Conversing with native speakers and the human element

By | February 13, 2014

As a self-studier of a foreign language with limited exposure to native speakers of that language, I try my best to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.

Recently, I briefly met several Japanese businessmen at a conference on the west coast, and after speaking of business matters for a few minutes I always tried to say something in Japanese, hoping to get a few minutes of conversation practice with a native.

At first, things didn’t go to well. With the first person, I threw in a Japanese sentence in the middle of a discussion and was basically ignored. Nothing about “So, you know Japanese?” or any acknowledgement that I just said something. I’ve had conversations with enough natives to know my pronunciation isn’t bad enough to be incomprehensible, so there had to be some other factors at play.

With another group of guys I mentioned I spoke Japanese, and had a brief conversation (in English) about that. I did’t sense much interest in the other party’s part on my Japanese studies, but at least they politely discussed it with me for a few moments. During that conversation I did say a few things in Japanese, but was answered back in English. I’m not sure if its more frustrating to be responded to in English, or to be ignored completely.

Later that day I met with another group on a business matter and mentioned that I knew Japanese. I didn’t speak Japanese much until the end of the discussion, at which point I said お疲れ様さまでした, and they at least smiled to acknowledge I had said something, and responded as if they understood.

I’m sure all these businessmen were very nice people, and had only good intentions with talking to me. But the fact is that my goal of wanting to practice Japanese conversation was at odds with their goal of making effective business communication. We were in the US, after all, and they likely judged it would be best way to communicate by using English, and they were probably right. And suddenly changing languages in the middle of a conversation is a good way to confuse things.

Studying alone in your room with books, websites, and TV dramas, it’s easy to forget about the human element which takes priority in any real conversation. Everyone has their own agenda and it’s hard for me to politely communicate ‘I really want to speak in Japanese with you, just for five minutes!’, especially at a business-related event where that isn’t the purpose of our meeting.

In the end, it turned out that my efforts to communicate in Japanese were rewarded, since the next day one of the same businessmen walked up to me and started speaking in Japanese. We had a brief conversation for 2-3 minutes, and ended up exchanging business cards. I learned very little about Japanese itself in such a short time, but learned a great deal about social interaction. I think one of the reasons he decided to come up and see me was that he was alone, so that there would be less chance I would be embarrassed, and also because we were at a social event whose purpose was to just have fun. There was no serious agenda and therefore our interaction in Japanese made sense.

[Image credit: Free clip art taken from]

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