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Saturday, Feb. 26, 2005


The woes of the misunderstood 'gaijin'

I've been a nonnative speaker of Japanese for 12 years now. I'll go weeks without speaking a word of English, since where I live, I'm the only "gaijin." But after several years of consistent hard work, I have trained the 700 people on my island to understand my gaijin Japanese. We are almost at the point of island "isshin-denshin" where I don't have to speak at all -- people instinctively know exactly what I want.

This poses a problem when I go off the island and try to speak with normal Japanese people. To people who are not used to hearing a foreigner speak their language, my Japanese is apparently an all-out assault on their senses. I am presuming I am not alone, however, and that all nonnative speakers of Japanese have at one point experienced some of the following reactions to their accented Japanese:

Cocking the head to one side:

This means that the person hasn't understood what you've just said but is trying very hard to. It is a known fact that if one cocks their head to one side, the words that have just entered through their ears will fall to the other side of the brain, rearranging the words into the proper grammatical order. If someone cocks their head while listening to me, I see this as a good sign that they will eventually figure out what I am saying, although they may have to transfer the contents from one side of the brain to the other by cocking their head several times.

Answering a different question:

This tends to happen at information booths or train stations when you ask someone something such as how to get to the bus stop. The uniformed personnel will politely smile, indicate the direction with an open, white-gloved hand and say, "Go straight, take the first right and you'll find the toilets on the left." This polite Japanese is always accompanied by excessive hand signals, prompting one to think that these jobs are filled by retired traffic cops.

Eyes glazing over:

This means that you are making absolutely no sense at all but the person doesn't want to embarrass you by telling you so. The glazed-over look, along with the unbreaking smile, prompts you to continue talking to try to clear up any confusion, which results in you just getting deeper and deeper into misunderstanding. When the glaze over the listener's eyes grows thick I excuse myself by saying, "Sumimasen deshita" before they go completely blind.


This happens where you're talking with someone and the conversation is going quite well and the person is nodding their head in understanding, then suddenly the listener is taken aback by a word you use. This is when you realize that it is not exactly the right word for the situation. You were quite sure it was the right word, and have thought so for 10 years, but the sudden wince tells you that not only has this been a bad choice of words, but you've just insulted the listener's wife, children and ancestors. Wincing is not so much an aid to understanding the foreigner as it is a warning that if you keep up the insults, you'll be extradited from the country under the crime of offensive Japanese.

Shake, rattle and roll!:

When I first started learning Japanese, I caused store clerks to do the Elvis: "Shake, rattle and roll." Somehow, these store clerks just knew that I was going to embarrass them with my incomprehensible Japanese, which caused them to tremble upon my approach. Although clerks no longer tremble, they still panic and call 119, an in-store English-language hotline that sends off sirens to summon the English speaker on the staff to translate.

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