My Japanese is not perfect... What should I do?
Friday, June 15, 2018
Why it is not that bad and why you should use it even more
So here you are, working in a Japanese environment with Japanese colleagues and in Japanese. But you can feel it, itching when you write a formal email or juste exchange with a colleague in the elevator… You’re making mistakes when you speak Japanese and this is making you insane. We totally feel you! Well, here is my piece of advice: do speak a not perfect Japanese, speak it as much as you can.
Language is such a beautiful (and terrible) thing
Let’s face it, language is a perpetually evolving field, subject to society transformations and grammar rules but also to the way it is used by its speakers. It’s what makes it beautiful… And terrible at the same time, because it implies you need to catch up! I can feel this gap when I go back home in France and hear new expressions without having any idea whatsoever of their meaning… Am I still speaking French?! I wonder sometimes. This is one of the reason speaking a second or a third language could drive you crazy.
So you should learn to speak Japanese but not speaking perfectly is not really a problem? Well, don’t close this window just yet and stick around until the end of the article as my point will get clearer to you.
The struggle of language learners
The real struggle here is that you rarely have the time to focus on your studies when you are a full time employee. You speak Japanese, you are trying to make it sound the best you can (and keigo, don’t forget keigo…) but when you are finally home you don’t have the energy to open your kanji or grammar book and take a look back at the mistakes you made the exact same day. Need and will to improve is there, but no time or energy.
As a foreigner working in Japan and almost never using my native language when it comes to work, I can get the struggle of speaking a foreign language and being aware of its flaws when using it. Well spoiler alert, my Japanese is not perfect, my English is not perfect… But actually, even my French is not perfect. And still, I use these three languages every day, switching from one to another in a second and not even thinking about it.
It was not easy at first, I have to admit. I have been working in Japanese working environments for almost 2 years now and the first days were a living hell: I was checking all of my emails numerous times, was struggling to speak in meetings because I was afraid of speaking weird Japanese and checking my vocabulary all the time. Needless to say, I was losing time. And confidence.
I learnt the hard way that is was not the right way for me to get room to improve and to focus on more important tasks. So I decided to totally change my Japanese tackling tactic: speak it, stop stammering, stop overthinking and just dive in the deep end of Japanese language.
Perfection as a goal
There is a lot of situations where you would like to speak a perfect Japanese, dealing with clients or superiors at work would may be on top of your list. That’s a safe bet to say that the more perfect the better... but wouldn’t it be more efficient to focus on conveying the message in your internal email? It sure is, and in every situation it is less likely that trouble occurs from a missing politeness sentence than from a misunderstanding.
Not speaking a perfect Japanese does not mean you are not good at Japanese, neither that you cannot communicate. It does mean that you are not a native and that you may not had time to study more beforehand. It also means you are trying, actively trying. Period.
As much as it’s totally understandable, this is one of the situation where you should try to forget your grammar book and just speak it as it comes to your mind. Let me explain.
Practice makes perfect
First of all, there is no reason that anyone could go directly from zero to pro in a language, there are steps and you have to take them one by one (or two by two, if you are good at languages). So nobody expects you to become a perfect Japanese speaker overnight! It may take time, hours of writings and readings and tears of blood because kanji can be a sweet agony for your soul (or maybe that’s just me) but you will get through it.
Another reason may be that you are a foreigner, and you were recruited as a foreigner. So obviously, whoever gave you a 内定 (naitei, official job proposal) was perfectly aware of the fact that you were not a native in Japanese and thus, is not expecting you to have a perfect level of Japanese. Of course they will be happy if you can achieve to speak at the same level than your Japanese colleagues, but if you don’t they’d rather have you focus on your main skills than your kanji dictionary.
Lastly, and maybe obviously, practice makes perfect. Speaking your not-perfect Japanese is the best way to level up to near-perfect! Your colleagues may help you by correcting your mistakes, you may notice your own mistakes by hearing them and if you really struggle with a word you want to say you will definitely look into it later… If the message gets through, if what you wanted to convey passes on to your interlocutor, you did it! By speaking Japanese without checking every word or grammar point, you will also learn to reformulate, uses other ways to explain yourself… Double bonus.
About the Author
I do things, mostly. Writer, wanderer, dreamer and sometimes Marketing Account Manager.