Nowadays every Japanese student receives at least six years of English language tuition, through their junior high and high school years; some more, commencing early in primary school, and/or continuing into university.
Unfortunately for most of these tireless learners, this study isn’t enough to turn them into even passable communicators in the language, let alone fluent English speakers, the problem largely associated with the way the language is taught. To gain a degree of fluency, further study and speaking practice is needed, usually at privately-operated English language schools.
As a consequence, the average person in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties and into their fifties will have received a grounding in English, but their ability to usefully draw on this will in most cases range from sketchy to virtually non-existent. Adding to this limitation is the reluctance of the Japanese to appear unable to do something when called upon to do it, a desire not to lose face. So, even if they possess some English speaking ability, they may prefer not to be put on the spot, and incorrectly indicate no ability to avoid the risk of being shown up.
That said, there are frequently examples of kind-hearted Japanese actually approaching foreigners to offer assistance, in English. This is more likely to be the case with people currently studying it, and happy to have the chance to use their developing skill.
Experienced overseas travellers know there is an art in communicating in English with people whose first language this isn’t, especially with locals who aren’t regularly exposed to the language. This applies as much to Japanese people as any others. The rule, then, is to not presume anyone can speak English, except at a the check-in counter of a reasonable-sized to large hotel in any city, at a ski resort, and possibly any other major tourist attraction.
A hesitant exploratory attempt is the best way to begin with, speaking clearly and slower than normal. If the person indicates a willingness to become engaged in a conversation, his or her level can soon be gauged. From this point the English speaker should continue to converse at what appears the other person’s comprehension level, while keeping a lookout for tell-tale signs of any failure to understand, such as a blank nodding of the head or forced smile.
A word about accents. The majority of English language teachers in Japan are from northern America, as are most hosts on television English language programs, so this is the prevalent English accent heard in Japan. Next comes a standard British accent, then Australian and New Zealand, followed by a smattering of others, such as South African. For those visitors with the less common accent, more care needs to be taken to speak clearly.
At the end of the conversation, appropriate words of thanks should be expressed, and even a small gift, such as a key ring, could be offered in appreciation.
© Copyright 2014 SJ Peterson