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When I travelled Japan I always started off talking to Japanese people with the following sentence:

すいません、私の日本語は下手です。。。

This would always get the typical "oh" and nodding heads in answer and then they would start to blabber in their normal speed and difficulty. Of course absolutely incomprehensible to me as a Japanese language beginner.

As it seems a typical construct (maybe as a form of politeness) to have little excusing introductions in Japanese. I thought it might be so custom to a Japanese person. That they just "overhear" what I'm actually saying and just listen to the fact that I'm talking Japanese. Maybe similar to "sorry for interrupting...".

Anyway, what do you think is a good way to actually make clear to a Japanese person. That you really can't speak Japanese well and they have to talk slowly and in simple sentences?

  • As others have noted, I'd suggest to explicitly ask them to speak slowly. I find myself to be thinking more about your ability of speaking and constructing sentences rather than your hearing, when hearing "私の日本語は下手です". Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps it's because 下手 is usually used for one's ability to carry out some acts[I need better expression]. – Yosh Feb 10 '17 at 5:57
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You: すいません、私の日本語は下手です…
相手の日本人: えっ?ちゃんと喋{しゃべ}れるじゃないですか。それで十分ですよ。

If you can't follow the full sentence, say the sentence to the point where you can understand following "なんですか?" with a troubled face.

You: ちゃんと (pause) なんですか?

Then the Japanese can understand your hearing ability, and say slowly again

ちゃんと 喋れる じゃ ないですか

Or at the beginning you can say

すみません、私の日本語は下手です。ゆっくり話してくれませんか?

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すいません、私の日本語は下手です perfectly makes sense as a Japanese sentence, but I doubt it works as you expect. What you say is not really important for native speakers to judge your level of Japanese. Even if you don't say this, people can understand your level of Japanese after they listen to one sentence or two from you. As already pointed out, if you said this really fluently, it would certainly lead to an adverse effect. If they still speak too fast after listening to your question, that's their fault, not yours.

So I recommend that you get straight to business after saying すみません. If you have missed something, just ask. Saying ゆっくりお願いします ("slowly, please") or even ゆっくり ("slow!") should help.

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