Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem—they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start

In a couple weeks I am supposed to give a presentation (in Japanese) for my company’s family day. The topic is “common English mistakes by Japanese people.” I didn’t decide the theme, but I am hoping to use the opportunity to spread the message that speaking “wrong” English should be welcomed as long as you are at least communicating and using what you know.

And since I don’t think it’s fair to focus only on Japanese people’s English mistakes, to help make my point I am including the following anecdote about my own linguistic history:

About a month into my time as an exchange student in high school (my first-ever visit to Japan), I started staying with host parents who loved to feed me. Very, very nice and welcoming people. One time they served me hot cocoa, and I told them I liked it. Big mistake, because for the next two weeks they gave me the same hot cocoa with dinner every single night.

I was starting to get pretty sick of it, but I wanted to be polite and as such didn’t want to say no without doing so properly in Japanese. So I looked up how to say “I am getting tired of X” in the dictionary and went to my host mother and told her:

ココア、飽きたです (broken Japanese for, “I sick of cocoa”)

Her reaction? She looked shocked, started to cry, and asked why I would say such a thing. She then got her husband, and he demanded an explanation. I was starting to get nervous at this point, so I just repeated ココア、飽きたです thinking they’d get it this time. They didn’t and just seemed to get even angrier and more hurt…

Sweating now, I tried a few more times with different, untested sentence structures, mustering all my training from stateside Japanese classes. (ココアおいしいけど飽きたです?). With each utterance, they would look at me curiously and then start talking among themselves in words I couldn’t understand.

Finally, it dawned on me – ココア、飽きたです sounds a lot like ここは、飽きたです (I sick of this place). So I finally found the bag of cocoa and started pointing to it, saying  ココア ココア!!

Once they finally got it everything settled down. But for a moment I thought I might be in some serious trouble for making a cultural faux pas. I had heard how much Japanese value social protocol, so until I realized the mistake it seemed like saying no to cocoa was a really big deal. I still feel bad about making my host mother cry.


Have any of you had similar linguistic misadventures? Please let me know in the comments section. Note that if your story is really good I might have to steal it for my presentation!