Sometimes it’s easier just to let the native speaker win


My entry last month about that virus that is responsible for the top six Explorer crashes prompted me to check out the blog of the Anti-Malware Engineering Team, and at the bottom of a report from Microsoft TechEd Boston is a photo of a few members of the Anti-Malware Engineering Team.

I've worked with some of those people, and I had forgotten where they had gone to after we fell out of touch. Nice to know they're still working to make the world a better place.

I was reminded of a funny story told to me by one of those former colleagues. He studied Japanese in college (I think he may have majored in it), his wife is from Japan, their language of conversation at home is Japanese. You might figure that his Japanese is pretty good.

But don't say that to a native Japanese speaker!

He tells me that when he goes back to Japan and strikes up a conversation with a new acquaintance, the native speaker will start testing him on his knowledge of Japanese, refusing to believe that a foreigner could learn their deep and subtle language. Usually, the quiz focuses on the written form of the language.

"Do you know this character?"

— Yes, that's "dog".

"Oh, very good. How about this one?"

— That's "hospital".

"Ah yes, your Japanese is quite good. But what about this one?"

— That's "mushroom".

It isn't long before my colleague gets tired of this game and gets one wrong on purpose.

"I bet you don't know this one."

— Um, I'm not sure. I think it's "soul".

"Aha, not quite. The character for 'soul' is this one. [Writes the character.] But that is the character for 'clump'. The two are very similar, I admit, so I'm not surprised that you confused them."

Both sides get what they want: The native Japanese speaker gets to feel superior, and my colleague gets to change the topic to something more interesting.

Comments (25)
  1. kokomo says:

    Sometimes it’s easier to let the commentator win. And vice versa. :P

  2. Mark Sowul says:

    Well, as long as the Japanese don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose…

  3. JamesNT says:

    This reminds me of one of the conversations I had with an open source proponent friend of mine in college.  One day he managed to drag me into one of those "Linux is Superior to Windows" conversations we all know and love.  Typically, I don’t back down from such conversations but that day I really needed to get some studying done as we had a test for Formal Languages and Computability coming up in a few days.  We went back and forth a few times with him pointing out that Linux is more secure, you have access to the source, and the usual diatribe the linux crowd has been spewing for years.  I struck back with Windows better back compat, better interface, etc.

    It was clear we were going no where fast as I pointed out Windows’ market share.  My friend said, "So you’re saying Windows is just superior for the market but not superior to linux."  

    I said, "Yes, Windows is just superior for the market."  I left it at that.

    JamesNT  

  4. nathan_works says:

    Mark, it was a fair move. Whinging about it won’t change that.

    Is there a lesson for Igor, YungBao, and Aaarg! here ?

  5. fersis says:

    Katamary Damacy rocks :D

    That was my IT comment of the day, keep moving there is nothing to se here…

  6. that’s definitely something characteristic of Japanese people, at least that’s how it is perceived on the Hispanic community

  7. That’s very unlike my experience with the Japanese immigrants in Brazil.  It generally goes like this:

    me: [japanese]

    they: [portuguese]

    me: [japanese]

    they: [portuguese]

    me: [japanese]

    they: [veery carefully admitting to themselves that a caucasian is speaking japanese] oooh, you speak Japanese?

    me: just a little, I’m still learning, I’m very bad at it etc.

    they: no, no, that’s amazing, you speak very well! [said in the tone of “look mom, the horse can do math!”]

    I also think the amount of praise is inversely proportional to actual mastery of language.

  8. Joe says:

    Funny how your brain filters out the ‘t’ in Antimalware and all see throughout the article is Animal-ware.

  9. Ram says:

    I visited a friend of mine who lives in Japan a few years ago. He hosted a party at which an Indian was a guest (Ravi).  Ravi was born and raised in Japan. He told me the exact same story you did.  The Japanese people he ran into could not comprehend that a brown face was speaking perfect Japanese.  They felt the Japanese language was ‘in the genes’ and non-Japanese people should/would/could not speak it perfectly.

  10. Tanveer Badar says:

    Always give people what they want to hear. Saves precious time in conversations.

