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Thread: Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne! What the?!

  1. #1
    My dirty underwear 900¥!! Male
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    Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne! What the?!


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    Ok, I've gotta ask... after years of hearing it: What on earth is up with the tendency to tell someone who might have only said one WORD in Japanese, "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!"

    This issue seems to be of almost legendary proportions, and shows no sign of ending.

    I've heard many state, and I agree, that your Japanese is only truly good when you are in Japan and people STOP saying this annoying, sickeningly candied expression!

    I've never run into this behavior in another other country, and it sure doesn't happen with English in the US! So why Japan?

    The follow is the best reasons I can come up with:

    1) There is an arrogance among Japanese that the language is impossible to learn based on the fairly large number of foreigners who can't even speak a word of Japanese; therefore, the language is praised.

    2) It is some sort of aisatsu that was taught in a dark room in the bottom of a school when they were a child, told that it is actually taken as a compliment. Along with telling people that they use chopsticks well.

    3) It is patronizing those who do not speak good Japanese yet. I've actually heard people murmur behind my back to my Japanese friend that it seems I can't read all kanji, then have the person come up to me while I'm finishing a form and tell me "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!"

    4) It is some sort of code for alerting other Japanese people nearby to call the secret police. (Unconfirmed! )

    But seriously... does anyone have an answer to this behavior? I try to brush it off every time, but it gets REALLY old. I'm very curious if anyone has the answer to the source of this dreaded phrase.

    Thanks.
    -Emoni
    "Been there, done that, came back, going again."
  2. #2
    JREF Resident Alien Male
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    This has been covered on JREF by the legendary Maciamo and myself as well as many others, but I'll answer as I have time on my hands.

    Welcome to Japan gaijin-sama. This is one of the many frustrating things new gaikokujins find so annoying when they first get to Japan and even after many years!

    This issue seems to be of almost legendary proportions, and shows no sign of ending.

    I've heard many state, and I agree, that your Japanese is only truly good when you are in Japan and people STOP saying this annoying, sickeningly candied expression!
    The sad part is that it will NEVER end and is something you learn to live with and accept or it will drive you insane to the point of rage as it has done to many including myself.

    Even when you become fluent in reading, writing, and speaking you will still hear it time and time again and the Japanese will never STOP using it. Even people you know well and for many years will use it. However, they will not be hesitant to inform you that your Japanese has slacked off when you leave the country and return.

    I've never run into this behavior in another other country, and it sure doesn't happen with English in the US! So why Japan?
    Because that's the way it has always been and probably always will be.

    The follow is the best reasons I can come up with:

    1) There is an arrogance among Japanese that the language is impossible to learn based on the fairly large number of foreigners who can't even speak a word of Japanese; therefore, the language is praised.
    Partially correct. The Japanese have a mental block when it comes to learning foreign languages and therefore they feel that since they are so inept at learning a foreign language, any foreigner who can speak even a simple sentence or hold a halfway decent conversation, no matter how broken, must be a genius as they themselves (at least the majority) cannot do it or find it very difficult.Therefore, they compliment you.

    2) It is some sort of aisatsu that was taught in a dark room in the bottom of a school when they were a child, told that it is actually taken as a compliment. Along with telling people that they use chopsticks well.
    Good deduction and may be partially true as it is a way of breaking the ice so to speak as the Japanese are not very good at starting conversations or holding them unless they know you really well. This could be due to their basic shyness and intimidation when it comes to speaking with foreigners. You will also hear compliments time and time again because you sleep on a futon, like sushi, drink green tea on a daily basis, can read a menu, etc., etc.

    3) It is patronizing those who do not speak good Japanese yet. I've actually heard people murmur behind my back to my Japanese friend that it seems I can't read all kanji, then have the person come up to me while I'm finishing a form and tell me "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!"
    Again, probably more true than not. It's a compliment. Accept it as it was intended

    4) It is some sort of code for alerting other Japanese people nearby to call the secret police. (Unconfirmed! )
    I never thought of that one!

    But seriously... does anyone have an answer to this behavior? I try to brush it off every time, but it gets REALLY old. I'm very curious if anyone has the answer to the source of this dreaded phrase.
    I know it's frustrating as all get out and yes, it does get old and my advice, as I mentioned above is get used to it as it will not go away. Just learn to live with it and go with the flow and play along as it will make your stay there that much enjoyable if you don't let it bother you so much. Yes, I know it's easier said than done and very frustrating, but I, as well as many others, have been there, experienced that.

