Anyone visiting a foreign country with a national language different from one's own will undoubtedly encounter the language barrier. This term is used to describe the inability to achieve complete understanding of another person or situation due to the lack of a common communication language. This broad term covers little things (like not realizing that the green light on a traffic signal is called 'blue' in Japanese) to more complicated things (like failing to see the humor in puns on a Japanese variety show). While the traveler may have an ability with the native language, it often is not the same as the native's ability, and so all kinds of details are missed. It's simply part of learning the language and culture, something that is hard to avoid when immersed in it.
A barrier to entry, however, is the obstacle placed in front of the language barrier. If the language barrier is a castle wall, the barrier to entry is the moat. A foreigner placed in the gaijin stereotype must first convince the native that they can communicate in plain Japanese before the native will speak at a level with a tolerable language barrier. Just as I quoted in my post staring ignorance in the face,
It's like having to untangle your headphones before you listen to music. Every. Single. Time.
It is especially difficult in the countryside where the natives are not so accustomed to interacting with foreigners. The first problem is that most foreigners encountered by native Japanese can't speak Japanese. The second problem is that the native Japanese don't know how to communicate outside the context of the limited, fumbling, scripted conversation practice they got in English class growing up. Communication through body language, symbols, or even using pictures is a skill for some that has not been learned. Even more, the anxiety of confronting a foreigner may be so great, they will go to great lengths to avoid the foreigner altogether.
In Tokyo, the first reaction is varied. With regards to people who interact with customers daily in their jobs, many will just try Japanese with me first. Those that are confident in their English ability will try a phrase of English instead. Depending on my reaction, they decide which language to use. If I appear not to understand the spoken Japanese (often due to background noise, soft voices, or contextual confusion), the speaker might switch to English. If I respond to the English with Japanese, the speaker might try Japanese again. Sometimes however, the conversation might go back and forth a few times before I have to clearly state that Japanese is OK. Other natives yet will just ask from the start 'is Japanese OK?' In this way, it is obvious that the people of Tokyo are much more experienced with talking to foreigners with varying degrees of language ability.
The barrier to entry is more of an obstacle of confidence than understanding. It takes confidence for a learner of Japanese to take the leap and tell someone you can speak Japanese. Proceeding to misunderstand the following conversation is an undesirable embarrassment that takes confidence to beat. And learning how to deal with such a situation is key to gaining the necessary confidence.
Practicing how to overcome the barrier to entry in Tokyo where it is considerably less obtrusive than the countryside has given me a newfound confidence which I hope to bring with me back to my daily life. Learning how to describe my ability with Japanese from the start so that others are confident in using their Japanese with me has been my greatest lesson this summer. From the beginning, I had continued to respond to questions about my ability with irony (saying 'no, I don't understand at all' in Japanese) or modesty (saying 'well... only so much'). Having others rely on me for translation this summer really helped me to break away from such behavior and admit to others as well as myself that I can in fact speak Japanese.
Amazing, isn't it? Six years of study and only now can I confidently admit to having an ability with the language. Learning and using a foreign language is a constant battle of confidence. Just like with sports, some days you are just not on top of your game. But with enough perseverance I'll have the confidence to try a certification test. Then at least I can say for certain how good my Japanese really is.