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‘Nobody here speaks English!’ And it’s all Felicity’s fault

As a frequent traveller I regularly use popular travel websites to make my hotel reservations and a major factor in determining my choices are the reviews of my fellow travelers. I have a few regular haunts throughout Asia — my well-trodden comfort zones — but I am often perplexed to see how many reviewers say things such as, “The staff don’t speak any English” or “The English at reception is almost non-existent” in these accommodations, places where I have never had a problem using my mother tongue. Many such comments adorn the sites for Japanese hotels too, including major Tokyo or Osaka entries.


I speak Japanese to the staff at Japanese hotels, but until they know that I can speak Japanese most staff members tend to start the encounters in perfectly acceptable English. Moreover, it is very common to see or hear the same hotel staff serving various international customers in anything from passable to excellent English. Yet, even for these hotels, the ‘No one there speaks English’ comments persist. Why?


This reminds of a foreign resident down here in Miyazaki who once told me that he was going to Tokyo for the routine treatment of a standard medical issue. “I can find an English-speaking doctor in Tokyo.” Then he added, “…unlike in Miyazaki.”



This is not a pen


Now, I teach at a medical school, one connected directly to the major medical hub of the prefecture: the university hospital. I know, and have worked directly with, hundreds of doctors here who have spent considerable time researching or practicing abroad and are more than comfortable in English. I would also add that about 50% (ballpark figure) of my students who stay on at the hospital after graduation would be fine one-on-one with a non-Japanese but English-speaking patient. True, some doctor in charge of a small, specialist clinic in the region, like the one he had previously visited, might well struggle with English speech but the blanket :“…unlike in Miyazaki?” Hmmm.


Another case of the ‘Reallys?!‘ occurred when one of our highly English-proficient students returned to Japan after a brief lab research project at a major Chinese university hospital. Upon returning, the student advised others not to study English for lab research in China, but Chinese. Sound advice perhaps, but his advice was appended with, “…because no one speaks English there.”

At a major hospital in one of China’s biggest cities? Really? What’s going on here?


‘Dumbed-down code switching’


To answer this question, perhaps I can refer to occasional experiences I have when using Japanese. Here’s an example:

I go to the city hall to get information on a rather complex procedure involving getting rebates on a special property tax. The person in charge says (in Japanese, of course) something that to my ears sounds as follows: 

In order to get the rebate, you’ll have to submit a copy of an espakshophaymof document and provide your previous year’s tax records.”

Sorry, what kind of document did you say?”

A long pause. Then that annoying dumbed-down code-switching begins:

You. Guest-san. Mister Michael. You bring copy, paper, –shorui — on paper, for me. Paper of espakshophaymof, and, plus, also, tax — zeikin — paper. For me. You bring. Ok?

What’s that document’s name again?”

Just a moment. I’ll get an English-speaker.”


You get the drift. That civil servant is now probably thinking, “Why hasn’t this foreigner learned Japanese?”


Do you want to know why my acquaintance in Miyazaki thought that the local doctors couldn’t speak English? The clinician he had initially approached about his medical issue had been uncertain about a certain English medical term. Now, a dictionary could have solved that quickly — my acquaintance couldn’t tell me why it wasn’t used — but this one linguistic hesitation had led him to a wholesale distrust of the English skills of doctors in the entire region.


‘It means  choosing the vocabulary, discourse signals, and organization of ideas that can most readily and accurately be decoded’


There is a common denominator underlying the cases described above: interactive infelicity. That may not be the standard academic term for these scenarios but that’s what I’m going to call it. Take the hotel case. At a Shinjuku hotel I stayed in last fall, I heard the following exchange between the reception staff and two just-checked-out Canadian (I’m guessing) guests who were hovering around the front desk:


Receptionist: Yes?

Canadian guest A: Yeah, so we were just wondering about getting all our stuff on the train, the airport one. Like, it’ll be too crowded, maybe? So we’re thinking about the bus. Maybe, you know, that’ll be better. But we don’t know.

