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Strategies for Resisting Nativelike Behavior: Communication Strategies for Pragmatics


Even if you are aware of differences in cultural norms between native and target language speakers, you still may bring in first language norms in performing speech acts in a second language. This may sometimes be an unconscious slip of tongue, but in other cases it may simply be your preferred way of expression regardless of what language you are speaking. For example, some learners of Japanese have mentioned that they tend to drop the use of honorifics even when they know that native speakers would normally use them, because they believe in equality between speakers and the use of honorifics goes against this belief (Ishihara, 2003).

Your interlocutors in the target language may interpret your language as your way of expressing yourself and may not mind if you do not speak like natives. Some others, however, may perceive it differently from the way you intend it to be. In the example above when you don't use keigo (honorifics) when it’s expected, some Japanese speakers will excuse you because of your non-native status, or because they think it’s a very American thing to do, using their own bias about Americans. Others may think that you are a rude and tactless person in nature.

In the units practicing speech acts, we have shown you some typical ways native speakers of Japanese use the language. Although we used native speakers' language as a model, we do not expect you to adopt it at all times. Language belongs to its speakers after all! Our concern is for miscommunication that is bound to happen when you do not speak like natives for whatever reason. Our last set of strategies is intended to help you to avoid the stigma caused by miscommunication at those times when you either choose not to speak like a native or are unable to speak like a native.


Clarifying communicative intentions

Example 1:

You are invited to dinner at your close friend’s apartment, and have eaten more than enough. Your friend offers you another piece of rich cake. You say 結構です Kekkoudesu, using it as an equivalent of No, thanks. As you say it, however, you remember that this expression is probably too formal for use with a close friend. Then you add:             


Suggoku oishikatta kedo, mou honto onakaga ippai dakara "It was really good, but I am so full."

Since this addition uses informal language, any inappropriateness caused by the first utterance is somewhat rectified, and you are able to express closeness to this friend.

Example 2:

You accidentally lose your friend’s document on his computer when you use it. You apologize ほんとうにごめん  honntouni gomen "I’m really sorry" and you pronounce it emphatically and sincerely. After you finish this brief apology, you notice that you should probably have repeated your apology several more times because you are really sorry. You hurriedly add:  


Ano, hontoni gomen, honttonigomenneWarui koto "Well, I'm really sorry, really sorry. I did something awful." 


Repairing a potential miscommunication by explaining L1 norms


Your boss compliments you on your excellent performance in the office in the presence of other employees. You are delighted and proudly say without a second thought, ありがとうございます arigatou gozaimasu. As you say it, however, you recall that this may sound too boastful to Japanese hearers – and there are many of them within the earshot. To avoid sounding conceited or condescending, you humorously add:

               私はおだてられやすくって。 単純だからすぐに喜んでしまうんです。それに、

英語ではありがとう、と素直に言うのが丁寧なので。 Watashiwa odaterare yasukutteTanjun dakara suguni yorokondedesu. Soreni, eigodewa arigatou, to iunoga teineinanode "I get flattered easily. I am such a simple person that it is easy to please me.  Besides that, in English, it is polite to say 'thank you' frankly."


Alerting your interlocutor to the fact that you may not know how to appropriately perform the speech act in L2 (warning the hearer of a potential future miscommunication)


  • あの、日本語でどう言ったらいいのか分からないんですけれども  Ano, nihongode dou ittara iinoka wakaranain desu keredomo  "[formal] I’m not sure how to say this right in Japanese, but …"

  • 日本語では何ていうのかな、  Nihongodewa nante iunokana, "[informal] I wonder how to say this in Japanese, but …"


Avoiding being too nativelike (for the sake of expediency, not worrying about approximating target language form but taking short cuts)


Avoiding keigo, honorific language, in speaking with someone of higher status in order to simplify your utterance because you are better at the plain form without honorific verbs.

Example 2:

Using keigo in speaking with a friend because you are better at the honorific verb form than the plain form.

Avoiding expressions you are not sure of (e.g., colloquial language and interjections)

Modifying L1 literal translation (that you are tempted to say) to make it more acceptable/appropriate in L2

Example 1:

A Japanese speaker of English hosting a guest for dinner might be tempted to say in English, “There is nothing, but please eat.” as the direct translation of Japanese expression, 何もありませんがどうぞお召し上がりください。Nanimo arimasenga douzo omeshiagari kudasai, while offering a feast.  Although the idea of modesty might be communicated to a native English speaking guest, it would be more acceptable in English to say, “I don’t know if you’ll like the meal, but please start.”   

Example 2:

A Japanese speaker of English tends to misuse an expression of apology, “I’m sorry” as s/he is seeking to communicate thanks to other English speakers.  As we have learned in the Apologies unit and the Thanks unit, this is because the sense and expressions of apologies and thanks overlap in Japanese.  However, a native English speaker may wonder, “Sorry for what?” Therefore, the Japanese speaker of English should further modify the utterance to say, “I’m sorry I put you through trouble.” Then, this more appropriately communicates the speaker’s sense of indebtedness. 


Finding similar expressions in L2 (or in another language) that you feel more comfortable


Notice that other languages indeed have expressions you believe to be unique in your language! So when you as a learner of another language might be happier to find them and use them as you please.  For example,

  • (when giving a gift on a formal occasion) つまらないものですが、どうぞ。Tsumaranai mono desuga, douzo. "It’s a trivial thing, but please accept."  An English equivalent would be: “I have a small present for you.”            

  • (when making a request on a formal occasion) ご迷惑をかけるつもりではないのですが・・・ Gomeiwakuwo kakeru tsumoridewa naino desuga… "I don’t mean to trouble you, but …"  An English equivalent that is commonly used would be: "I don’t want to impose" or "I couldn’t impose."

  • (when someone sneezes) Instead of saying “(God) bless you,” a non-Christian speaker may prefer to say “Gesundheit” (Good health) in German that communicates the speaker’s care for the person who just sneezed without any religious connotations. 

 Also, note the learning strategies for speech acts – for your further learning of appropriate use of the target language. 


Observing other speakers’ use of strategies and making your own hypotheses about appropriate use of the target language  

Finding native informants and using their insights by asking specific linguistic/cultural questions    

Finding resources that can inform you of the target language and culture


Back to Strategies for Learning Speech Acts in Japanese (Main Index)

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