Losing Japanese to Oversensitivity


Photo by EugeniusD80

I’ve lived in China for close to a decade now, and I’m much more comfortable with Chinese, even if I once majored in Japanese. When I arrived in China in 2000, though, my Japanese was much better. At the time, some people used that slippery term “fluent” to describe my Japanese speaking ability, but I definitely wouldn’t get that compliment now.

What happened to my Japanese skills is not as simple as plain neglect, however. During my first few years in China, I made several visits to Japan. While I practiced Japanese very little in China, I was determined not to just “let it go,” and I was able to retain a lot of what I had learned. The big problem, though, was that I wasn’t practicing.

Why not? It’s not because I never met Japanese people in China. The real answer may sound a little strange. I had struggled hard for my right to speak in Chinese here in China, and I was sick and tired of people trying to use me for English practice. I just couldn’t bring myself to pester Japanese people in the same way. I didn’t want to be perceived as another user.

I know my intentions were good, but I was being oversensitive (as I often was doing the harder days of the language power struggles). My Japanese was (and is) conversational; attempting a conversation in Japanese with a Japanese person doesn’t automatically amount to “language rape.”

Still, the end result has been the loss of many Japanese speaking opportunities, potential Japanese friends, and communication in Japanese. I am reminded that a good language learner needs to be adventurous, friendly, bold, and… not so damn sensitive.

These days my Japanese is quite rusty. Although reading and listening are not problems, I just need to get out there and speak Japanese again. Now that I’m done with my masters, I have the time to do it, and I’m making it a priority. If anyone has suggestions for Japanese speaking opportunities in Shanghai or Japanese tutors, please let me know. (I’m not interested in classes; four years of Japanese class was plenty.)

Related Link: 上海ヴォイス (SHvoice)

P.S. Be on the lookout for the upcoming Language Power Struggle intermediate lesson on ChinesePod — inspired by true events!


John Pasden

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


  1. I’ve felt that same tension with Chinese – wanting to practice but not wanting to come across like the young people who just treat you like an English-speaking machine.

    We generally refuse to do language exchange on the grounds that we’re students and need to speak Chinese as much as possible. Now I have one annoying friend who only speaks English (Chinglish) to me, and I only speak Mandarin to him.

    (And speaking of being overly sensitive… “language rape”?)

  2. Well, to be fair Japanese people probably experience a whole lot less language rape in China than than you do.

    The degree to which it happens makes a huge difference. If when you first came to China people tried to practice with you once a month, it probably wouldn’t bother you (and probably wouldn’t bother Japanese friends you had made).

    But when it starts to happen all the time…

    Besides, Japanese people will ‘use’ you for English practice, right?

  3. Solution: Push for a start to JapanesePod, then you can language rape your new coworkers over all-you can eat Tepanyaki

  4. Joel,

    I was borrowing the term “language rape” from the now defunct site Talk Talk China.

  5. Jeremy,


    Actually, though, the Japanese people don’t tend to “use me” for English practice at all. I find Japanese people much more accommodating, willing to speak in whatever language is appropriate. I think in China I’ve mostly ended up talking to them in Chinese.

  6. NJD,

    Heh, nice plan!

  7. …… and that is why we Japanese are NOT good at speaking foreign languages. My Chinese boss, and some Chinese friends, speaks fluent Japanese, so I don’t feel like speaking in clumsy Chinese at all. Lingustically speaking, I live in “JAPAN” now, not in China.

  8. Join a club? I just went to my first Zhangjiang Toastmasters meeting last night. I’m sure that a lot of the members would have preferred to practice their English with me but they have strict rules about alternating between Chinese and English every week so yesterday, being the 2nd Tuesday of this month, was strictly Chinese (some attendees even had to be corrected when they slipped business English vocab into their talks). I wonder if there is a Japanese Toastmasters club in Shanghai… I’d try to find a Japanese expat website and look/ask around.

  9. I’ve had a somewhat similar experience with Portuguese. I’ve joined a “meet-up” group that gets together about 30 miles away just to be able to practice the language once a month.

  10. After 4 years in China, my Japanese has evaporated. The funny thing is, when I’m trying to speak a word in Chinese that I can’t remember, sometimes the Japanese word will come out. Sometimes, I’m not even aware of it.

  11. There’s a Chinese-Japanese language exchange group that meets every weekend in Shanghai near People’s Square (see announcement below). I’ve been wanting to check it out to practice Chinese but haven’t gotten around to it yet.


    If you ever get a JapanesePod started, let me know & maybe I can help!