    Besides, it's a great conversation starter and you can make many friends especially if you are a single male. A little language goes a long way in Japan and a lot goes even further!

    If you find that so annoying just wait until you ask a question in fluent Japanese and the person acts like he didn't understand a word you said as their mind said, "Gaikokujin! I know he can't speak Japanese!" and they never hear what you said as their mind cannot comprehend it at first. Then they look for someone who can speak English. That's a bit of exaggeration, but it has happened.

    Or, when you are out with Japanese friends and you speak in Japanese and the person you are speaking to addresses the person you are with as if you didn't exist. Again, I believe it's because they can't wrap their minds around a foreigner actually speaking fluent Japanese. Thus, they never "hear" you.

    Therefore, Emoni-san take it with a grain of salt as that's they way it always was, is now, and will probably always be. If I may be so bold, Nihongo ga jouzu desu neh!

    This is only my point of view and I'm sure others will chime in.
    Do What You Love And You'll Never Work Another Day In Your Life!

  3. #3
    My dirty underwear 900¥!! Male
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    Thanks Pachipro. I had seen posts on this subjects a few times about bits and pieces, but it was always a nagging question in the back of my mind and I wanted to find where this stems from and why.

    Pretty good summary you posted Thanks
  4. #4
    先輩 Male
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    Pretty interesting topic. It makes me wonder what my Japanese 101 grad TA is thinking when she tells us we are doing very good. I guess she thinks it's cool we can string together sentences . It also reminds me of this video, at least the first part anyway: http://www.joeisjapanese.com/

    Is this something you experience quite often, Emoni? Maybe Japanese forum users could chime in and give their opinion on the matter.
    "If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error."

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  5. #5
    Male
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    Ok, I've gotta ask... after years of hearing it: What on earth is up with the tendency to tell someone who might have only said one WORD in Japanese, "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!"
    This issue seems to be of almost legendary proportions, and shows no sign of ending.
    I've heard many state, and I agree, that your Japanese is only truly good when you are in Japan and people STOP saying this annoying, sickeningly candied expression!
    I've never run into this behavior in another other country, and it sure doesn't happen with English in the US! So why Japan?
    Well, my take is that most european/african/south east asian looking people don't speak Japanese well even when living here for a long time and due the fact that Japan is still predominantly a homogeneous society are not accustomed to hearing scores of foreigners (european/african/south east asian) speaking fluent Japanese. Another reason is that it is just regarded as small talk.

    The follow is the best reasons I can come up with:
    1) There is an arrogance among Japanese that the language is impossible to learn based on the fairly large number of foreigners who can't even speak a word of Japanese; therefore, the language is praised.
    Untrue, I hear time and time again from Japanese people how hopeless Japanese people are at learning foreign languages only to say in the next sentence on how quick motivated foreigners pick up the language.

    2) It is some sort of aisatsu that was taught in a dark room in the bottom of a school when they were a child, told that it is actually taken as a compliment. Along with telling people that they use chopsticks well.
    Partly true, (not the being taut in a dark room part) It is just another form of small talk and is regarded IMO as being polite.

    3) It is patronizing those who do not speak good Japanese yet. I've actually heard people murmur behind my back to my Japanese friend that it seems I can't read all kanji, then have the person come up to me while I'm finishing a form and tell me "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!"
    I hope you heard right? Well how it was said in context. Think of a pro athelete and an amature athelete, the Pro could say that the amature athelete still can't do so and so but he/she is still very good. In my eyes that is still a genuine compliment.
    4) It is some sort of code for alerting other Japanese people nearby to call the secret police. (Unconfirmed! )
    Thanks Reyter.
    But seriously... does anyone have an answer to this behavior? I try to brush it off every time, but it gets REALLY old. I'm very curious if anyone has the answer to the source of this dreaded phrase.
    Thanks.
    I think a lot of foreigners are too critical and over analyze situtaions and try to dirrectly relate their experiences in their home country to here. The reality is that most people here are just going about their business as they would to any other Japanese fellow Japanese. I see the same treatment amongst themselves, of coarse not in regards to chopsticks or language ,but anything that is rudimentary and can be performed with minimal practise. IMO, people who complain most about these things are the ones who don't have a good understanding of the culture here which could be brought about by lack of understanding in the tiny nuances and subtle hints that the Japanese language and people converse in, or just their lack of ability to adapt and I stress "accept" the fact that this country is different to theirs and embrace those differences.

