Essays on English in Japan

"My English is Terrible!"

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Whenever I meet a new Japanese person, I can hear one sentence every time: "My English is terrible."

I like to chat with strangers in Tokyo, and try to say something most chances I get, whether in a store, at a restaurant or just wherever. Usually, people will talk pleasantly enough for a while, but inevitably, the topic of English will come up and they start to cringe and scowl. If the conversation has gone far enough, or it seems relaxed, I almost always ask: "So, how is your English?"

With this question, people wince in pain and reply in apologetic, pained voices: "My grammar is terrible." They spit out this confession, often clutching their throats, always looking down in embarrassment. Sometimes they will laugh with shame, waving their hand "No, no" in the air, as if the issue of having failed at English was long ago decided and grudgingly accepted. They worry I will force them to speak English.

I always feel the need to comfort them, and so I say, "I was asking about your English, not your test scores. I really won't force you to speak." But this just confuses people, and they continue with excuses about how bad one of their teachers was, how they barely passed in college or how they could not even order a hamburger when they went to Hawaii. It always feels like listening to someone re-tell a bad dream or confess a shameful secret.

My English Is TerribleAlways, of course, people will compliment me on my Japanese, mostly to escape the focus on their English, or to hopefully re-track me to say something else on another topic. In fact, my Japanese grammar IS rather poor, but I like to talk anyway. Unlike most students who suffered through six years of required language classes, I just can't see every casual conversation as a grammar test.

In Japan, I feel at times as if I am one huge walking English exam! Sometimes I am just a small pop quiz, other times just a vocabulary worksheet, and with really nervous people, I must seem to be an entire entrance exam, all in English. I might as well have a sign on me that reads: "Walking English Exam!" Who wants to be an exam? Unconsciously, people think I might be grading them—right there in the bar! "Don't worry," I try to explain, "I'm off duty. Your English is good." But that just brings on more denials.

At those moments, I suspect the entire English language educational structure in Japan is not connecting me to people, but distancing me from people. I have had more conversations about being embarrassed about English than I have had actually in English. English grammar study has ruined most of my conversations in Japan! Even when they're in Japanese!

Of course, no Japanese person would ever say, "Hey, you know, my grammar is excellent. I'm rather proud of how correctly I speak!" But, the litany of past failures is always long: "I studied for ten years, but my grammar is terrible," "I always got low grades on grammar tests," "I studied on my own, so I speak incorrectly," and on and on. The thing most people seem to have learned in English classes is how to make excuses in Japanese!

Of course, even if I'm just ordering a beer they always compliment me profusely. What they mean is, my beer-ordering grammar is perfect. I am not sure that is something to be proud of, but compliments are always nice. And then, I realize always a little too late that they have been testing MY grammar! They really have been thinking all along, "Will this foreigner be testing my grammar? Better not to say anything!" And yet, they have been testing me, too! "His Japanese is so-so, I guess, for a foreigner," they seem to be thinking.

I'm always relieved when the topic finally turns to the next most common topic in Japan: food. Food is always an easy and safe topic. It causes very little embarrassment and allows individual opinions to come out. English study is just too dismal a subject, filled with embarrassing potential, full of bad memories and pre-set for anxiety. The food topic, though, seems to flow easily and comfortably. No one thinks food should be hard to deal with, and of course, food is not hard to figure out. It's a pleasure to talk about.

It is as if there is some huge remote control for English that keeps having the pause button pressed. I try to press "play," but then the belief that learning a language is hard presses "pause." When we switch the channel to the topic of food, though, people visibly relax, and the forward motion of conversation can keep flowing. Better not to say anything at all than say it incorrectly. It always makes me a bit sad, because it seems like otherwise confident people have the fear of being wrong drilled into their brain. Fear, though, is not a good thing to learn. It is a good thing to learn to jump over and get around.

Someday, I hope, I will meet someone in Japan who says, "My English grammar is pretty good, but I am still working on my creative ability!" Then, we could really have a great conversation about food!


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About The Author

Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.