How to Speak With a Foreigner

September 25th, 2012By Category: Culture

Most of us are lucky enough to meet someone who has traveled the world, and for some reason or another your paths have crossed. They may not in fact speak your language, but please know that your efforts to communicate will be greatly appreciated. Prior to living in Japan, I lived in Russia, Brazil, and Finland, and from those experiences I have learned how to make your interactions with someone who doesn’t speak your language a lot more enjoyable for both of you.

Here are my tips as a foreigner trying to learn the countries native language

1. Non-Verbal Communication

I may understand very few of the words you are saying, so, most likely, I will be watching your every move to try to grasp more meaning. Please do use as many gestures as possible, it is very effective. Be aware though that I will read a lot into what your facial expression means. Please be careful not to show frustration, it will only make the communication more difficult.

2. Attitude

I may not understand you, but I’m not stupid. Please do not roll your eyes at me, I’m trying to learn, and frankly if the 5 minutes of conversation has aggravated you this much, you are most likely the slow one. Many of your more clever country mates have been able to communicate with me effectively. Please understand that I may also be frustrated. I spend at last 40 hours a week struggling in your language, you can spend 5 minutes being patient in your native language. We may be locked in a language exchange because of a business transaction, we can both make each others days a lot more pleasant.

3. Dictation

Please speak slowly. Even if I understand every word your saying, if you speak really quickly I will not understand. Even more important then how quickly you speak is your articulation. Speak precisely, and make sure you don’t slur words together. I can barely understand the words your saying, please make sure that your pronunciation is a clear as possible (this will also help me learn to speak correctly).

4. What language should I speak in?

If you are fluent in my native language, I welcome the conversation. Otherwise, please, speak in the country’s native language as much as possible. Switching back and forth between two languages can get very confusing, especially if you are using my native language incorrectly. I am eager to learn your language, so please do not rob me of that opportunity. I appreciate your interest in my language, but I have taken the step to move to your country, if you move to mine, I will eagerly speak in english with you. If you want to practice English with me, please ask, that way I know that we are both trying to speak in English, and I can facilitate your learning process.


5. Repeat or Try Again

I am sorry to have to make you repeat yourself, but there are a multitude of reasons on my part that I may not have understood you. Sometimes you are too quite, sometimes you caught me off guard and my brain was not ready for your language (this is most common), sometimes you mumbled, sometimes I just wasn’t focused enough, but for what ever reason I need to ask you to repeat yourself. When I ask you to repeat yourself, please just repeat what you said. I most likely just need to hear it one more time. I would really appreciate it if you would repeat exactly what you said.
Sometimes I may not understand what you said. If I do not understand any of it I will say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Please try using different words to explain the same thing. Please give me another chance, I respect your culture and language, it is just very difficult. If I do not understand after a second (or perhaps third time if your really patient) then we should get our dictionaries. They are helpful, but you will still have to repeat what you are trying to tell me many times so that I can understand the words we are looking up in context.

6. Manners

The best way for you to be polite to me is to be clear and patient. This often means not using the most commonly polite phrase with me. I will honestly have no idea if you are speaking to me the same way you would speak to a queen or a baby. All I care about is understanding you, I will feel much more respected if you just speak in a way that I can understand. If you are my superior, and I call you “dude” I am very sorry about that, I probably didn’t know. It’s fine to correct me. I really am trying to be respectful. If you are my friend and I am overly formal with you, I am not trying to be aloof, I like you a lot, and I appreciate you letting me speak with you.

I guarantee these tips will make any foreigner in your country feel much more welcome and eager to learn more about your culture and language. It may also really make their day after many other possibly frustrating interactions in your language.

I have been to quite a few countries, and struggled in quite a few languages. There is a language barrier nuance that is specific to Japan that I have not witnessed any where else.
Many Japanese people have developed a sort of phobia to the English language. Often I will ask a Japanese person a simple question, like “Is this the train to Tokyo?” Although I have asked the question in in Japanese, their response is “I don’t speak English.” Even if I assure them that Japanese is fine, they will often just repeat the phrase “I don’t speak English.” Ben gets this even more then I do, even though he is very skilled at Japanese. I have no idea what to do in those situations.

Photo by bradleygeePenz0r and YairY via Flickr Creative Commons

Author of this article

Katie McGregor

My name is Katie. I moved to Japan with my fiance, now husband, from the beautiful state of Colorado. We were lucky enough to find ourselves in the rural, friendly, and stunningly mountainous  prefecture of Yamanashi. I write about Japan's quirks, irks, and perks on my blog:

Related articles that may interest you


  • leslie nguyen says:

    Great article on this list! I actually feel that perhaps some people are ignorant or just don’t want to be involved to help someone when asked a question. I mean it’s one thing to claim to not speak a language, but when trying to talk in the native language and still rejected, that hurts. But I guess everyone is different. I’ve never been to Japan, but I’d like to think that more native Japanese are open-minded than narrow-minded…

  • Foreign opinon says:

    Regarding the last point- I have lived in Japan for 6 years and met countless foreigners that lament that Japanese constantly refuse to accept that they can speak the Japanese language. Additionally, I have had many experiences in my first years in which I attempted to speak Japanese and was answered with poor English or “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”

    After putting in more time to learning Japanese, I have not been told anything about my Japanese ability for a few years or answered with “I don’t speak English”.

    I can only say that I side with the Japanese people on this. Japanese assume that foreigners can not speak the language simply because the vast majority of foreigners actually can not speak the language. Especially with regard to accent and intonation, foreigners fail most of the time. I knew an American and an Australian that had passed level 1 of the JLPT, but still encountered problems regularly because they spoke with such a heavy accent that was too different from that of a native speaker.
    If a stranger initially answers you with “I don’t speak English”, but your Japanese is good enough, they will immediately switch to being very open to the conversation.