Japanese Issues in Wuyuan

The group of ECNU international students that went to Wuyuan last weekend was composed of undergrads and above (no language students). So that meant everyone could communicate in Chinese pretty well already. There was a whole busload of Korean students and half a bus of Japanese students, however, so you still heard a lot of Korean and Japanese on the trip.

It was nice hearing Japanese again (it’s been a while), and even nicer knowing I still understand it pretty easily. What was not so nice was discovering that when I speak it now, it requires much more effort than it used to.

I was talking about that with a new friend from Sri Lanka. He noticed I wasn’t talking to the Japanese students a whole lot and asked me why I didn’t make friends with them and practice more Japanese. I explained to him that after living in China for over 5 years, I have become extremely sensitive to the practice of using people for language practice. I refuse to use Japanese people for Japanese practice.

It’s sad, because thinking about it, I realize that I’m less friendly to those Japanese students because I don’t want to use them. I unintentionally pass up chances for friendship because of my strong aversion to the idea of “using” them.

[The antagonistic may now ask, “well why do you think it’s fine to use the Chinese but not the Japanese?” I’m going to pretty much ignore this question because I can see nothing wrong with sincerely engaging people in their native tongue in their own country, and never will.]

Obviously, the solution is to “lighten up” and just “be natural.” Why is that so hard? I honestly feel slightly socially scarred on this issue. I am trying to do something about it, though. I warmed up to some of the Japanese students by the end of the trip.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I find it very hard to juggle. If you’ve ever watched, say Malaysians or S’poreans, or HK people chat it’s amazing the code-switching they do. It’s like all of a sudden they are arguing in English, then it’s Cantonese/Mandarin, then Malay…

    I speak a bit of Japanese too, and personally right now, it gets all muddled up if I am talking in Chinese. It’s like I’ll say “zhei ge shi ‘ichi man’ yuan” “xing qi liu, da na”. The other nite I didn’t know if my Kiwi friend liked that I started to re-say what I had just said in Chinese in English, he has some Chinese comprehension, so I think my level-of-Chinese he gets. He was like “I got it”.

    Also that same evening a HK friend who’s took an 8-month course to nail down his Mandarin was commenting how he hated S’poreans, b/c when he would talk to them in English they replied in Chinese, then when he spoke in Chinese they replied in English, said it drove him crazy.

    So yah I dunno, these days I try to reply with what I’m spoken to in…and just speak whatever decides to come out of my mouth the other times. Totally understand how you feel.

  2. Justin (Parasite) Says: March 31, 2006 at 1:42 am

    Oh god I know the feeling. But have any of you actually run across reports from users of other languages than English, who have complained about becoming language whores ? We must keep in mind — it isn’t just that English is our native tongue, but that it has that nasty unlucky special world status that makes us such prime targets. People speaking a tiny enough language that they’ve never even know of or heard of any non-native learning it may actually be pleased to be ‘used’. . .

  3. I read the post and thought I woul drop a line becuase I was reccomended the site by a friend who is tutoring me in Mandarin right now to get me ready for my trip to China this summer. I was especially compelled becuase I noticed you live in Shanghai and mentioned ECNU. ECNU is where my program will be this summer! (with association with Grand Valley State)
    Great website and it’s been a lot of help.

  4. George,

    Yeah, I mix my Chinese and Japanese sometimes by accident too (especially with numbers).

  5. Justin,

    You have a point, but I’d say that Japanese is the #2 target language here after English. I’d wager that Japanese students have had many of the same experiences that I have had, although they don’t stand out quite as much.

  6. This post resonates so much with my own experience I almost feel like I wrote it myself. I, too, used to speak Japanese pretty fluently and have often thought of my loss of skills. Similarly, I’ve become extremely sensitive about “using” people for language practice, and I’ve felt that that particular attitude has had the effect of making me less outgoing with Japanese people I’ve met. I’ve also come to similar conclusions about needing to “lighten up” and made similar baby steps in that direction.

    Geez. Hearing that others have gone through such similar experiences makes me feel a little less odd about my “language issues”, though.

  7. Justin,

    my native language is German, and I’ve been approached by my fair share of “language rapists” in Hong Kong. I don’t mind it at all if there is a genuine interest, but I guess one can feel it immediately when the other person just wants to train his or her language skills. I just can’t talk to these people… I feel self-conscious, speaking German is awkward, and all I want to do is switch back to English and get it over with.

    Then again, another German friend of it says he enjoys Chinese trying to chat him up in German. Personal taste I gather.

