Tongue Tied

Tongue Tied: Adventures in Japanese

I went to the grocery store today. This isn’t unusual. I shop for groceries every couple of days. We eat a lot of veggies and have limited storage.

The script is usually the same. The cashier greets you, asks if you have a store card and rings up the order. There’s a handy bag-tag if you have your own reusable bag, so usually that’s not even part of the conversation.


The beautiful produce section at a local Belc store and the “I don’t need a bag” tag from Inegeya.

Something funny happened today though. I walk up to the register and the clerk, probably in her mid-20s, says the Japanese equivalent of “You don’t have a card.” I laughed out loud… one look at the American and she knew my story. She kept talking to me, which was both great and frustrating.

I’m reaching the point in my Japanese language adventure of understanding in context. I’m pretty good at the grocery stores or restaurants now as long as the speaker doesn’t deviate from the standard spiel too much. But I’m also still a little behind in comprehension and response. That two-second delay is just enough for the speaker to move on or just give up altogether.

I read something recently about learning a language. I’m still in the “translate this to English in my head” phase of learning Japanese. When you actually learn the language, you understand the Japanese itself and are no longer translating to the English equivalent.

Today I understood everything the clerk said, which was exciting. I asked her to leave my rice ball out so I could eat it now and she responded oishii desu ne! or “It’s good, isn’t it?! She asked if it was hot out since I was wearing short sleeves and said it was too cold in the store.

The frustrating part is, in that two second delay, all I can muster is Hai or “Yes.” I know the response is Atsui desu ne! or “It IS hot!” but the words don’t come to mind until the conversation has moved on.

I’ve written before about my frustration in not being able to communicate. But I run across enough people like the clerk that are patient and, frankly, don’t seem to care that I can’t keep up my end of the conversation.

I was riding the train the other day after a four-mile run that ended up at Starbucks, ultimately resulting in a Dark Mocha Chip Frappuccino. The guys across from me on the train were snickering a bit. I heard “Starbucks” at one point and their dodging eyes told me I was probably the butt of a harmless joke, but they seemed nice about it, so I engaged them.

Oishii desu. I said, letting them know this Frappuccino was a tasty, tasty treat. He asked me if I spoke Japanese and I replied with my new standby: Nihongo ga chotto wakarimasu… demo ganbarimasu! or “I only understand a little Japanese, but I try my best.”

For some reason, this is killing people! Both men laughed big, belly laughs. I’ve asked a couple people who actually DO speak the language and they think it’s just a level of appreciation that I’m trying, but I’m seriously considering taking this act on the road!


  • Reply KronWeld July 8, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    So, what did you buy?

    • Reply Robert July 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      Four cans of cold coffee, dish soap, an onion and a quarter-head of cabbage. Super exciting!

  • Reply Brian Bertsch July 8, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I’m impressed that you understand as much of the language as you do. Are you sure your standard reply on the train is correct? You may want to double check that 🙂

    • Reply Robert July 8, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      I thought the same thing! I asked our Japanese-speaking friend if I was saying something different than I thought 🙂

  • Reply Amy Daraghy July 13, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    I agree with Brian. I think you’re way better at Japanese than I would be at this point. I’m afraid I don’t see what cracked up the two guys on the train either. Nice to know you can provide amusement so simply though!

  • Reply Amy Daraghy July 13, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    I also meant to say, I share your affliction of thinking of the right response a bit too late. But I have that problem in English.

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