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So I'm going to Japan next month with friends, and I'm the only one speaking reasonably good Japanese. However, I am really nervous about how to approach people when, say, buying train tickets and such.

I seem to have a perfect Japanese accent that easily misleads people into thinking my Japanese is very good. I can understand clearly spoken Japanese quite well, but would constantly stumble and use "correct", but completely unidiomatic expressions while speaking. In fact while trying to practice speaking unscripted Japanese, I find that I would make ridiculous gaffes, like mixing in Old Japanese (too much ancient poetry and linguistic papers for me!) conjugations and using the inappropriate/an inconsistent politeness level. Obviously I'll practice more, but in short, I sound weird, incomprehensible, and with a good-sounding accent trying to speak long sections of Japanese. Being Chinese (and thus somewhat passing as Japanese in looks) would, I imagine, add to the confusion.

OTOH, I hear that Japanese people have trouble speaking English. In fact, on many websites of hotels, etc I find that the English version's grammar is so horrible that it is near unreadable. So I'm also nervous using English and embarrassing somebody who has poor English.

How should I get by? In both cases, I would understand the other person and vice versa (with some difficulty). Do Japanese people tend to be embarrassed if they are unable to reply to a question in English? Should I imitate a moderate Chinese accent when speaking Japanese?

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If you got to choose between embarrassing yourself, or embarrassing others, go for embarrassing yourself. Japanese people are polite and they will not laugh at you. –  MeNoTalk May 17 at 13:20
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Wouldn't not being able to understand my Japanese clearly be embarrassing to? –  user54609 May 17 at 13:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If you have the Japanese skills, use them. English won't get you very far outside of tourist areas and very basic interactions - if you've got the ability to clarify yourself after saying something, even if it is in a roundabout way, you're going to have a much easier time.

Sounding weird is par for the course unless you're totally fluent, so I wouldn't worry about that. As for receiving long spiels of Japanese in response to your Japanese accent, there's no harm in apologizing and asking them to repeat what they said using simpler language.

When I first arrived I kept on wondering why I got weird looks every time I used the word 'orange' after looking up the colour in my dictionary. Turns out I was using some ancient Kanji reading from a hundred years ago instead of the slightly simpler オレンジ. So it goes. People will understand.

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This is spot on. Japanese pronunciation is pretty simple. People tend to judge your skill not on accent, but on word use and intonation. Just try the Japanese, and if you can't communicate that way, try English. 郷に入りては郷に従え –  jmac May 20 at 8:29

I don't speak any Japanese but I would approach them in Japanese if you can, and if necessary ask them to speak more slowly / clearly and tell them that you are not native. No reason to put on a foreign accent! Choice of words and different grammar will make them realize that you aren't native soon enough.

Do Japanese people tend to be embarrassed if they are unable to reply to a question in English?

My impression: Most of them do. But some Japanese are really good in speaking English, and if they start speaking in English to you, you should switch to English as well in order to not embarrass them.

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As in any country, try to use the native language even if it's broken. It gives a good impression as it shows your interest in their culture making you an above-average tourist.

I would recommend Pismleur to get your broken Japanese ;)

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