Speak Japanese and take a bow
It is a dangerous thing to know a little of a language. Even worse, I reckon, when you have such a good accent that the few words you manage to utter sound like the promising tip of a mighty mountain of understanding and excellence.
And so it is with my grasp of Japanese, a language in which I was reasonably fluent when I lived in Tokyo, which was in the third century BC, or thereabouts. My pronunciation was perfect, I was assured by excessively polite local friends. The Japanese are so appreciative of outsiders attempting their language that they bow and say “O-jozu!” Which means you are talented and fluent, when most likely you are not.
I was in Japan last week and even though many words and phrases came flooding back, I felt like a total fraud. The problem with such an honorific language is that you can get away with uttering endless courtesies and stock phrases without actually saying anything. It’s a bit like French in that respect, a tongue in which you can curl your lip and say “Mais oui!”, “C’est la vie!” “Vous en prie!” and “D’accord!” from dawn to dusk and sound really rather clever.
With my oddly excellent Japanese accent, any foray into speaking with, say, shopkeepers or taxidrivers opened a torrent of conversation on this recent trip. Of course I couldn’t keep up and would grab at a word here and there that I could understand, repeating it, bobbing and smiling and then sucking in breath, which always is a good time-staller.
“What was that all about?” asked my partner after a cab ride in Nagoya during which the driver chatted nonstop. “No idea,” I replied.
“But you were talking with that chap for 10 minutes!” I replied that yes, I was, but it wasn’t conversation, just phrases strung together, like toddler Japanese.
In Morocco ages ago, I was the only French speaker (of sorts) in a little group of travellers and was therefore appointed to deal with a driver we’d hired who spoke no English.
I summoned an arsenal of verbs and nouns from longago Alliance Francaise classes and fired them about, making no attempt to form sentences but it somehow worked a treat.
The driver, too, just shouted out observations every time he saw a tree, an animal, a bus, and I repeated the words to my astonished companions, who could quite clearly identify the likes of a date palm, donkey or camel in English, as it happened.
That was the trip during which I gave up using phrasebooks. You learn to say stuff such as “Where is the tavern?” and the chapter on directions tells you to turn left and you’ll find it behind a fig tree. Then you ask a local in perfect French and they tell you something else entirely. So what is the point, really?
In Kyoto, a taxi driver apologised (in Japanese) for his poor English while I apologised (in English) for my terrible Japanese and that became a cascading exchange that kept us going for about 20 minutes between Arashiyama and Kyoto station.
My Japanese was better than the cabbie’s English, so I tossed in a few extra nouns and names and it got so spirited that my partner ventured a few new words of his own — “Kirin! Asahi! Obento!” — before sticking in his Qantas earplugs.