A cutting comeback from a Japanese-proficient foreigner leaves one man with a permanent emotional scar, but there are softer ways to make your point too.

So there’s a situation that just about every foreigner who’s put in the effort to study and learn some Japanese runs into at one point or another in Japan. It basically goes like this:

1. Japanese-proficient foreigner opens their mouth to start speaking, in Japanese, to a Japanese person
2. Japanese person assumes that foreigner must not be able to speak Japanese, and is also a native English-speaker.
3. Japanese person immediately cuts the foreigner off by saying, in English, “I don’t speak English.”

However, when Japanese Twitter user @takah1yt jumped the gun an acted on his assumptions about a foreigner’s language skills, he found himself on the end of a completely unexpected comeback.

“A foreigner was about to start talking to me, so I immediately said I don’t speak English! He responded, in Japanese, with ‘Benkyou shiro.’

So what’s benkyou shiro mean, in this context?

“Then learn English.”

The beauty of the snarky retort is that it was delivered in Japanese. By speaking in Japanese, the foreigner showed that whether or not @takah1yt could speak English didn’t really have any effect on their ability to communicate with each other. If @takah1yt wanted to suddenly bring up his English skills, and lament them, that’s fine, but that dissatisfaction was entirely on him, since the foreigner wasn’t asking him to use English in the first place. “I don’t think the damage I sustained in that conversation will ever fade,” mused @takah1yt.

It turns out @takah1yt isn’t the only Japanese person to have had their misconception that the foreigner they were talking couldn’t speak Japanese corrected in a sudden and surprising way, as one commenter shared their story.

“When I told a foreigner ‘I can’t speak English,’ they asked, in Japanese, ‘E-, hitokoto mo?’ [Japanese for “Not even a single word?”].”

But why are some Japanese people in such a rush to announce that they can’t speak English, doing so before the foreigner has made any indication that that’s the language they want to converse in? There are a couple of reasons, actually.

First off, in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t all that long ago that the Japanese-proficient foreigners were a rarity. That’s no longer the case, with more non-natives now studying and speaking Japanese than at any other time in history, but for the average Japanese person, one who’s not a linguist with their finger on the pulse of language trends, the conception that most foreigners they encounter, even in Japan, can’t speak Japanese is yet to fade, and statistically speaking, might not even be entirely incorrect.

There’s also Japanese culture/society’s strong focus on responsibility and hospitality. Again, permanent foreign residents of Japan are still a rather small minority compared to temporary foreign residents and travelers from abroad. Many Japanese people perceive foreigners in Japan as their society’s guests, and feel a responsibility, and pressure, to accommodate them. Not being able to do so sometimes creates mini panic attacks, which can lead to premature apologies like “I’m sorry I can’t peak English,” since they’ve already played out the scenario of being unable to comply with an English-language request before a request, in any language, has actually been made.

And finally, more than a few Japanese people are embarrassed about their lack of English skills. Among developed nations, Japan’s English proficiency is comparatively low, and a sense of preemptive shame can mix with anxiety to cause Japanese people to blurt out “I can’t speak English!” at the earliest possible moment.

Of course, those reasons don’t necessarily mean that’s the right way to be handling the situation, and another commenter had a much more logical, and respectful, way of dealing with the linguistic issue.

“I used to work as a security guard at a parking lot near a sightseeing destination, and people of many different ethnicities would ask me for directions. A lot of them have studied hard and can communicate in Japanese, so the correct thing to do is to first speak to them in Japanese, and ask ‘Hai, dou shimashita ka?’ [“What can I do for you?”].”

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know what you, as a Japanese-speaking foreigner, can do to get the conversation back on track, the best way to respond to a premature “I can’t speak English!” is with a calm “Dakara watashi ha Nihongo de ii desu yo” (“And that’s why it’s OK to speak to me in Japanese.”). Sure, it’s sometimes kind of a pain to have to add that extra step to the conversational process, but maybe after getting that response a few times, the Japanese person will learn to hold off on their “I can’t speak English!” until they’ve actually listened to the words coming out of the foreigner’s mouth.

Source: Twitter/@takah1yt via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso (edited by SoraNews24)
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2)
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