Receptionist: (politely and deferentially) Umm… I’m sorry?

Canadian guest A: Wha..? Why?

Canadian guest B: I don’t think she speaks English, Ross.


Oh, the receptionist understood English reasonably well alright, but just look at how ‘Ross’ frames and organizes his speech. What is in the head position? “Yeah, so…” Right away this is likely to throw off many non-native speakers of English. This is followed by a highly-personalized backgrounding phrase, “We were just wondering…” the incongruity of which becomes further compounded by superfluous ‘likes’ and ‘you knows’. Rear-loaded overly-general adjuncts (“The airport one.”).


And finally the pragmatic force of the ultimate point, which would have been more appropriately rendered as, “Which do you recommend for people with a lot of bags going to the airport, the train or the bus?“, is so pragmatically obscure as to lead the receptionist to believe that no question, no seeking of advice, is taking place at all. This becomes reinforced when the final utterance from Ross is, “We don’t know.”


baby talkAdjusting your speech does not mean using baby talk’


Bottom line — when you are speaking your mother tongue to a person who does not speak that language as a first language the impetus is on you to adjust your speech accordingly to engage your interlocutor. Now this does not mean using baby talk or deliberately using broken English (such as adding an ‘O” to the ending of every noun when speaking to Mexicans, just to mention the most egregious example I’ve ever been privy to). It does mean  choosing vocabulary, discourse signals, and the organization of ideas that can most readily and accurately be decoded by the ‘other’. This is the nature of felicity, or, as seen in the cases above, infelicity.


When we speak of English as the de facto ‘universal language’ or as a lingua franca it does not mean that native English speakers now have license to use their mother tongue without consideration for the comprehension of others. In fact, it means just the opposite — it implies adjustments, flexibility, negotiation, compromise.


At a medical conference in Seoul I noted the following ‘question’ from an American health worker. It was asked to a Japanese researcher who was clearly not a proficient speaker of English:

You mentioned x therapy in your presentation, but I was wondering, well not wondering, but, what should I say, I felt myself criticizing, or at least questioning whether, well… I suppose my experience is different from yours. What I mean is…”


This went on for some time. By the time the American had finished, even I, as a fellow native speaker of English, could not grasp the point or question. The Japanese presenter’s response?





And I don’t blame her. A similarly convoluted 19th-century-Russian-novel-of-a-‘question’ from the same attendee was later proffered to a Chinese presenter, who changed his deferential posture halfway through to one of annoyance, and who eventually responded with:

I have no idea what you just said.”


There was a smattering of applause and audible smirking laughter from the audience. You’re in Seoul man! At a World Congress! 80% of the attendees are not native speakers of English. Ahh, Felicity…


However, being felicitous is not just about how one organizes and manages one’s English. It involves being aware of the expectations of others regarding language and behavior. The Japanese student in China could have, should have, considered that the locals would initially think that he is Chinese and thus would initially expect Chinese to come out of his mouth, not a sudden burst of English. It’s quite natural that would throw most locals for a loop and stall the code-changing switch.


tuna wraps‘Got any tuna wraps, like?’


To be fair, I was probably guilty of this in my earliest travels to Europe — not offering a buffer before launching into idiomatic English while addressing Poles, Slovenes, Czechs etc.. That was then. Now, you’ll never find me walking into a convenience store in Phnom Penh and starting my request with, “OK, I’ve been looking all over for some burritos. Got any?” (I’d ask for a Tuna Wrap instead).


The Japanese civil servant from city hall could have, should have, negotiated the single word I couldn’t understand, instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach to my Japanese skills. Yes, I am on his linguistic turf — but that doesn’t negate the responsibility of both parties to find common communicative ground.