    I had conversation all in Japanese the other day when I joined a gym. One of the staff asked me if I could speak Japanese ok right off the bat, so I said to him that I could not, so he went trying to explain the forms in English and was having a hard time, so read part of the contract to him in Japanese and he instantly said to me "what are you talking about , you can speak Japanese", so I replied " no, I am only faking speaking Japanese and I can't really understand it at all", so his reponse was "Baka ni shinai de kudasai". After that I have not been complimented that my Japanese good and everyone treats the same as the next Japanese guy.

    But I can understand why they asked me if I could speak Japanese, b/c there are quite a few foreign guys/girls go to my gym and most of them can't speak very well.

    Another thing I have seen is that people tend to think that their Japanese is better than it really is, this too causes problems in the fact that some people think they are the level of natives and get all upset when someone can't understand what they are saying or are not treated the way they think that reflects their perceived Japanese language.

    Bottom line is, that it is not the Japanese who have a problem ,it is the people who come here and have misconstrued expectations. Japan is not other countries so should not be compared to them.

    And I don't agree with a lot of things Macimo has said in the past, b/c it takes longer than 3 years to understand a culture as old as Japan's.
  6. #6
    先輩 Male
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    I tend to think it's a combination of making small talk and typical Japanese interpersonal interaction (praising another while lowering oneself). The way English is taught to Japanese is so poorly constructed that I can understand them finding the prospect of learning a foreign language preposterous, but I think it certainly goes beyond that. Greasing the wheels of interpersonal contact via compliment is a very common thing to do in Japan and as previous posters mentioned, it's often best not to read too much into it. They probably don't mean it as much as they sound like they do.

    That said, I have heard the attitude of Japanese regarding foreigners speaking Japanese expressed as such: Japanese look upon a foreigner speaking their language with the same bemusement that a typical human might look upon a monkey painting a picture.

    If you find that it bothers you, simply offer them the same compliment back Saying that has helped me get past those initial small talk encounters and into more natural ones. I also like saying "nihongo wakarimasen" in a typical "foreigner accent" to sort of get their minds off my speaking and into a more joking, normal mood
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  7. #7
    Fleur Female
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    My take on it is that they're probably just trying to be encouraging and friendly. It seems like many Japanese people are embarrassed when they try to speak another language so perhaps they're trying to offer the reassurance that they themselves would like to hear.

    BTW, this does happen in the US. My mother is Nisei and speaks English as her first and only language. All her life she's been complimented by other Americans on her English.
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  8. #8
    In imagination land Male
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    I don't mind the Nihongo compliments. Sincere or not they don't really bother me. The chopstick compliments, questions etc I find to be somewhat annoying. But I'm more annoyed when they don't even ask sometimes like at conbini. I have to pay attention to what they throw in the bag otherwise I get the joy of trying to eat my hamba-gu bento etc. with a plastic fork.
    Last edited by Chidoriashi; Oct 1, 2009 at 23:48.
  9. #9
    先輩 Male
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    1)It is just a greeting
    2)It is not good at Japanese yet as long as it is said.
    if it is really fluent, such a thing is not said.
    because it is not polite. The foreigner might not think that his Japanese is perfect either.


    3)It would say" anatano nihonngo naze jyouzu nano? " instead of Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!
    or, The foreigner may not understand the unspoken words following afterwards.
    It is WHY?
    However ,The conversation becomes long and it is private thing if it said "why".
  10. #10
    Wolf Male
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    I think nothing of it. Just like them reiterating the "mushi atsui ne" minutely during the summer, those comments on our nihongo or the use of chopsticks is just the usual burble to keep the mouth going while the brain is turned off.
  11. #11
    puzzled gaijin Male
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    frustrateddave said
    Bottom line is, that it is not the Japanese who have a problem ,it is the people who come here and have misconstrued expectations. Japan is not other countries so should not be compared to them.

    And I don't agree with a lot of things Macimo has said in the past, b/c it takes longer than 3 years to understand a culture as old as Japan's.
    Yes, we humans must never compare anything, ...wait I offended those chipmunks over there! The pc police are loose again...

    As to understanding a culture, the age of it does not equate with how easy or difficult it is to understand. I think the closer a culture is to ones' original culture, the more likely and the easier it will be to understand said culture and possibly adapt to it or parts of it (if one is so inclined).
  12. #12
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    frustrateddave said
    Yes, we humans must never compare anything, ...wait I offended those chipmunks over there! The pc police are loose again...
    You obviously missed the point I was making, but is not unexpected. But you go ahead and compare all you like, the point is don't expect people here to conform to the ways of your culture b/c you have obviously compared them to other countries and decided that your or the other countries way is better, just like you would expect somone comming to your own country to at least try and fit in with its ideals and culture without imposing . But I guess you expect people to adjust to your ways then whereever you are then?

