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I'm planning to go to Tohoku for at least a week, and Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and TVTropes all mention that Tohoku-ben is a bit different from how Tokyoites would speak. TVTropes also mention that not all Tohoku residents speak in the same way, either - not relevant to this question, but I don't want to misinform anyone.

What advantages and disadvantages are there in speaking in the local dialect (ie their vocabulary and grammar) and/or accent (ie how they pronounce words)?

Disadvantages:

  1. If I'm seen as deliberately doing an "zuuzuu-ben" accent, will people think I'm making fun of it? TVTropes mentions that that accent has been made fun of in fiction. It's possible I'll accidentally pick up a Tohoku accent during my stay, but then it'll be the real thing, rather than an exaggeration of it.
  2. I'm more likely to get something new wrong rather than something I've practiced for a while.
  3. A foreigner speaking a local dialect or accent may be seen as a bit silly.

Advantages:

  1. Speaking with a local accent would probably make it easier to understand when other people speak with that accent. For example, if I have previously said "itsu" with a Tohoku accent, then I'll be more likely to understand when someone else says "itsu" with a Tohoku accent.
  2. Speaking in the local dialect or accent may give the impression the speaker is putting more of an effort into what they're saying, which is seen as respectful.
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This question makes about as much sense as "Should I speak with a drawl when I go to Texas"... –  Dave Jan 4 '12 at 15:25
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@sawa Actually, a better analogy would be if a Japanese businessman came up to you in America and said "cell phone" instead of "mobile phone"... –  silvermaple Jan 4 '12 at 20:46
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@Dave No, it would be like saying "Should a Japanese person speak with a Texan drawl if they visit Texas"... –  silvermaple Jan 4 '12 at 20:48
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I think so. I was up in Tohoku in April and May, and there was no one that I wasn't able to speak to or understand. It may be the case that they were switching to the Tokyo dialect for my benefit, since it's more or less the "national" one (used on NHK and such). So maybe when they are by themselves they use something stronger. I don't know. But I know that there was no trouble speaking to or understanding anyone. I didn't see any other people, volunteers from all over Japan, having any trouble communicating. –  Dave M G Jan 6 '12 at 15:10
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@DaveMG: +1 for visiting Tohoku. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 6 '12 at 23:56

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I agree with Chocolate: it is not expected, regardless of whether the traveler is a native speaker of Japanese or not. And as a result of doing something unexpected, some people may interpret it as making fun of the local accent, because it seems to be the most plausible explanation why anyone from another area would imitate (probably very poorly) the local accent.

If other people know that you are trying to speak in the local accent in a sincere attempt to communicate better with locals, then the situation might be different. But you cannot keep explaining it to everyone you talk to.

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I think the answer depends on how much you know about the dialect, which in this case doesn't seem to be that much. The term dialect refers to a much more complicated system than just the zuuzuu phenomenon, so even if you changed your pronunciation, unless everything else is dialectally accurate, then you are uttering an incorrect sentence. And that's IF you actually do control your accent well enough to do so. For instance, pitch is also going to be different, so unless you control pitch in Standard Japanese...

Learning a dialect is a worthy cause, but not in a week, or for a week.

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In Okinawa, I got into a cab and asked in Japanese to go my destination. In Tokyo, the taxi driver might comment favourably that I can speak Japanese. In Okinawa, the taxi driver was impressed that I could speak standard Japanese (標準語). I realized then that I spoke Japanese with a Tokyo accent.

If you going to a different area for a short time I see no benefit. If you were going to become part of a family and stay for a long time, I say would there is a benefit.

The exception would be if you were one of those people who have totally mastered standard Japanese and have a natural gift for dialects and effortlessly could pull it off.

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I initially thought most foreigners would speak standard Japanese, but maybe the US troops there don't do so. Anyway, I'm not one of those people who effortlessly master Japanese! –  Andrew Grimm Jan 9 '12 at 21:08
    
BTW you know the Okinawa dialect is veeery different from standard Japanese. I don't understand what native people in Okinawa are talking about when they talk in their true accent. It just sounds like some foreign language to my ear. –  Choko Jan 11 '12 at 23:52
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Yes. Actually there is the heavy Okinawa dialect of Japanese and also the Okinawa language ウチナグチ 沖縄口 which is very close to Japanese but sufficiently different to be incomprehensible. The Okinawan language supplies many local words to the dialect. –  Stuart Woodward Jan 12 '12 at 2:30

I feel that speaking a foreign language in an accent other than the 'standard' one is kind of like playing the violin: it sounds really awful from a beginner, but from someone skilled it can sound very nice.

I myself lived for two years in the Kanto area and learned to speak 'standard' Japanese. After that I spent a year in Kyoto and though I learned to understand the Kansai dialect in general and more specifically the Kyoto dialect too, I didn't try and speak it myself. My wife (also from the Kansai area) laughs at me the few times that a Kansa-ben pronunciation has come out of my mouth. She said it sounds forced and unnatural.

On the other hand, one of my friends is American and lived in the Kansai area for over 4 years, and he only speaks Kansai-ben. Coming from him it sounds very natural, and so he is never made fun of for speaking it, but instead is usually complimented on it!

So my take away message is that if you're going to be living there for a long time, there's no reason why you shouldn't learn to speak in the local dialect. But if you're only going to be there a few weeks/months, it's probably better to stick to standard Tokyo-ben.

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I live in Kansai area and speak Kansai-ben, and would not try to speak in Tohoku accent if I ever stayed in Tohoku for weeks/months, nor would I expect anyone from Tokyo to speak in Kansai accent when he/she is staying in Kansai for weeks/months.

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FWIW, I read that people from the Tohoku area try to avoid speaking in a Tohoku accent when they live in other areas. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 4 '12 at 23:03
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Yes...that's true... My cousin is from Tohoku and lives in Tokyo, and she says she speaks the standard Japanese daily. She says she's ashamed to show her native accent in Kanto area. –  Choko Jan 5 '12 at 16:21

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