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How to Respond Correctly2015.06.02

     For a Japanese version of this article, please click here! 

    Japanese and English have very different ways to express understanding, to pause to gather your thoughts, and express amazement, surprise, and dismay. Of course, intonation plays a big role in this, particularly in English, but knowing the correct words to use is also important. One common problem is translating literally from Japanese to English and assuming that the languages are just 1:1 copies just with different words and word order. The fact is Japanese and English are so linguistically different, that it often leads to misunderstanding, perceived rudeness, or even awkward faux pas.

    Linguistics call this type of response “backchannel communication“ (相槌, in Japanese). All languages have backchannel communication, but use and frequency is different in every language and culture. This blog only deals with the English speaking world.


    Japanese uses backchanneling much more than English. Phrases like ええ・うん・はい are constantly used to show that you’re listening. In English, using these words too much sounds rude. It sounds like you’re not interested and you want to the speaker to hurry up and finish talking because you’re bored. I always recommend that my Business English students force themselves to reduce the frequency of aizuchi.


    Sound Normal in English

    The most common Japanese aizuchi ええ・うん・はい・へぇー will not be understood at all overseas (unless you’re speaking to someone who has studied Japanese). Worse yet, to the untrained ear, they just sound like crude noises and grunts. It’s a hard habit to break, but when speaking English, try to break the habit of using these words overseas.


    Japanese Word Recommended English Words
    うん / ええ Yeah! / Sure!
    はい!/ 了解! Sure! / OK!
    へぇー! Wow! / Really?!
    はい、はい。 OK, gotcha / yes, I got it.
    そうですね (同意) Yes, that’s right.
    えっと…(考え中) Well... / Umm... / Humm...
    えっと、あの Um / Eh
    あのー (誰かを呼びかけるとき) Hey


    Hopefully these tips and suggestions will help you sound more natural in business situations when speaking English. Backchanneling is something that most people never think about, but it has a huge impact on how others see you.


    Good luck!

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    Article Writer

    Noel Bradshaw

    Noel Bradshaw is the COO of Rosetta Stone Learning Center and started his career at management consulting firm Accenture. He came to Japan with the JET programme before joining Rosetta Stone Learning Center and has been with the company for 8 years.

    If you want to make real progress with your language skills, then Rosetta Stone Learning Center is for you. Rosetta Stone Learning Center integrates the World's number 1 language learning software Rosetta Stone(R) together with high quality one-to-one in-school lessons to accelerate students towards their language goals. RSLC has 8 school locations in Tokyo and Osaka, easy lesson-scheduling, online 24/7 access to self-study resources and a variety of study options that makes it an ideal, flexible option for busy people. Let Rosetta Stone Learning Center support you through your next career move.

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