  12. at first i saw the title of the post and thought you mean oversensitivity as hatred of the japanese by the chinese. ive clearly spent too much time in nanjing.

    do you, any of you, find language exchange groups like that helpful, or is it otherwise so out of practice from your day to day life that it becomes hard to get aything out of such short times practicing?

  13. 頑張るぞ!!!!日本語を話すチャンスがあると思う!You should ask JohnB, he’s learning Japanese じゃない?

  14. Hey, if you’re chinese is good enough, you can offer to to do a language exchange with japanese people who want to learn chinese, Ive met a few japanese people who have expressed interest in that kind of thing.

    Also if anyone is looking for toastmasters in shanghai, i know there used to be a meeting place in the ymca in shanghai on tibet road, but that was a couple years ago.

  15. John: maybe mixi.jp is the place to meet japanese people?

  16. Juju,

    Unfortunately you need a Japanese cell phone to signup for mixi these days…



  17. John, you have already created a ‘mind map’ for Japanese. It has, no doubt, been pushed aside by the new mind map for Chinese. However, you should be able to reestablish the Japanese mind map quickly because the vestiges are still there. Space being limited, the mind maps are competitive for available space/neuronal links. Hence, it’s “Use it or lose it”. How’s your Spanish? English still good? 🙂

  18. Not wanting to be taken out of context, I’ll be a bit oblique. Have you ever considered that the Japanese like it… in regards to language, that is?

    My Japanese roommates in college sure didn’t seem to want me to talk to them in English…

  19. The language power struggle is such an interesting phenomenon. You can’t get people to speak to you in Chinese until you are able to speak it well enough to overpower their English, but you can’t get to that level, because you can never practice. It’s a vicious circle.

  20. First of all, congrats to all people who learn a language, it IS hard work, like we all know. However…overpower their english? Of all the people that “used” me for english practice (and there a lot), most speak terrible english. That is, their vocab usually is pretty decent, sometimes better than mine, although often quite heavy. However their grammar is waaaaaaay off. The reason why I often don’t like talking to them (but usually do), is because it is very exhausting guessing intentions and meanings despite of the correct vocabulary.

    I agree to a certain extent that language is a tool for understanding, and shouldn’t necesarrily follow the rulebook too strictly. But, learning any language in the west, what do you (or should you) always start with? Right, basic grammar. It seems I am one of the few people in china (that i ever met) that think (structured) language learning is not most importantly based on memory, it is based on understanding the natural rules. Anyway, I just want to say, I humbly admit I can only speak elementary chinese and my english is far, far from perfect, but I will never feel overpowered by someone who continuously says “we are go there”, talks in eternal present tense, or other basic grammatical errors. Again, no offense to any language learner, but it seems some “users” are expecting some kind of return which I can’t give them. Buy a book, browse the internet and study how to properly make a sentence. Since I started to forcefeed my friend with DIY grammar lessons, his english has improved a lot very fast. And this, in my opinion, is valid for learning chinese too.

    That said, I have also met a lot of very nice students, that don’t tend to overly “use” me and often are very happy to have a chat in chinese or at least have a balanced bilingual conversation. And I will have a chat with any friendly farmer that only knows five words of english.

  21. I´ve had the same problem during the 8 months i´ve been studying in Shanghai. Most of my classmates were Japanese and, since they found out i could talk to them in Japanese, they literally refused to speak any Chinese to me at all.
    I eventually ended up avoiding them…a pity, but, as my days in China were limited, i don´t regret it.

    By the way, I was studying at 上海师范大学, and i´m sure you can find plenty of chances to practice your Japanese if you drop by once the new courses start (next September).

  22. […] opportunities, potential Japanese friends, and communication in Japanese. I am reminded that a good language learner needs to be adventurous, friendly, bold, and… not so damn sensitive. […]

  23. What about looking in magazines and internet media produced for Japanese living in Shanghai (such as shanghai walker or the “whenever ierou peeji” – yellow pages)? I saw that sometimes people are looking for Atsumari Saakuru. Sorry no Kanji – I’m in the US now.

    You might be able to hook up with people playing basketball or something. Otherwise, if you are a sports fan (say of Japanese baseball) or love to drink, you could go the Japanese bar route.

    You could also hang out where you know Japanese are going to school and try to play sports with them.

    Good luck!

  24. “Still, the end result has been the loss of many Japanese speaking opportunities, potential Japanese friends, and communication in Japanese. I am reminded that a good language learner needs to be adventurous, friendly, bold, and… not so damn sensitive”
    There seems to be a selfish rapacity for language acquisition at work here, And the operative equation nothing more than japanese friends = japanese communication ops. So, while at first you seem to suggest using people as tools to acquire a language is distasteful, the conclusion outlines how you plan to do just that.

  25. ジョン!


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