Apr 17, 2015

Switching between Japanese & English is hard

I speak both English and Japanese fluently. Which language I am more comfortable speaking, more used to speaking and better at speaking all depends on the situation.

Since I live in Japan, it is easier to speak about Japanese things (culture, customs, food, money) in Japanese. There are just things you can't explain in English because they don't exist, theres no word, no culture to say such things. However working at a restaurant I am sometimes forced to have to be able to translate things into English for a customer who can't speak Japanese, and It is very very hard for me.

At my job its all Japanese, the coworkers speak Japanese, 95% of customers speak Japanese, I am trained in Japanese and this is Japan. In a Japanese restaurant there are many phrases you just never say in English speaking countries.

1. Level of politeness.
In Japan when you are speaking to the customer you use a very high polite form of Japanese. In English this doesn't exist.  You also say things such as omatase shimashita - お待たせしました "I am sorry to keep you waiting". This isn't something you would say in English, so when I have to say it to the English speaking customers, I feel a little weird. Not to mention we have a phrase called ごゆっくりどうぞ goyukkuri douzo (literally: please take your time).  It sounds so weird to have to repeat this to the customer in English, we just don't say this randomly after giving them their drink or food over and over again.

2. Names of food and descriptions

The menus at my work have English titles of the food on them, but what is hard to remember is that sometimes the English and Japanese is different. So when a customer orders something that I don't have the English memorized, I have to look at the menu and search it up. It also is kinda hard when asked on the spot to explain what something is, having only being taught what it is in Japanese and Japanese words to describe it, on the spot my English ends up being really weird sounding. I often find myself directly trying to translate the Japanese explanation into English and the English is just a mess.

These are just some of the problems I am facing. Mostly at work :P

Then theres an issue when I am in Japanese mode and start going back and forth between languages to quickly, I get confused and don't know which language I am speaking. There have been times with my friends where I had to tell them what to say but then ended up telling them in Japanese what the other person said in Japanese. My friends laugh it off though.

Some people may be good at switching between languages but I certianly am not.


  1. Yay! Your post is very interesting... Thank you for share with us!

  2. Oh hai. -waves from Canada-

    So you're having trouble when an English-speaking customer (who knows little to no Japanese) asks about the menu...in English?

    That sucks. I just started a new job, too, at a grocers. And I'm saving up to come over to Japan at the end of summer. :) I don't have to worry about French here. It's not expected even though the capital's pretty strict about the whole bilingual thing.

    Did you have to deal with the French-English barrier when you were working in Toronto?

    1. In Toronto I worked in an office, and we dealt from customers Canada wide. So often I had a customer who spoke another language, French, Italian, Chinese, Hindi were most common. We would find someone who speaks that language in the office to speak to the customer.

  3. Your level of politness thing part intruiged me as you say that you would not normally say 'sorry to keep you waiting' in English
    HOWEVER, let me assure you that if you're serving someone from the UK it IS normal to say that over here. Like if you don't say that it's considered very rude. Usually only if you have taken a little time to serve, but we accept it even if you serve us straight away. And the same with 'please take your time'. It's expected in resturaunts to have this level of politness over here, you don't always get it and to be honest we probably WOULDN'T notice if we didn't get it but when we do get it we notice it and it makes the tip a little better ;) So you don't need to feel weird about that if you're serving UK folk :D

  4. Hey! I have been watching a lot of your youtube videos and I have so many questions for you. Do you have an email that I can contact you at?

  5. In the us you do say sorry to keep you waiting and its normal and saying please take your time is normal to.