If you study Japanese, and have lived in Japan or talked with Japanese people, you’ll often hear this phrase. Usually people will say something like nihongo ga jōzu desu ne or nihongo ga perapera desu or some variation.
At first, I just believed people because I was naive, but then over time, I realized that sometimes it didn’t make sense. I knew I wasn’t fluent, so I was confused why people would say that. Then eventually I realized that some people were being polite, and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I made some kind of mistake, and they wanted to help me save face.
Still, I kind of felt frustrated by this. It was a reminder that I still didn’t speak Japanese well, and maybe they were patronizing me. On other blogs about foreigners living in Japan, I’ve seen people express similar feelings.
However, before I left Japan recently, I was at my daughter’s preschool for a summer-festival, and one of the other Japanese moms told me my Japanese was good. My first reaction was the same as usual, but then she said more emphatically, “No, really, your Japanese is good”. Then she asked me and my wife where I learned it. I realized later that she wished her husband spoke Japanese at that level.
This experience made me rethink a lot of assumptions. I assumed people were being patronizing when they said this. Maybe sometimes they really are, but I also realized that people also are sincere when they encourage people like this. Perhaps they’ve met foreigners who speak almost no Japanese at all, and appreciate the effort it takes. Or, perhaps, they just like speaking their native language to a foreigner like me, and appreciate the effort.
This is kind of a Buddhist lesson too. Recently I read a great Buddhist book1 titled How to live without Fear and Worry by Ven. K Sri Dhammananda which said:
A person’s thoughts and beliefs shape his life, experiences and circumstances. Like mirrors, all men become like their own reflected mental images….Until a person realizes that his own character is but the effect of his own thoughts and beliefs, he remains a victim of circumstances.
The ugliness a person sees in others is a direct reflection of his own nature. Therefore, a person should not act hastily and project the image of unwholesomeness and hatred within himself on another innocent and unfortunate being. (pg. 84)
So, in a way, it’s helpful to change our attitude, and the world around us will change too.
Anyhow, on a more practical level, I’ve learned over time that when someone compliments your language skills, regardless of their intention, the best thing to do is just downplay it and move on. In Japanese, you can say sono koto wa nai desu or something similar. If you say “thank you”, it doesn’t sound too humble, and if you take offense for some reason, then that will make things worse. Better to just be gracious, humble, and move on.
So, if someone tells you your Japanese is good, even when it obviously isn’t, play it cool. It’s kind of selfish and stupid to get offended.
Another Buddhist lesson here: you can’t change other people, but you can change how you react to them.
P.S. Eat Your Kimchi had a similar discussion with regard to Korean, where the same thing happens, so it’s not just in Japan.
P.P.S. For the record, my Japanese is pretty bad. I describe it as “functional”, but not great.
1 Thank you Ven. “A” for the book.