    As to understanding a culture, the age of it does not equate with how easy or difficult it is to understand. I think the closer a culture is to ones' original culture, the more likely and the easier it will be to understand said culture and possibly adapt to it or parts of it (if one is so inclined).
    I never said that age of "a" culture will , in your words "equate" to making it difficult to understand. The age of it plays an important part when it comes to Japan (that is the culture we are talking about here) There are also hundreds of unsaid traditions and customs that have been built up upon over the years that cannot be learnt or understood in a short period of time, it may be different for other cultures ,but your general statement in regards to culture, "plural", will have to be discussed in another thread. Some of these customs are still to be learnt by many Japanese themselves who have been born and raised here, so how do you expect someone from a different culture whos is still very close in many ways to understand in such a short time?

    As for people having a completely different traditions or culture, of corse the general consensus would be that most will find it more difficult to adapt compared to those whos is closer. But if you want to go that route , it will also depend on the individual, but it still does not change the fact that in regards with Japans culture the age of it certainly makes it more difficult to understand.

    If you don't believe so when it comes to Japans culture, give your reasons?
    Last edited by FrustratedDave; Oct 9, 2009 at 14:49.
  13. #13
    継続は力なり Male
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    Japanese is hard to get right. I don't mean just the ability to get your point through, I mean the ability to speak it correctly.

    One thing I've learned is that the amount of vocabulary is almost limitless, whereas in English you can get away with having a conversation with so few words. English prizes grammatical syntax and accuracy, whereas Japanese operates on the ability to actually not be so precise, to omit and reduce correctly and to then use the proper words to get the right nuance across.

    Syntactically, I think the Japanese operate mainly in jukugo, onomatopoeic words and things left unsaid. It's kind of passively descriptive and it's largely listener-based. That is, the onus of comprehension is on the listener and his ability to interpret, whereas in English the speaker is responsible for making themselves clear by saying precisely what it is they wanna say, no room for interpretation or mistake. The amount of passive-causative that gets used in Japanese and the lack of precision in saying precisely who did what is confusing for non-native speakers (especially English speakers). The whole mindset is different. Often times if you translated directly into English you'd just get a lot of things being done with no mention of who did them unless absolutely necessary. i.e. just as an easy example The document has been completed vs. *I* finished the document. Low level Japanese speakers from English speaking countries seem to initially begin every single sentence with 'watashi ha'. The need to include subjects is overwhelming but not necessary in Japanese.

    In this way, the non-native speaker who accurately describes something using the right vocabulary selections presented in the appropriate manner (easy for the listener to interpret and easy on the ears) and without cluttering the sentence with unnecessary info is highly prized.

    When you start to be able to do this, (I certainly haven't I'm a long way off) they are genuinely and honestly surprised in many cases. If you're a high level speaker I think when you meet new people sometimes the comments cease altogether because at that level it'd be condescending to assume the person is still in any kind of 'learner' phase. It'd be like saying 'Hey you can ride a bicycle awesome'.

    As for lower level speakers, yea, it's just a compliment. The Japanese are of course creatures of politeness.

    In either case, why say anything? I believe they value effort and achievement. So, one who has studied has in their minds put in a requisite amount of time, effort, blood sweat and tears etc., and they are keen and eager to recognize this.
  14. #14
    相変わらず不束者です Female
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    Japanese is hard to get right. I don't mean just the ability to get your point through, I mean the ability to speak it correctly.

    One thing I've learned is that the amount of vocabulary is almost limitless, whereas in English you can get away with having a conversation with so few words. English prizes grammatical syntax and accuracy, whereas Japanese operates on the ability to actually not be so precise, to omit and reduce correctly and to then use the proper words to get the right nuance across.

    Syntactically, I think the Japanese operate mainly in jukugo, onomatopoeic words and things left unsaid. It's kind of passively descriptive and it's largely listener-based. That is, the onus of comprehension is on the listener and his ability to interpret, whereas in English the speaker is responsible for making themselves clear by saying precisely what it is they wanna say, no room for interpretation or mistake. The amount of passive-causative that gets used in Japanese and the lack of precision in saying precisely who did what is confusing for non-native speakers (especially English speakers). The whole mindset is different. Often times if you translated directly into English you'd just get a lot of things being done with no mention of who did them unless absolutely necessary. i.e. just as an easy example The document has been completed vs. *I* finished the document. Low level Japanese speakers from English speaking countries seem to initially begin every single sentence with 'watashi ha'. The need to include subjects is overwhelming but not necessary in Japanese.

