Do native speakers have trouble understanding you even though you speak the language fluently?

Intermediate learners of east Asian languages, particularly Mandarin and Japanese, often report native speakers have trouble understanding them even though they speak fluently. I wrote a blog about what I think may be going on… Don’t Blame Native Speakers for Not Understanding You – I'm Learning Mandarin


I read your blog and you may be trying too hard to put Japanese and Chinese reactions together…For the Chinese, like you said, besides the tones, there might be a way they usually express sentences more naturally. I don’t have experience living in China but maybe they have a similar behavior to Japan, though Chinese people tend to be more confident when dealing with foreigners (at least the ones I have met in travels and here in Japan).

I have been living in Japan for 19 years and I can say that “phenomenon” has happened several times, though it has been improving, with more and more foreigners being a common thing in Japan. It’s not only a problem with the foreigner pronunciation, it’s a cultural “trauma” or “English panic” and lack of confidence to deal with foreigners that many Japanese people still have.

For example, I can vividly recall when I first came as an exchange student and a group of us (around 9 or 10 international students) went to have an ice cream at a place called Royal Host. We had the best of us, a Nikkei ( she was Brazilian, but her parents were Japanese, so she was genetically 100% Japanese, I mean, she LOOKED like a Japanese and her mother tongue was Japanese - the first language she learned before she went to school in Brazil) order everything for us. I could clearly see the panic expression of the waitress when she saw all those foreigners together and she immediately froze. When our friend spoke in PERFECT Japanese, the waitress had very similar reactions to the funny video… she said many times she didn’t speak English until she realized our friend was speaking Japanese…

You see, it’s usually a psychological issue, not something wrong with the pronunciation… (though of course that may happen). If someone has such a narrow mind and totally lacks confidence, she may just panic and doesn’t listen to anyone but her preconceived thoughts/prejudice. So the person is just frozen in her panicked mind and can’t even listen what the other is saying. Unlike many western countries, where people are usually extrovert and the whole culture tends to be like that, we can still see many people in Japan being extremely shy and introvert, so not being able to talk in public is still a very common trait. I daily face that in the schools I teach, where many kids can’t even say a sentence (in Japanese!) in front of their peers. Add the lack of confidence, lack of English skills and therefore fear of speaking it, and the fear of dealing with the unknown (foreigners, if they haven’t had much experience dealing with us) and you get enough psychological blocks to freeze this kind of person.

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Hi, Atlan!

Interesting insights - thanks for sharing!
And I thought it was just a pitch accent or collocation issue in Japanese :slight_smile:

" becoming accustomed to Mandarin sentence patterns so that you can automatically produce them yourself rather than translating from your mother tongue requires hundreds of hours of exposure to the language." (from your blog post)
This is a crucial point (apart from pitch accent in Japanese and tones in Mandarin): trying to translate from our L1 into our TL often results in unnatural sentences that no native speaker would ever use.
But this is a problem in all languages. Asian languages, Indo-European languages, it doesn’t matter.

Massive immersion, as you rightly pointed out, learning collocations (esp. by means of SRS) and speaking/writing a lot (!) in the TL while getting feedback from native speakers / tutors can help reduce this problem.

Have a nice day

PS -
Traditional error correction doesn´t seem to work very well in the SLA context. See, for example, this interesting article by Gianfranco Conti:
7 reasons why (traditional) Error Correction does not work | The Language Gym

Error correction doesn’t seem to work well in first language acquisition either. :smiley: It doesn’t stop most parents from trying over and over again though haha. “negative” and “positive” feedback functions are interesting to look at. Still think it’s difficult to really make the case for distinguishing between feedback and input though, as they are usually given together in authentic situations.

I might add that the pronunciation can always be problematic in regard to the first post. Especially when you aren’t accustomed to foreign accents, they can be difficult to understand. I don’t think it’s all that different for me when I have to try and understand specific foreign accents of English or even just other accents. I really have struggled to just understand native speakers. I can’t imagine how that might work when you add in pitch and tones instead of English stress patterns though. I imagine it would be equally or more difficult to understand. The suprasegmental features really go a long way in comprehensibility. If I’m not mistaken, it’s actually one of the primary reasons that language learners are misunderstood. Happens often between high proficiency speakers on a daily basis too

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