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When I was traveling in Japan I asked some Japanese people if they speak English in Japanese, and for some reason people didn't really answer my question. I wasn't sure whether it was because they don't want to speak in English or if it just seems strange to Japanese people that you would speak Japanese to try and get an English answer. I was traveling in between Tokyo and Hiroshima. I want to know if it is better to just ask the question in English rather than in Japanese?

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It could be because your Japanese sounded like Klingonese –  user1712 Apr 7 '13 at 23:08
    
I recently had the opposite case: I notcied some fellow tourists in Spain talking in Japanese and started a casual conversation in Japanese. They replied in English "Oh, you speak Japanese?". And no, my Japanese wasn't broken. –  Michael Borgwardt Apr 8 '13 at 7:20
    
To follow up on the comment, did you reply or continue the conversation in Japanese or English? –  Michael Lai Apr 18 '13 at 23:17
    
@Michael Lai: I continued in Japanese, and then they did, too. –  Michael Borgwardt Jul 9 '13 at 7:57
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Asking if someone speaks your language has several potential pitfalls, and even more so in Japan. There are completely different expectations to assess whether oneself actually speaks a language and a portion of fear what kind of expectations the asking person might have if one confirms.

In Japan on top of this, people feel the expectations towards them are much higher than in other countries. while an Italian might hesitate much less to tell you their life story in Italian if you speak only 2-3 words, Japanese have a much higher urge for perfection and rather remain silent as to avoid embarrassment for both of you.

So the best way is normally to try and make the question itself (where is the station?) easiest understandable for the person instead of unintentionally pushing them to a commitment of understanding and being able to reply to you in a foreign language.

So to answer your question, yes they most likely did not want to speak English because, whatever their level of English was, they did not feel that it was enough to confirm that they spoke English.

So if your questions are about a location, knowing the word of that place in Japanese and having a map where people can point to will lead to much better results than asking if they speak English. Asking that in Japanese is even more tricky, specially if your Japanese is not good enough to understand if they would reply in Japanese something along the lines of "I studied it in school but forgot most of it."

Regarding getting an answer in Japan to such a question, there is another dimension: People in Japan will not tell you if they do not know the answer. To admit straight away "I do not know" is a no-go on several cultural levels in Japan. It would embarrass both of you at the same time from the point of view of the answering person. So unless the person knows the answer, they will most likely start to think silently, tilt their head and make comments like "So desu nee...", "Chotto..." and pull in air through their teeth. This should be for you the signal not to insist, say thank you and to continue. If you persist, there is a high chance that the person will feel pressured sending you in whatever direction. Please see also my answer here for more details on that topic.

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I would still suggest asking the question in Japanese is better. It at least shows you're trying and in most cultures this is appreciated.

If the people didn't answer your question it might be that they didn't understand what you were saying. At that point, it would seem OK to switch to English to see if they understand. At least you've demonstrated a small effort.

Even better of course is to try and learn more phrases in Japanese so you don't have to ask whether they speak English.

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I did ask the question in Japanese (as described in my post, a little bit unclearly maybe). Does that change your response? –  Michael Lai Apr 17 '13 at 22:54
    
I got that. It still seems to me you did the right thing. It's what I would have done in any case. Switching back to English after trying is reasonable though. I think uncovery's answer above covers this better though, in particular the Japanese culture. –  daamsie Apr 17 '13 at 23:35
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Well first, we assume you are pronouncing it correctly when you say it. So in that case, there are a few options.

  • you could be saying it clearly, and they themselves don't speak English, so are embarrassed to admit this.
  • they may speak English, but are embarrassed to try their broken English, and at the same time are worried your Japanese sounds poor, and as the 'hosts' of you in their country, do not want to embarrass their guest.
  • they are deaf? :)

My first thought when reading your title was 'err, English' - as by speaking in English, it's immediately clear what your purpose is, and there's no false impression given by your attempting to speak Japanese. However, when I noticed you were in Japan (body of question), my answer changes to definitely asking in Japanese first.

It's important to respect the culture and country of the place you're visiting, and not assume everyone speaks your own language (be it English, Japanese, German, Afrikaans or whatever). So it's helpful to always learn a few phrases, and one very handy one is that 'do you speak English?' or 'I only speak English' phrase - even if they don't, they may be able to find someone who does speak English. And if they do, they will at least respect your attempts to use their language.

Failing that, you can resort to the flailing arms and hand signals method of communication ;)

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"Do you speak English" is different from other questions. "Which way to the train station, please?" might be best in English, especially if you don't know how to understand the answer in the local language. But "Do you speak English?" in English carries with it that you can only speak English and nothing else. It wouldn't be a good first sentence of a conversation - though if you speak nothing else, what choice do you have?

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I asked the question in Japanese, so does that change your response? –  Michael Lai Apr 17 '13 at 22:55
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