    In this way, the non-native speaker who accurately describes something using the right vocabulary selections presented in the appropriate manner (easy for the listener to interpret and easy on the ears) and without cluttering the sentence with unnecessary info is highly prized.

    When you start to be able to do this, (I certainly haven't I'm a long way off) they are genuinely and honestly surprised in many cases. If you're a high level speaker I think when you meet new people sometimes the comments cease altogether because at that level it'd be condescending to assume the person is still in any kind of 'learner' phase. It'd be like saying 'Hey you can ride a bicycle awesome'.

    As for lower level speakers, yea, it's just a compliment. The Japanese are of course creatures of politeness.

    In either case, why say anything? I believe they value effort and achievement. So, one who has studied has in their minds put in a requisite amount of time, effort, blood sweat and tears etc., and they are keen and eager to recognize this.
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  15. #15
    先輩 Male
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    the amount of vocabulary is almost limitless, whereas in English you can get away with having a conversation with so few words.
    I think the exact opposite is true. I think everyday Japanese vocabulary is very limited; instead, meanings are conveyed using obscure grammar constructs. I think it's these grammar constructs which are almost limitless, and difficult to remember.
  16. #16
    In imagination land Male
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    it'd be condescending to assume the person is still in any kind of 'learner' phase. It'd be like saying 'Hey you can ride a bicycle awesome'.
    I really don't think the "learning phase" ever really ends when it comes to languages.
  17. #17
    My dirty underwear 900¥!! Male
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    I really don't think the "learning phase" ever really ends when it comes to languages.
    Agreed. Moreover, when I don't use Japanese I can feel it start to "rot away." That even applies to my English. When I first arrived and my brain was mush trying to handle everything new, I couldn't even remember what "power lines" were... IN ENGLISH.

    I'm learning English even now, despite it being my native language. Learning doesn't end.
  18. #18
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    I think the exact opposite is true. I think everyday Japanese vocabulary is very limited; instead, meanings are conveyed using obscure grammar constructs. I think it's these grammar constructs which are almost limitless, and difficult to remember.
    It isn't to say the language is in any sense inherently vague, but normal speech is definitely limited. Particularly Japanese is set up for expressing emotion over temporal or spatial relationships and the trick is selecting verbs and particles that contain the emotional nuances you want to convey without the excess of adjectives, adverbs plus nonverbal subtleties required in English.
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  19. #19
    継続は力なり Male
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    I agree with Elizabeth's point of view, Japanese has a lot of emotion in it now that I think about it. Many of the synonyms I bang my head on my desk over end up containing nuances which seem to be nothing more than contexts of mood rather than clear differentiation of meaning.

    To that end, the number of vocabulary selections and contextual requirements seems to me anyway to be very demanding. For native speakers to communicate effectively with each other a vast vocabulary is employed. I remember seeing a basic comparison of the number of words both Japanese children and naturalized English speaking children knew by around age 6 or 7, and there was quite a divide. That's not to say the English kids couldn't have gotten their message across using grammar, but, just to highlight the point. So that is to say, to Taiko666 san's point, I think I meant the sheer volume of words was limitless, not necessarily its (the languages) functional capability.

    I also think that whether the main syntactical functions of Japanese are limited or not is difficult to objectively evaluate. You can say almost anything you want to say in either English or Japanese provided you're fluent. It may take longer in one language or another but it can be said. Personally I think it's hard to argue our language is capable of more when their technology is so far ahead and everyday life here is way more complex and micromanaged than everyday life in the West. Obviously they're getting by somehow.

    Chidoriashi-san I agree wholeheartedly. To think we've ever finished learning is ludicrous. But I think I meant more so just that the Japanese may consider them (the foreigner they're speaking to) to be out of their intensive baby deer on wobbling legs phase, which many foreigners sound like they're in until they've studied for an appreciable amount of time.
  20. #20
    My dirty underwear 900¥!! Male
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    I have to say I'm impressed by some of the answers here. Frustrated Dave's is particularly good I think.

    However, I do wish I would be able to define when it is simply chit-chat, or patronizing/mocking (which there have been cases I'm sure it was, but very few).

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