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As preparation for my trip, I am re-learning my Japanese. I imagined a scenario which I am not sure if it is okay to ask.

Is it polite to ask someone if they speak English or are people offended by the question?

Also, is 英語を話せますか okay or is 英語ができますか better?

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While I wouldn't consider it too impolite to ask someone directly whether he or she speaks English, the better strategy might be to ask

英語で質問してもいいですか
お伺いしたいんですが、英語で大丈夫ですか

or something along these lines. This way, you are asking for permission to speak in English without putting anyone in the situation of assessing their own English skills.

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either is fine. no problem both "英語を話せますか" and "英語ができますか".
But, I would use "あなたは英語を話せますか?".
because,
"話せますか" include the meaning of "speaking".
"できますか" include the meaning of "speaking" and "writing" and "reading"...etc

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    Wow, I wonder why M.I.A's answer was downvoted. It seems O.K though. However, 英語ができますか could be tricky, as though it is suggesting "Can you speak English well"? or when you ask "英語ができますか?”, Japanese might answer "you can speak Japanese well". he he. – user7644 Feb 2 '15 at 14:20
  • I suspect the down vote is a reflection of a socio-linguistic concern. It seems to direct and would put the listener in an uncomfortable position. – Tsurugaya Taro Feb 4 '15 at 1:08
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    I'm Japanese. If I was asked as this, do not think it rude. Generally, Japanese are tolerant to wording for foreign Japanese is not fluent. – M.I.A Feb 4 '15 at 1:26
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I often say 英語は大丈夫ですか? to shop keeper telling them I will be the one to speak English and it is ok most of the time. (They will often become reluctant and answer ちょっと.. though)

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