Other factors can play a part in such breakdowns. These are often cultural. Let me give you an example…


‘It was pretty obvious that they had no idea what I was saying’


We were hosting a highly-regarded British scholar with a lengthy background in medical discourse. While visiting, he led a seminar for 3rd year ENP (English for Nursing Purposes) students. He was aware that these students were eager learners but had only basic English skills. As might be expected of a veteran instructor, his seminar contained a strong balance of new medical content pitched at an appropriate English level. However, later at lunch, he said “Unfortunately, it was pretty obvious that they had no idea what I was saying.” My colleague and I both questioned this without hesitation. We were quite certain that the students had grasped, and gained, a lot. So, why had he thought his efforts had fallen on uncomprehending ears?


“They offered almost no responses. Even when I explicitly checked for comprehension there were just slight, barely perceptible, polite nods.” This was true. But this is often par for Japanese students when attending a lecture or seminar conducted by a highly-regarded, prestigious professor. Passivity is seen as politeness. Speaking out much, acting too friendly, being gregarious, not being deferential in speech, would be seen as rude or insulting given the gravity of the prestigious speaker. Such are the interactions between trainees/students and esteemed experts in Japan (and many other Asian societies).


Yes, our students could have, should have, responded more actively, which would have created a better impression upon — and would have appeared more politely welcoming to — the guest speaker. Likewise, perhaps the guest could have, should have, adjusted his interactive/responsive expectations for Japan, as he is on their turf, where Western notions of turn-taking and managing power differentials do not always apply.



Power: Prestigious guest meets student


Finally, there are those cases in which an English teacher loses an entire class through a lack of felicitous speech. One such story sticks in my mind:


Several years back I was appointed as a supervising teacher for the first time. One of the first tasks I gave myself was to attend and observe the English classes of the younger non-Japanese teachers in order to give feedback (by thee way, I now think this is intrusive and often threatening so I no longer condone it). With Mr. Supervisor watching and making notes, the teacher was obviously nervous and not in his normal teaching state (another reason not to give too much credence to observation classes).


He had an unfortunate habit of over-talking, particularly in using colloquialisms and idiomatic English that, at first glance, might appear simple to proficient or mother-tongue English speakers, but were clearly lost on his students. When student comprehension duly failed (not helped by my obvious presence) he panicked by explaining again and again,  without allowing any time for the students to absorb or negotiate, using progressively more tortured language, increasing both his degree of panic and the students’ frustration.





Finally, he gave up and shrugged at the class in utter despair: “How come you guys don’t get it?”

Well, there it was in a nutshell. “How come?” is idiomatic and often not known by lower intermediate learners, unlike “Why?”. “You guys” would appear to students to be addressing only a few males in the classroom. The notion that an entire mixed-sex class can be addressed as ‘guys’ would come as a surprise. “Get it” too is idiomatic, as opposed to “understand” (and you gotta love the irony of that particular bit of miscommunication).


And then there was the pragmatic function of his ‘question’. Normally, one would interpret it as a rhetorical question, with the force of a rebuke or criticism — but he appeared to actually expect a response. How often has the teacher’s infelicitous use of English been the main ingredient in discouraging or alienating learners? Being felicitous in one’s teacher talk demands a lot of planning — not of activities or learning targets, but careful consideration of the language you will use to introduce, manage, and connect them.


We live and work in the real world of English. The real world of global communications. That means: Negotiation. Adjustment. Modification. Flexibility. Consideration. Awareness.


In short, Felicity.












Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

3 Responses to ‘Nobody here speaks English!’ And it’s all Felicity’s fault

  1. Excellent post.

    • Thanks Jim.

      I think Teacher Talk deserves a lot more attention. Most teacher trainers focus upon the volume of teacher vs. student talk but I would say that it is the quality (or felicity) of teacher talk that is more central to the success of a lesson.

  2. I couldn’t agree more.
    As an aside, I once submitted an article on why native English speaking businessmen should take lessons in English – International English. It made some of points you make here, and I submitted it to a business magazine. It was turned down. I’m not sure that it was rejected because the editor closed to the topic – maybe, but it wasn’t written very well either.

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