  8. Hmm. Well, since you warmed up to them by the end of the trip, obviously you got over your self-consciousness and started speaking to them. I feel the same way; hate to use people just for language practice. But, speaking as devil’s advocate here, it would be a shame to let your Japanese skills atrophy even more because you refuse to ‘use’ Japanese speakers in China. If it were me, say hello, explain that you spent time in Japan and your Japanese speaking skill is now shit. Or, since your listening skills appear untarnished, have them speak Japanese and you reply in Mandarin.

  9. Intentional or not, I find it a clever play on words to say ‘devil’s advocate’ in the topic of speaking the 日本鬼子language.

  10. We all use eachother in a sense, but I think being yourself is more important than adhering to some construct of appropriateness, regardles of language. If, through that dialogue, you do inevitably practice the language, thats not intrinsically a bad thing. (unless you make it that way)

  11. I have had many offers for language exchange where the proposal was, “I’ll speak English to you, and you can speak Chinese to me.” It seems a peculiarly Chinese approach. I find this difficult though because I guess I’m used to speaking back in what I’m spoken to. Maybe it’s even that I feel this is more polite? I’m not sure.

    I find it hardest when there’s no readily apparent language-level that the water can level to if you know what I mean. For example, with some Thai friends I have, since I speak no Thai, we exclusively use Chinese even though none of us is super-fluent in it. Or if I am with English-speakers it usually becomes all English. And Chinese with those not really trying to learn English. It’s when there is no place to go…or one person wants to go one target-language in particular ie. English, that it seems to get all difficult.

    About 羽之助 suggestion of they speak in Japanese and you reply in Mandarin. I don’t think this works very well. Especially with Japanese-persons, they seem to have quite a difficult time code-switching mid-stream if at all. So usually a Japanese person is much happier having Japanese spoken to them. Unless they switch over to English, then they’re stuck there.

    But I think John here is maybe more just unsure of his Japanese these days than it is an issue of ‘practicing’ on others. Intention is important here isn’t it. I think it’ll be obvious he just wants to be friends rather than ‘just practicing’, this usually is quite apparant regardless of languages.

    Whenever I’m approached and it becomes an ‘interview’ rather than a conversation, then I tend to just wander away. I wonder how Chinese people feel about me these days? I often will not switch to English, or reply to their English in Chinese. It’s not that I don’t want to speak English–actually my mind just isn’t that flexible at this stage, when I’m in Chinese–my mind is kinda locked into it. Usually they tend to stop speaking much English…I wonder if they feel slighted?

  12. John, you don’t have to feel guilty of speaking Japanese anyways you’re not asking them to correct you or teach you anything like a teacher, and you are just talking with them in another language, I don’t feel it’s offensive or it’s using them at all. Plus you might also speak English or Chinese sometimes, so you all get “practice”. 😉 I should feel lucky to have a German brother who forced me to practise my German sometimes… so I don’t even bother finding a “language partner” to practise without using him/her.

  13. I’d have to say it all depends on your intentions. If a person uses someone for language practice, then that would suggest that they have no real interest in that person beyond their language skills. Only you know if that’s your true intention or not, but I’d be pretty certain it’s not. However, I’m also a bit self-conscious about it (in Spanish, not Japanese), and even if my intentions are purely to enable communication, I still worry that it might appear to the other person that I’m only trying to practice my Spanish. So, I completely sympathize. I guess maybe it’s best to just go with whatever language makes communication in both directions the easiest.

  14. If your sole purpose is to get some language practice out of someone, then I think you have a point (like walking up to a stranger in a mall and starting a fake conversation for no other reason than to practice your language skills…sound familiar?) But that is hardly what you were doing in this case. Usually you have a host of reasons for talking to people. Practicing your language skills can be one of those reasons without doing any harm, I think.

  15. Out of curiosity, is your new Sri Lankan friend named Damo? I went to ECNU in 2002/2003 and met Damo, a super friendly masters student, and I know he is still there doing his Ph.D.
    I love reading your site, both for the interesting comments about the Chinese language and for the memories it can evoke of my time at ECNU.

  16. You know, I wonder if ‘intention’ isn’t a whole Judeo-western Christian thing. I know with many of the ‘requests’ I’ve had from Chinese-persons for language exchange, or who just flat out say, hey they want to practice their English, they seem to carry no ‘baggage’. Yah their INtention is they want to practice English, in their mind what’s wrong with that, they even feel it’s being friendly to the foreigner, they even will teach the foreigner ‘Chinese’ using their limited English.