  11. mpz says:

    Perhaps he should learn some silly complex kanji and turn the tables, asking the interlocutor whether *he* knows written Japanese.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_characters#Rare_and_complex_characters

    Actually, most Japanese probably aren’t able to write the characters for rose (薔薇) and soy sauce (醤油).

  12. Igor Levicki says:

    Is there a lesson for Igor, YungBao, and Aaarg! here ?

    As long as Nathan can understand what Raymond has written there is no lesson for the rest of us. :p

  13. Jonathan says:

    The native speaker in question sounds like quite a jerk. And the title is a special case of the more general advice "Sometimes it’s easier to let the bigger jerk win".

  14. William Reading says:

    Heh, I liked the subtle Katamari Damacy reference :-)

    (I’m assuming it was intentional)

  15. Sven Groot says:

    I’ve lived in Japan for over a year now but fortunately haven’t come across any Japanese people who felt the need to prove their superiority in that manner.

  16. Simon says:

    >Heh, I liked the subtle Katamari Damacy reference :-)

    >(I’m assuming it was intentional)

    If it wasn’t intentional, it’s pretty impressive that he managed to link the phrase "The two are very similar, I admit" to the Wikipedia article on Katamari Damacy by *accident*…  ;-)

  17. Cheong says:

    As Cantonese is one of the most difficult speaking language in the world, we can hear how good one speaks it in a few exchange without further test… :P

  18. Triangle says:

    I’ve lived in Japan for over a year now but fortunately haven’t come across any Japanese people who felt the need to prove their superiority in that manner.

    Then you probably haven’t mastered the language :P

    This post gives me Norman Diamond vibes. I wonder where he went.

  19. Steve D says:

    IF it was me (which it couldn’t be since I don’t know a jot of Japanese!) I’d be tempted to concede the game very early in the exchange and, once lost, just let natural conversation sho where my level really is.  And see how long to takes to dawn on them.

  20. Andrew R says:

    My sister is classed as a native Japanese speaker (though we are both caucasian) – she has reason to be in Japan for work quite regularly and often speaks to loads of Japanese people in a prominent public position as part of it.

    She has never been challenged in the way you describe – not even by Japanese friends.

    The reason for this is because Japanese people tend to be overly polite – it would be rude to suggest that one’s spoken or written language is imperfect.  Even when ASKED to pass judgement they will more often tend to tell you  only what was correct rather than point out flaws.  Only the closest of friends will deign to say anything negative, and even then it will be cast in a positive light.

    I think it far more likely your colleague is either having you on, or actually enjoys the challenge (ie. asks to be tested).

  21. Tyler says:

    I think they just want to be encouraging.  Let someone show off a little, appear impressed.  Then one party says ‘I still have so much to learn!’ and the other party goes ‘Your Japanese is so good! How long have you been studying?’, or some such.  And then, have you ever been to Japan, when was the last time, how long, etc.

    Kind of like how when a friendly Japanese person with a cart full of groceries is in line at the supermarket, he or she may ask you if you want to cut ahead of them with your few items.  Sometimes you will be asked 3-4 times if you want to cut.  It’s just one of those weird exchanges.

  22. steveg says:

    I can barely speak English, let alone another language, but I have experienced the same sort of thing with spicy (hot) food, along the lines of "No, no, that’s for Thai|Indian|Malaysian|Lao|etc people", and gosh, look at that, the funny looking guy likes it. I guess the equivalent in my locale might be Vegemite: "No! Don’t touch that, only Australians think it tastes good."

  23. Mark Nash says:

    Don’t blame us Kiwis and Aussies for liking vegemite and marmite. That stuff is great on toast.

    Dr Pepper? Vomit !

  24. Dean Harding says:

    "Dr Pepper?"

    I don’t mind Dr Pepper. You just have to hold your nose as you’re drinking it because it smells like vomit. Drinking from a can helps because you can just cover the hole with your mouth.

    But vegemite is delicious! I spread it a centimeter thick on my toast :-) The trick to liking vegemite is to spend about 10 years in Australia. I find that everyone comes to like it after spending enough time here… must be something in the water.

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