when we are often still being informal and friendly).

  6. April 11, 2009 11:16 pm

    Great post. I agree that formalities can be quite irritating when all you want to do is make a simple purchase. I actually like a lot of the formalities in Japan, but I am not a big fan of it in stores. It always comes off cold.

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