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Lost in Translation

Konbanwa nihongo speakers!

I’ve just finished lessons 6, 7, and 8 from both JapanesePod101.com’s Survival Phrases and SurvivalPhrases.com Japanese. The main focus of my day’s lessons were how to ask, “do you speak English?” and “how do you say this in English?” Respectively, these phrases are “Eigo ga hanasemasuka?” and “Kore wa eigo de nanto iimasuka?”

Metro Escalator

This is just a quick photo of an escalator in the subway that I mention. Notice the people standing on the left and scaling on the right. [Photo by Emily Carsch]

A lot of the talk was about the Japanese people’s ability to speak English, though they shy away from doing it. I, for one, did not realize just how much the Japanese are required to study English in school. I was shocked that most study English for at least six years.

In my teachings in the United States, I took at least six years of Spanish, or “supeingo”, and really feel today like I have a fairly good grasp of the language. With this said, it seems to me that the Japanese people would have at least some understanding of English like my experience with Spanish.

I have found that there are two types of people here in Japan when it comes to speaking English. There are the Japanese who are excited to practice their skills in English and will often start a conversation in English with you out of their own will. The second type of person is the one we heard about in the podcasts; the ones that are shy and a bit too intimidated to try their hand at English with a native English speaker.

Let me tell you about my experiences with each…


This past weekend, while going through the Meiji-Jingumae stop (or Harajuku district stop) of the Tokyo Metro, I got on the escalator to exit. As a side note, in Tokyo, as opposed to the United States where people stand on the right side and climb the escalator on the left, people stand on the left and climb on the right here (much like how cars are driven on the left side of the road instead of the right). While climbing up the right side, I passed a group of stationary school girls, probably in their pre-teen years, all wearing their school uniforms that had a resemblance to sailor’s with navy, red, gold, and white coloring. One girl turned towards me and the other American interns that I’m in Tokyo with and repeatedly said “good morning” to each of us as we each passed.

We learned from earlier lessons that upon meeting someone, we say “ohayou gozaimasu” (good morning) regardless of the time of day. This bold girl, attempting to practice her English, was doing the same thing that is done in Japanese, because it was three o’clock in the afternoon. She had not realized that we only say good morning when it is morning, not because we are meeting someone for the first time as well. School children are usually easier to talk to in English, because they are fearless and their families stress the importance of being able to speak English.

On the other hand, there are those who do not feel comfortable enough to speak English. Last night, I was at a virtual golf and darts place in Akasaka, right here in the same district that JapanesePod101.com is based. A young woman who worked there came up and began having a conversation with me. I thought that she was trying to ask how many games of darts we were interested in playing, but because I know very little Japanese, we were having a hard time communicating. Finally, after some awkward phrases in each language were traded and both of us looked at each other puzzled, she said, “play darts again?”

Yes! It did not take more than five minutes for her to come out of her shell and try her hand at English. While I wish I could have spoken and understood more, undoubtedly, she had had more English training than I have had Japanese.

With patience, it is not hard to influence a Japanese speaker to try to speak English. If only I had known, “sumimasen, wakarimasen” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand) and eigo ga hanasemasuka?” (can you speak English?) perhaps the time I was lost in translation with the waitress would have been even shorter. Good thing for all of these survival phrase lessons. I’m really learning something new everyday and realizing how much I wish I had known it before, especially after exchanges like the one I had last night!

Have you ever tried to communicate with a Japanese speaker in English the same way I have been trying to do? I’d love to hear your stories.

Mata-ne! See you later!