Monday, January 29, 2018

Status, Credentials, and Language 1

There's something that happens every time I meet a new Japanese person at work or in a social situation. It is at this moment that we must dance the awkward dance of "how much Japanese does this foreigner actually understand?"

Now understand, most foreigners don't speak Japanese. Even long term foreign residents, particularly ones from English-speaking countries, tend to at best cobble together a simulacra of the language that allows them to order in restaurants and ask for directions. And it is more common than you may think that foreign residents of five or more years do not even achieve this low bar.

So there is a very good reason for the Japanese Language Level dance. It starts with a hesitant step, a simple stock phrase like "What is your name?" "How long have you been in Japan?" and so on in that fashion. If that goes well, the tempo steps up and we move to "Do you like Japanese food?" and "Where have you traveled in Japan?"

In my experience, the average Japanese is willing to let things simmer there, since this is the farthest most foreigners get in the dance. Over time (a long time), they will come to accept that you can speak a fair amount of Japanese, and the dance will come to an inevitable beat: "How long have you been studying Japanese?"

But no matter what number of years is answered, there will be a sense of non-acceptance. Even when I say I have studied Japanese for 15 years, this is not sufficient to explain how I can hold a fluent conversation. After all, they've been studying English since Junior High without similar success.

For you see, it is impossible for a foreigner to simply understand Japanese. There must be a reason, a proof, something to make possible. And the only thing I have found that makes my Japanese ability acceptable is bringing up that I have passed the N1.

For those of you not into studying Japanese, there is a bi-annual Japanese Language Proficiency Test split up into different levels of language ability. The highest level is the N1, which qualifies a person as "Fluent" in the eyes of most institutions.

And so, it does not matter how much Japanese I can read, write, or speak. No amount of demonstrated ability will convince the average person that I can speak, write, or read. But when I mention my Credentials, suddenly they understand that I can do Japanese.

And it is an almost total change. I have had people who acted as if I was speaking gibberish suddenly turn on a dime and converse freely with me once I mentioned my credentials.

Now all of this is so ludicrous to me that I would not have believed it if I hadn't experienced it over and over again for a decade. It is almost as if their mental conception of foreigners as "unable to speak Japanese" prevents them from hearing a foreigner speak Japanese. But the credential, like a magic pendant, breaks the seal on their ears and makes communication possible.


  1. Have you ever tried pointing out to them how racist and xenophobic it is to assume you're supposed to learn their language? I mean, that's how foreigners who move to the U.S. treat us now, so it's bound to work in Japan, right?

    1. The assumption is really the opposite. They assume that it's impossible for me to really speak their language, even when I'm standing in front of them, speaking their language. I don't think I've met any Japanese person who just assumed I should be able to speak Japanese.