    It’s like bumping into someone, in the US, if it’s an ‘accident’ everyone says sorry sorry, and no one is angry. If one feels the other person INtended to bump you, well then that’s another story. Here in China, for example with walking, lining up, bargaining…it’s kinda like intention is not even considered. Hmm…how would I carry on a conversation w/o regard to anyone’s ‘intention’, maybe I’m doing things that way now, guess I’ll just speak Chinese and if the other person wants to respond in English, Chinese or Japanese it’s up to them. 爱干吗干吗 ? Is it impolite to be ‘un-intentional’?

  17. I think there’s plenty of honorable reasons to want to make friends with foreigners specifically, just as long as your sensitive about it. If I were in that situation I’d try to make conversation in Mandarin. If they’re friendly people they might let you practice your Japanese. But as long as you put friendship and respect first, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

  18. I don’t know. I think it is a stretch to imply that Chinese have no consideration of intention. Eastern or Chinese culture is quite different from Western culture and therefore encompasses a different “value system” in personal interactions. You have the intention consideration in these “using others” situations, mainly out of, I’m guessing, respect (or your own perception) of the other person’s privacy (his/her inner willingness). We Chinese have this, too. You often hear among Chinese the phrase 我没好意思 (wo3mei4hao3yi4si, I was too shy, as in “why didn’t you ask him in the face?” “I was too shy”). That is either, in some situations, a consideration of intention or, in other situations, a fear of being rejected. I am a believer that Chinese have shyness in their own areas/issues, e.g., confronting a neighbor, whereas Westerners have their shyness in other areas, e.g., asking about prices/incomes. Perhaps because of the Chinese teaching of 不耻下问 (bu4chi3xia4wen4, “never be ashamed of learning/knowledge-seeking”), we tend to consider neither intention nor fear when it comes to learning and practice. Having said that, to me many Chinese would still be very reluctant to do language exchange. What you guys encounter are those who are less shy. Others, the shy ones, though the majority, will escape your notice, of course.

  19. what’s the problem in speaking just for a little of practice? I don’t think is such a big deal. They do with me, and I don’t complain (although is bad for them because my English is crap).

  20. Marie,

    That’s the guy! Yeah, he’s still super friendly and working away at that PhD.

  21. Hi Gin,

    I think you might have hit upon a very good point. We maybe are talking/affected most by a non-representative sample. As I reflect a bit, with some Chinese, after I got to know them I realized they HADN’T come up to me at first, exactly for the reason 我没好意思.

    In fact, just thinking about it, think of all the Chinese people that DON”T approach me. And yet I forget to think/mention all those polite, non-practicing Chinese.

    I’m curious Gin, if you happen to be talking to someone in English and they just keep responding in Chinese (and they are not Chinese), how do you feel? I’m thinking back a bit to my earlier comment about a friend of mine who found it frustrating that “with S’poreans, when he would talk to them in English they replied in Chinese, then when he spoke in Chinese they replied in English, said it drove him crazy.”

  22. For people who speak Chinese ( they’re laowais ) I speak Chinese mostly. But they are almost fluent … if they are not, normally they don’t speak Chinese with me. Occassionally we use a few words in Chinese.. but not talking. So if people want to practise Chinese with me I am fine. But I am not correcting on new beginner’s every mistakes as it would be courses and I don’t work for free. 😛

  23. Haha, that’s great to hear John, I didn’t think there could be tons of Sri Lankans studying at ECNU now. Well, pass on my best wishes from the Canadian named 欧曼妮 (Marie), if you happen to remember. Thanks!

  24. George,

    I would feel, at least, odd to talk or be talked “cross languaged.” No, not good. Like you, I tend to communicate “in what I’m spoken to.”

    About your friend who was crazed by S’poreans, LOL. I happen to have a personal story mimicking that kind of exchange. When I was young, very young, I was fluent in some four quite different dialects and could (and still can) code switch between any of them seamlessly and effortlessly. So one day this guy who was well known as a bully and a gang leader came to our classroom and started asking me about the whereabouts of a girl in our class whom he’d been attempting to date (for that reason boys in our class were all hostile towards him). He asked a question in Dialect A, I replied with a non-answer in Dialect B. Then he switched to Dialect B, struggling a bit, but I went right back to Dialect A. I was purely being naughty and my message: “Get lost – who wants to speak to you?” He took the hint and I felt a great sense of victory, which lasted quite a while until, that is, two days later when he and his thugs showed up again, weapons in hand.

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